Is The Megachurch The New Liberalism?

Albert Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In case you missed it, there was a recent article written by him titled, “Is The Megachurch The New Liberalism?

Now, it has been my experience that a person can comment and even criticize something within the church and get away with it relatively easy. However, when you actually put a name or a face to the criticism, things tend to get a little heated. That is what has happened in Mohler’s article. In the article, he criticizes and sites megachurch pastor Andy Stanley as an example of how liberalism is slowly seeping into the megachurch. This criticism then opened up the door for more interesting things to happen. In response to Mohler, the megachurch pastor, Rick Warren, tweeted Mohler obviously showing concern for the title of his blog post.  Drama I tell you!

So, are megachurches becoming the new liberals of the day? Dr. Todd Fisher, a pastor of Immauel Baptist Church states,

“Yes, there are many pastors of megachurches who are faithful to the Bible (as Mohler noted), but the reality is that there are many, not just one, who are not. The pressures of the culture are making doctrinal faithfulness too challenging for many. That was Mohler’s point- and one that should be well received.”

Chris Rosebrough at “Fighting for the Faith,” also does an excellent job of pointing out what makes a church liberal or not. In his online radio broadcast he covers the history of the megachurch and many of the struggles that the megachurch is facing today. I would highly suggest checking his program out.  The megachurch segment begins at 40:25.

[podcast]http://0352182.netsolhost.com/F4F050112.mp3[/podcast]

For the sake of this post on BJS I have two brief points for us to consider.

  1. I have spent years and literally thousands of hours trying to implement the methodologies and mimic the supposed success stories of megachurches.  Yes, I have drank the Kool-Aid of megachurches and I am still trying to shake its teachings off of me.  For those of you who have drank the same Kool-Aid, I am sure that you can recall hearing the concerns that came from confessionally solid individuals about the pitfalls of megachurches.  So, my point is this.  What does it now say that we are beginning to hear concerns coming from those within the megachurch world?
  2. If my memory serves me right, megachurches only make up 2% of all churches in the United States. To my knowledge the average church in America does not worship 2,000-5,000 parishioners but around 50-100 on a typical Sunday. This raises the question, do we give megachurches too much attention? I believe we do. If they only represent 2% of all churches, why do we look to them as if they are the norm and give them so much weight? I believe it is time for us to put megachurches in their proper context. While we can always learn something from megachurch pastors and while we can certainly learn from the plethora of downfalls, we need to be careful to understand that their stories are really an anomaly.  Why on earth should we hold megachurches that represent 2% of all churches as the norm? Furthermore, do we not derive our mission, values and identity not from apparently successful churches but rather from the Word?

I welcome your feedback!

 

To Read More On This Subject:

The Cambridge Declaration

How Do You Diagnosis If A Sermon Is “Christian?”

What Is Moral Therapeutic Deism?

The Pelagian Captivity Of American Evangelicalism

 

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at: www.pastormattrichard.com.

Comments

Is The Megachurch The New Liberalism? — 45 Comments

  1. Mega-churches are big. They are shiny. They can do the things we only dream about in our parishes. For who among us wouldn’t want a 100+ voice semi-professional choir to teach the people the songs of the church. Who doesn’t dream of being able to afford a cantor, a parish nurse, teachers, a sanctuary of such beauty to suggest heaven itself, or an organ with more banks than any one organist could ever use. They entice our old adam in such a way as to seem God pleasing.

    They also make me sick as they lure away the people by scratching itching ears. They claim success when all they have done is shuffle members. They don’t have converts, they have the people who thought my sermon was boring because I didn’t tell enough personal stories.

    Hmm… I seem a little bitter today. Maybe more sweetener in my coffee will lighten my disposition?

    More on topic, becoming liberal, so to speak, was the inevitable course of the mega-church philosophy. When success is defined by numbers then you must adjust to maintain those increasing numbers. In general, we witness it happening as well meaning men chase after what appeared to make them successful. Hence, we see the emphasis on the spectacle as they abandon their core teaching. They hide behind their numbers because the numbers assuage a conscience that tells them something is missing. They like so many look to the ‘works’ of their church and see evidence of salvation and miss they haven’t spoken the Gospel in years. I have heard rumors some of the mega churches have started waking up to this but I will wait and see if they change or if it becomes more of the same.

  2. You said 2%. Is that 2% of churches meaning independent church bodies? or churches meaning parishioners? If these mega churches have 2000 – 5000 parishioners each than that is a pretty substantial part of the “Christian population” and probably something we should keep on the radar.

  3. @David #3

    2% as in number of congregations, i.e. biuldings or church sites. I think it is on ALPB that the number of people (warm bodies) is 50%, as in half of all Christians attend only 2% of the congregations.

  4. Sorry – I’m confused. Do we know what percentage of those attending a Christian church on a typical weekend attend a mega-church? Thanks.

  5. @Revaggie

    My church is not a mega-church (well, maybe in LCMS). We worship close to 1100 each week. I have not noted a collapse in balanced law and gospel teaching, or in the proper administration of the Sacraments. In fact we even baptize adults every year. The music does not all come from CPH, but it all expresses not only our praise for the Savior, but our need for forgiveness and his mercy.

    Some BJS comments seem to denigrate a church just because it is large, as though it is impossible to serve and worship God properly in a large congregation.

    We are called to grow our churches and as long as it is done by preaching and teaching the truth; and administering the sacraments as directed in Scripture, I see no problem.

    What I fear I do sense from some is anger that some of God’s churches take seriously Jesus’ command in Matthew 28 to go out and make disciples. Perhaps the apostles messed up when they baptized 3000 in one day.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. In that case I think it is very important to consider the mega churches. If half of all Christians belong to one of these churches than that is an issue we need to keep in mind. This is based solely from the perspective of the false doctrine that faithful members might learn outside of the church from liberal christian friends, the media, etc. If 50% of all Christians belong to these liberal mega churches, than that is the majority. It becomes the norm. However, you’re right success is never measured by attendance, but by faithfulness to God’s word. That should be the focus, only God can give faith. All a pastor can do is faithfully preach Christ crucified and leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit. But sometimes in order to guide the sheep a pastor needs to know the false doctrine (of the liberal mega church) that they are fighting against. Paul knew exactly what the circumcision party was teaching when he wrote his letter to Galatia. Luther knew the errors of the papacy when he was leading the reformation.

    Correct me if i’m wrong or if these comments are misguided. I’m much less learned than a lot of those in here, and i’m open to correction.

  7. @David #3

    On page 18 of Gary L. McIntosh’s book, “One Size Doesn’t Fit All,” he states that, “…less than 1 percent of all churches fall into the category of a mega church, having 2,000 or more worshipers.” He goes on to say on page 17 that, “…75 percent of all churches have fewer than 149 worshipers on a Sunday Morning.”

  8. @sue wilson #7

    A megachurch is defined by a weekly attendance of 2000 or more.

    There are only 4 megachurches in the LCMS:

    Hales Corners-Hales Corners, WI, mem: 8457, weekly attendance: 2566
    King of Kings-Omaha, NE, mem: 4625, weekly attendance: 2469
    Concordia-San Antonio, TX, mem: 6700, weekly attendance: 2383
    St. John-Ellisville, MO, mem: 6218, weekly attendance: 2256

  9. @John Rixe #10
    According to Thom Rainer in an article titled, “Seven Updated Trends On Megachurches In America,” he states, “While megachurches account for less than one-half of one percent of all churches in American, more than ten percent of church attendance is concentrated in these churches.”

  10. @Todd Wilken #12
    We used to make annual pilgrimages to King of Kings in Omaha when I was an associate youth leader (back in the day). It always seemed so… “half dressed and barefoot” for my taste. Not that I mind that sort of thing but certainly not in public.

  11. My problem with megachurches is that i believe non christians see a megachurch and what they teach and think that is what Christianity is about. the same could be said about church growth type churches I suppose.

  12. I don’t know if I am right or wrong about this, but I pick my church based on its ‘leader.’ I listen to what is being taught and to what his beliefs are. (Which requires me to have been taught the right doctrine in the first place.) It’s a plus if he is warm and friendly! You can hear false doctrine in a small church or a large one just the same. I don’t think it is fair to ‘pick on’ the big church — just for matter of size. But if there begins to be false teaching to accomodate the ‘numbers,’ that is where the problem would lie I think.

    I am also presuming that others are doing the same. For instance, Lakewood is the largest in the U.S. — but what is the teaching? — nothing! — Osteen is a motivational speaker. He even admits it, saying he is no theologian. So, the ‘members’ attending there have picked him for that reason. That’s all they want to hear. I don’t know anything else about the ‘church’ (if it could be loosely called that), but from what is seen publicly it is dismal.

    Dr. Mohler did say in the article sited here that the megachurch was helping to anchor ‘conservatism.’ Well, what does that mean? It could mean ‘moralistic, therapeutic, deism’ and/or legalism. There is still not much Gospel there. Only behavior modification and self-improvement. That is ALL Law. If Jesus is not front and center (and preached more than 50% of the message), people are still being led under the ‘climbing the ladder’ to God mentality. Which leads one to being self-righteous or to plunging down into despair. So, if more people flock to a big, law-centered church it is because our default mode is legalism and that is what we are more comfortable with. It really is very hard to accept the fact that Christ did all the work and we can add nothing to it for our salvation. We are hardwired with the ‘earn it’ gene.

    I know the Holy Spirit accomplishes His work however and wherever He wants ultimately though. That is still of great comfort. Especially as we try to figure these things out.

  13. I too was at a pentecostal “megachurch” in my youth and recently was at a Nazarene “wannabe megachurch” that was well on its way. To sum it up, it seemed to be about the following:

    1.) Flashy presentation-the more lights, the louder the music, the more diverse the programs, the better it was.

    2.) Emotionalism and extrovert-dominated personas. Had to be pumped up, raising your hands, clapping, and audibly responding to the pastor’s sermon points, or he’d make an off-the-cuff remark about us being a “tough audience” (!)

    3.) Sermons that are dangerously close to works-righteousness. The second church I mentioned above took two Sundays to talk about adopting kids in the sermon. Now, I’m as much for adoption as anybody else, but to take two sermons and turn what should be a sermon into an “Activist” platform is turning church into a Christianized Habitat for humanity.

    4.) Lots and lots of “decisions for Christ” Altar calls, re-dedications, more calls to surrender and put your hand up, all done with smooth, emotionally compelling music and regular beseechings by the pastor to come forward (because apparently the Holy Spirit can’t do a work in somebody’s heart while in the pew!).

  14. I doubt that many megachurch pastors set out to lead a megachurch. But for one or more reasons (the Holy Spirit being first) people were drawn to a particular congregation. If some megachurches are faithful to scripture and others are not, size alone is not the answer to this dilemma. For me, it is sufficient to know that God uses different congregations in different ways.

  15. @Todd Wilken #12 but, what is your reply to the major points of my comment? As you have said, numbers aren’t the factor that counts the most. Why do so many of BJS participants run from growing churches??

  16. Here’s a twist, can a pastor truly be the best, most effective pastor possible at a mega-church? In other words, does not personal interaction, relationships, and the like suffer the larger the church? For the sake of better pastoral care maybe we should encourage chuches to split and plant new congregations once they reach the size they are considered too big for one pastor.

  17. @Sue wilson #19 “@Ted Crandall #11 Duh!”

    I appreciate your attempt at brevity but “duh!” generally implies obvious agreement. There is still the issue of whether we are called to faithfully preach the word, to attain numerical growth, all of the above, none of the above or “other”.

  18. @sue wilson #7
    Sue, I for one would be excited about the possibility that that many people are desiring to worship as Lutherans. Speaking for myself, I have a knee jerk reaction against larger LCMS churches just because of what I have seen regarding the methods they employ. If you don’t mind sharing, what church is it that you attend?

  19. Rev McCall @21: That is my personal favorite. I attended a church years ago that reached an attendance of around 400 over a 20 year span. The pastor knew and cared for everyone, but the elders were also very excellent. There was intentional home visitation done on on a rotating basis and as needed. The pastor was at the hospital almost as soon as he was called. There was good socialization going on and it was a very happy congregation. Doctrine and practice were excellent. Again, though, this was contingent on his person and some other core leaders that did an excellent job.

    He did plant a new congregation at a neighboring town and he himself went to build it. Several pastors after him tried to fill the shoes but the church slowly disintegrated. That is unfortunate. Of course there is a faithful core still holding forth. Based on this experience, 400 would be about the max, I would think, to know and love your people.

  20. @sue wilson #20

    You asked,

    As you have said, numbers aren’t the factor that counts the most. Why do so many of BJS participants run from growing churches??

    Please give me a specific example of BJS participants running from growing churches. I don’t see it.

    TW

  21. Your commentary on mega churches is dated. They have moved beyond your thinking for a number of reasons not the least of which is economics and transitions of leadership.

  22. Given the evidence of fraud provided every week by Chris Rosborough, why would anyone want to be a member of a non-denominational church? Original televangelists such as Benny Hinn have trained many megachurch preachers. When will such church members finally wake up and leave the auditorium for a traditional church?

    Dated commentary, indeed!

  23. The Baby Boomer Mega churches are struggling with an attractional model of ministry which costs tons of money and certainly doesn’t speak to people. Schuler as the father of the American Mega Church thing has been a failure as have a number of mega churches in transtioning leadership. Lutherans are very good at transitioning leadership because of our doctrine of the call and our hybred governance model.

  24. IMHO, churches over 300-400 are too big for a pastor to know his people. My home church is St. John’s West Bend, Wi. 3000 baptized, 800 worship. A few years after my ordination I was asked to return and preach when I came to visit family on vacation. Summertime. After greeting all the folks, the two pastors looked at each other and said, “Who were all those people?”

  25. I think you’d be surprised how a larger church works. There are tons of relationships where people care for others. They rely on the pastor for different aspects of his ministry and the pastor can relate to many many people. I have a Bible Study group of about 100 men and you’d be surprised how well they are cared for and how they connect to one another. All care in a congregation is not by the pastor, nor are all visits homebound/hospital visits. If a pastor of a chruch of 300-400 isn’t have lunches and visits wth his Elders/Trustess/key leaders and other members, he’ll never connect. If he spends too much time on e-mail and his computer even if his church is 50 a week he won’t connect. Part of being a successful pastor in any size congregation is prioritizing tasks and connecting to people.

  26. Tim K,

    You raise a good caution about writing off large churches automatically. I too serve a large church.

    Your critique about time on the computer has become a meaningless blah, blah, blah spouted out by DP’s and other church growth critics of confessionalism, without thought. To prove my point I call to mind the dynamic of the Wiki52 gang. How interesting that they set up time on the computer with their growther peers away from the congregation, but you never hear DP’s complaining about that now do you?

  27. I can’t speak to that I didn’t attend the conference. I can tell you at as a new Dist VP our people are talking about how much time their pastors spend on the computer.

  28. @TK #32
    I can’t speak to that I didn’t attend the conference. I can tell you at as a new Dist VP our people are talking about how much time their pastors spend on the computer.

    All the people? Or the ones who are disgruntled because men and women on computers let the laity know what goes on at synod and district (when quiet acquiesence suits [some people] much better)?

    [Some people can hand many chores over to a secretary, of course. Some can’t.]
    The computer is at once typewriter, phone, reference source (I don’t mean wikipedia!) contact with members, colleagues, friends …and filing cabinet.

    I talk to my Pastors twice or three times a week face to face (service or Bible class).
    I can send them a question anytime, via computer, and get an answer. It saves my time and theirs. I have no doubt that others do the same; we list e-addresses along with phone numbers in our directory. We also have sermons posted in audio and text, on the church web site, for the convenience of those who missed church, or want to hear it again. If size matters, I suppose we are “middling”.

    About 30 years ago, I said this new invention was for the kids; I wouldn’t have to learn it. 18 years ago I started graduate school with a new computer on my desk and it’s been my means of making a living ever since. [My children, who keep in touch by computer (e-mail, skype, photo sites) still think this is a good joke.] 🙂

    The only people I know who never use computers are over 90 or incapacitated.

    YMMV!

  29. I am a little late to the conversation but…. For the statistic junkies:

    •59% of all Protestant churchgoers worship in congregations that have an attendance of 7-99 people. That is 9,000,000 people and 177,000 congregations.

    •35% of congregations have an average attendance of 100-499 people. That is 25,000,000 people and 105,000 congregations.

    •4% of congregations have an average attendance of 500 to 999 people. That is 9,000,000 people and 12,000 congregations.

    •2.41% of congregations have an average attendance of 1,000 or more. That is 7,210 congregations worship 12,700,000 people.

    •The median church in America has 75 regular participants in Sunday morning services. That means half the churches are larger and half are smaller.

    The statistics are taken from a 2010 study by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. They are found at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html, a little page entitled “Fast Facts About American Religion.”

    http://heidelberg26.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/some-interesting-facts-about-christianity-in-america/

  30. @Andrew Grams #34

    •2.41% of congregations have an average attendance of 1,000 or more. That is 7,210 congregations worship 12,700,000 people.

    I note your change in emphasis. If the churches get that big, they are indeed in danger of “worshipping the people”!
    The littlest ones worship; the middling ones “attend”. 😉

    Well, I hope it’s not quite that simple, because mine is a mid size congregation.

  31. @helen #35
    Nice catch! And you’re right, it is not that simple. The statistics do not even take into account Catholic or Eastern Orthodox parishes some of which I would surmise have average attendance figures in the mega church range.

  32. @helen #35

    Nice catch! And I agree, it is not that simple. These statistics do not even take into account Roman Catholic and Orthodox congregations, some of which I would venture to guess have regular attendance in excess of mega church numbers.

  33. Whether large congregations are healthy is a function of the basics of Lutheran theology about the Church:

    1. Shepherd to sheep ratio, so that pastors can shepherd in shepherdly ways, that is, as Churchmen.

    2. Shepherding by use of the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments, and the Office of the Keys in private confession and absolution.

    3. The use of the Small Catechism in the home.

    4. A congregation-wide, at least passable acquaintance with and subscription to the Augsburg Confession.

    Sure, the standards should be higher, but if a congregation of 5000 communicants met those four, and we put that state of affairs up against the common state of affairs, we could be happy though not yet satisfied or complacent.

    A good friend of mine in the ELCA was recently elected to his congregation’s council, and asked what his focus should be. I said, first, it is difficult for a new member to focus on more than a couple or maybe three things, if you’re going to be really active about them, so they must be well chosen. I said, establish the catechism in the homes and the Augsburg Confession at the congregation. Consider the progress that would represent, and the course it could plot.

  34. @T. R. Halvorson #38
    I said, establish the catechism in the homes and the Augsburg Confession at the congregation. Consider the progress that would represent, and the course it could plot.

    That, if accomplished, could certainly change things! My cousin, who had two boys already confirmed, had never seen a Small Catechism till she sorted out her deceased father’s things.
    [She grew up in her mother’s Baptist church, and came to the elca later, evidently without much instruction.]

  35. @Rich #18
    I doubt that many megachurch pastors set out to lead a megachurch.

    The “builder” of the San Antonio congregation listed did, I think. And many of his “bricks” were members of surrounding smaller LCMS churches, according to comments made to the CC.

    These CG people claim to be all about “saving the lost” [insert finger-snap here].
    The most interesting statistic would be the number of members brought in with no church background, i.e., “the lost” against the number who had only been persuaded to change pews.

  36. @helen #40

    The most interesting statistic would be the number of members brought in with no church background…

    That figure appears to be between 2% and 6%:

    A Tremendous Number of Newer People, But Not Many Brand New Christians
    Over two-thirds (68%) of those attending a megachurch any given week have been there five years or less compared to 40% in churches of all sizes. This difference in “recent” participation doesn’t diminish even after removing the attenders of those megachurches founded within the past decade where more attenders would be newer by necessity.

    One might logically conclude that a large percentage of the new people are also new Christians. Certainly that is what many megachurch pastors proclaim. However, nearly everyone, including visitors, described himself or herself as a “committed follower of Jesus Christ.” We think many respondents interpreted this to mean, “do you consider yourself saved” given that barely 2% (roughly 500 people among the entire 24,900 survey respondents) said they were not a committed follower of Christ. Interestingly, of those respondents who were at these churches ten years or more, a handful (36 people or 0.1%) still described themselves as not being committed Christ-followers.

    Additionally only 6% of attenders said that they had never attended services prior to coming to their current megachurch. Therefore, it is clear that the majority of megachurch attenders are not necessarily new to Christianity. But it is equally evident that many of them are new to their megachurch – its culture, vision, routines and congregational community.

    Source: Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, NOT WHO YOU THINK THEY ARE: A Profile of the People Who Attend America’s Megachurches 2009 http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/megachurch_attender_report.htm

  37. Mile wid eand aan inch deep.

    My jaded personal opinion is that these types of mega-churches, with their overt entertainment worship, are scratching itching ears. The pastors and leaders get a rush for “growing” such a big church, like they are “blessed” because they attract big numbers. Many of the attendees, as just indicated in the last post, are effectively church shopping, and happen to be at the flavor of the month. I suspect a strong number are upset because of something that happened at their last congregation. Or maybe they were just as shallow before and this new churhc has a bigger spectacle.

    All too often you do NOT hear about Jesus, in the Theology of the Cross. Jesus as buddy, dispensor of goods, nice guy, blah, blah, blah… Very rarely will you hear “you are sinful, and Jesus had to die for you.” Reaching the lost? the Lost don’t always like to hear about their sinful nature. These churches are rescuing the lost. They are more likely sheep steeling. Maybe not overtly, but they sure aren’t recruting you back to your original destination. They don’t care that other denominations are dying, they are excited about how they keep growing numerically. We can debate the finer nuances of whether they are growing spiritually, or in a proper faith maturation way.

    I am not impressed. I mean, just look at what happened to the cult-of-pesonality Crystal Cathedral when the inevitable retirement of Robert Schuler happened? How did that worked out for them?

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