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January 2, 2018

Trashing Megachurches

Trashing megachurches is often popular. According to the standard stereotype, they’re big exurban factories resembling car dealerships with giant parking lots and giant American flags, catering to rich, socially irresponsible SUV driving Sunbelt Republicans anxious to hear superficial, self-serving health and wealth sermons from huckster preachers in flashy suits.

A recent article by Jonathan Merritt cites a liberal advocacy group report asserting that, of the 100 largest congregations in America, none are LGBTQ affirming, over 90 percent have white pastors, and only one has a female pastor. Merritt calls this report “explosive” without directly condemning the churches. But many on social media have predictably issued their disapproving tut-tuts. The originating advocacy group wants to shame these churches.

Megachurches of course aren’t generated, subsidized or regulated by government fiat or any centralized authority. They’re big because they’re popular, typically founded by entrepreneurial pastors who are very talented at presenting winsome messages that broadly appeal. They are almost always Evangelical and theologically more traditional.

There are thousands of churches in America with liberal clergy. They could become megachurches if their messages and appeals were compelling to more people. But they aren’t. Growing religion, Christian or otherwise, in America or globally, now and across history, is almost always in some sense traditionalist. It challenges and demands with cohesive beliefs and practices. Where are the growing liberal churches, mosques, and temples around the world? They exist, if at all, in the minds of some Western theologians and sociologists. More permissive and theologically lax religion may sound appealing but it rarely attracts a sustained crowd, anywhere. (No, big crowds don’t equal theological truth, but chronically dying congregations are hardly validating spiritually.)

This latest slam against megachurches implies they’re racially exclusive because over 90 percent of pastors are white. Megachurches have mostly originated in mostly white suburbs and exurbs, but their congregations are more diverse than commonly imagined. A 2015 survey showed that 10 percent of megachurches reporting no racial majority, while 37 percent of megachurches reported between 20 percent and 49 percent minority presence in their majority white congregations. Megachurches also report that about 20 percent of their worshipers are between ages 18-34.

Compare those stats with “inclusive” liberal Mainline Protestant denominations, whose memberships are 88 percent to 96 percent white, excepting the American Baptist denomination, the least liberal among the seven, which is 73 percent white. Their memberships are also much older. One survey says only 12 percent of Episcopal Church members are millennials. Likely far fewer are active worshipers. One survey says the average age of a megachurch worshiper is 40. For Mainline Protestants it’s close to 60.

Liberal Mainliners like to boast of LGBTQ inclusion. But I strongly conjecture the average megachurch, even though not affirming LGBTQ causes, still by virtue of its size and variety of programs has more LGBTQ people than the average mostly empty liberal church proudly waving rainbow flags to little effect.

As to female clergy, my own United Methodist denomination to which I’m committed has ordained women since the 1950s. All the liberal Mainline denominations ordain women. But the vast bulk of global Christianity doesn’t, including of course Catholicism, Orthodoxy and most of global Protestantism. Much of global Pentecostalism does though women pastors are a small minority. Almost no other major global religions have female clerics, such as Islam, Hinduism, etc. Although I’m happy in my tradition, I’m loathe to condemn as intrinsically bigoted the vast majority with different teachings. If megachurches are chauvinistic and bigoted why do they more successfully attract women and non-whites than the ostensibly more enlightened liberal churches?

I’ve never desired to worship at a megachurch. To my own tastes they seem too choreographed and overwhelming and often too dependent on the pastor’s personality. Some of the stereotypes about them have grains of truth! I prefer smaller, more traditional churches. But megachurches can reach many more with the Gospel and provide a variety of ministries that my preferred churches cannot and likely never will.

So thank you, megachurches. For some of us you’re just too glitzy. But please ignore often peevish critics, and keep feeding many spiritually famished souls who otherwise might go hungry.


19 Responses to Trashing Megachurches

  1. Fred Richmond says:

    Mark Tooley, why remain in the theologically bankrupt UMC? It is dying. And, while some form of the UMC may survive, it will be only after what is likely to be a nasty split

  2. William says:

    The correlation between declining UMC membership plus worship attendance and its growing liberal theology and social justice political positions has been well documented over and over. Yet, it seems inept at reversing this. The liberal leadership seems paralyzed and frozen in its own self absorption. It is real simple what needs to take place in the seminaries and sanctuaries — start teaching and preaching Wesleyan theology again. Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace needs to be the core of seminary education and the customary and routine sanctuary preaching. Now, UMC where this is enthusiastically happening are growing in a number of places, some even hiding their affiliation with the UMC. An interesting thing is going on here. A number of these megachurches are actually preaching Wesleyan evangelism as the UMC in too many places seems to be distancing itself from its Wesleyan roots. Wesleyan theology, when taught, preached, and practiced is a powerful force. My prayer is that those working so hard to bring it back front and center in the UMC are ultimately successful. We are at that proverbial crossroads right now. May God lead us home.

  3. Charles says:

    You wrote: “..Megachurches of course aren’t generated, subsidized or regulated by government fiat or any centralized authority…” That may be technically true but the larger reality is that these and many other evangelical churches are no threat because they worship the state, the military, the police, the flag etc . The early followers of Jesus were a threat to the prevailing Jewish and Roman order politically as well as religiously. His modern followers pose no such threat at all.

    • Rebecca says:

      The government today promotes bad behavior which Christians should be against, but protecting the innocent isn’t a bad behavior and catching the bad guys and enforcing law and order are surely not anything to be against. So, Christians continue to support our good guys in the government, or at least what they stand for.

  4. Rurel says:

    Hey Mark, come worship with us one Sunday….. 🙂

  5. Bob wallace says:

    Well said. I’m with you, I don’t want to attend a mega church that feels more like a rock concert than a worship service, but I am so thankful for the reach they have with generally sound theology. I left a mid size Free Methodist church because they went to a ‘hard rock’ format with an uninspiring preacher. I now attend a 3,000 member Presbyterian church with a great pipe organ, 100 voice choir, Stanford PhD pastor who is theologically sound, articulate, and always gets us out on time. It’s heaven. The church generally ignores the idiots at the national headquarters and,unlike most mainline churches that have become politically correct, is thriving.

  6. Bob wallace says:

    I did—see above

  7. Bill Bouknight says:

    Most mega churches grow because they are faithful to Scripture and reach out in loving ways to their communities. God’s word, carried on the wings of the Holy Spirit, is the real power for church growth.

    • Kerryn says:

      Totally agree.

    • Carol says:

      Within the body of any church be it meg or small are still a remnant of true believers who pray, study and walk in submission to the Holy Spirit…it is the Spirit of the Living God doing the baptizing and adding to His kingdom , not us.

  8. I belong to a “megachurch”. In 2017 we baptized 41 souls. Meaning 41 commitments to follow Jesus as Lord and savior. Nuf said.

  9. Quentin Killian says:

    God continues to bless my mega church. We may not sit in the exact same pew every Sunday, mumble into the hymnal and count the ceiling tiles during the sermon, but we did baptize 1,328 souls in 2017.

  10. Kim Oyler says:

    “Didn’t the early church grow by leaps and bounds?
    Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:46-47

  11. Andrew Dahl says:

    The main problem is NOT with America’s ‘megachurches’ the problem is with the Church as a whole and our level of commitment to our faith in Christ and our commitment to evangelism. We are simply not giving God our EVERYTHING. We hardly have to pay any price to follow Jesus in this nation and so we are not hungry enough for Him, and we are hardly baring fruit, it takes 10 pastors and 1,000 laypeople to bring just 1 person to Christ each year, contrast this with Africa, China, India, Indonesia or Latin America. We are not sharing our faith with our neighbors, co-workers, classrooms, and on the streets, we have accepted the whole ‘keep your beliefs to yourself’ mentality which is really just a lie from the enemy to keep us from witnessing to others.

  12. Naomi Lackey says:

    This is a great article. I am a Methodist. The history of John & Charles Wesley and their perseverance & faith is a big part of that. I have attended a couple of mega churches. I have enjoyed the visit, but, like the communion of the smaller church. But, they are all necessary. They all have something to offer. There are a couple of leaders that I see as ‘motivational speakers’. I do want to hear about Jesus, the cross & the Holy Spirit, that is alive in me. Keeps me singing, as I go.

  13. DJ Chuang says:

    Hello Mark, happy to see that you used a worship team photo from Saddleback Church Irvine South campus. My pastor was elated!

    Easter 2018 will be our campus’ 10-year anniversary of God’s goodness. You’re welcome to come. We’ll be celebrating all the baptisms and look at the lives that were impacted by our church family.

    Look us up at http://saddleback.com/IrvineSouth and my pastor would love to connect as well PastorKevin@saddleback.com

  14. BPatMann says:

    I go to a mega-church. It wasn’t always a mega-church: it started in 1997 with six people. It now has more than 32,000. Should we have capped it at 800?

  15. Paul Leonard says:

    I just worry mega churches are still running at a net loss… What I mean is 100k at ten churches goes down to 70k at two.

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