“You have no idea what a gift you are to us.”
Several years ago I overheard a conversation in a restaurant that was so provocative I could not help first listening in and then eventually horning in.
It was late on a Sunday morning. In the booth over my left shoulder was a man who said he was a LDS bishop and his friend. They were discussing the service they had just attended at the largest church in Arizona. Fascinated at his viewpoint, and being aware that the Mormon church is still growing while Protestant numbers are waning, I turned around and engaged him in conversation over coffee -mine, not his.
He said, “I think the mega-church will be the best thing to ever happen to the LDS. If that is the best you have to offer, you are in big, big trouble.”
I pointed out, “Tens of thousands are flocking to those types of churches. They seem to be very effective.”
His insights on the mega church stopped me cold:
“They may have a lot of people coming in the front door but they surely will have a big back door with people escaping out. People will eventually want more than they are offering.”
The biggest problems? He said…
-You make takers. We make givers.
-You are entirely focused on the individual. We focus on building a community.
He then described our churches as market-driven and led by focus groups rather than convictions. He called out two things in particular: Segregating our age groups and catering to people’s preferences.
Segregating: “What are you thinking putting all of the youth in a separate building and not letting the parents in? 16-year old Jenny needs to be sitting next to 80-year old Mrs. Jones in church. When Jenny shows up in her modest clothes, Mrs. Jones tells her, “Good job!” When Mrs. Jones needs help getting groceries out of her car, she calls Jenny. We make communities. You make people whose whims are catered to. What are you doing to actually help families?”
Catering to preference: “And another thing. You do music people like, with bands. We do bad music, sometimes on an out of tune piano, led by a retired music teacher. Our music is weird. It teaches people that they are part of something different from the world.
We make people who give rather than take and who know they are different and are part of a set-apart community. You blur the line between the church and the world. We emphasize it.
Finally he said, “In thirty years, you guys won’t exist. We will be the only game in town.”
Was he right?
Surely he had very little expectation that the gathering of Christians is to worship the triune God and bring him glory. But does the mega-church? Is there a back door wide-open filled with people inoculated against the very Gospel our mega churches work so hard to communicate? Have we created a cult of the individual rather than a community of givers?
Please do not read my critique as an indictment on motives or on size per se. There are large churches working hard to be about others (see: www.mission68.org). The mega-church people that I know want to honor God and reach people for Jesus Christ. However, I fear we have embraced an ethic of short-term pragmatism. The mega-church has embraced a biblical message divorced from biblical and historically Christian methods. This is dangerous territory.
Next up: Why the “Saddleback movement” works for those over 30 but not for those under it. And, Potential ways forward for both the church and the youth program.