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Or: Some churches I like and why megachurch pastors should be reading the cultural tea-leaves.
Even friends are beginning to ask, “Why are you so anti-mega church?” I would like to say once and for all that I am NOT against churches being large. I hope every church preaching Jesus grows. I want the Kingdom of God to be extended. I believe the local church in mission to the world is the biblical, historical, and reasonable way for that to happen.
I am also not against large church pastors. Some of my best friends are large church pastors (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). But, honestly, I don’t know a single large church pastor who does not love God and want others to know Christ. I am certain there are pastors who are shysters-there are shysters in every profession. I just don’t know of any of those, and I know a pile of pastors.
So what am I doing critiquing the dominant model of church on the American landscape? Merely raising questions about uncritically held assumptions. Why? Because EVERY good thing has a downside. Unanticipated consequences exist for every “win.” God can and does bring good out of bad…but correspondingly, every good thing has bad that can come from it. I am simply looking at our current popular ministry practices and asking, “Does anyone see the backside of this coin?” Is anyone asking, “Where will we end up if we keep driving down this road?” I have been quite surprised at the defensiveness this has caused. A defensiveness, not of core issues of the faith, but of a vision of the church less than 40 years old.
Be that as it may, I do believe big can be beautiful. I would like to list a few large churches that I really like. This is not an exhaustive list of “good” churches but a brief sample of some doing things well…
Redemption Church, Phoenix: (6000ish) They are multi-site, but each site has its own teaching pastor. They develop lots of mission-thinking preachers and leaders. Each pastor teaches the Bible in 45 minute sermons, and are packed with youth and young adults seeking “meat.”
Scottsdale Bible Church, Scottsdale: (7000ish) They planted churches and then began to do multi-site video-venues. I don’t like that part. However, they have trained and developed leaders for their own and many other churches, and they have actively given their people and money away to scads of other churches.
Mission Community Church, Gilbert: A large, fast-growing suburban church that reinvented itself as the Micah 6:8 “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God” church. They have an army of suburbanites thinking about giving time, talent and treasure to create good in the world.
New City Church, Phoenix: (600) Discovering liturgy, developing young adults, trying to take people deeper. This fast growing church is riding the wave of young adults moving to downtown Phoenix.
Church of the Resurrection, Chicago: (1300ish) They have tripled in the last five years, almost all with college and young adults. Liturgy, charismatic gifts, an army of rotating musical genres, robust Christian education from Wheaton College professors, and a youngish senior pastor who might be the oldest guy in the building.
Church of the Incarnation, Dallas: (1500ish) A fast growing traditional church in the central city. Lots of different musical genres, solid liturgy, strong teaching. Decided they needed to raise double-digit millions to expand. Raised almost twice that much.
Church of the Holy Cross, Sullivan’s Island: (1000ish) Great youth ministry led to great men’s ministry. A church specializing in venues of 300 or smaller for services to become the church where “everybody knows your name.” An interesting vision in a small beach town.
St. Barnabas on the Desert, Scottsdale: (700) Not a large church, but my money is on them becoming one. They have several hundred folks involved in contemplative practice, preach from a humbling level of prayerfulness (the senior pastor prays like 25 hrs a week), a group of retirees will serve anyone, anytime, anywhere, and they have a creative young staff.
There are a lot of churches that love people, have committed volunteers and want to share the Good News of Jesus. What do the churches on this list have in common?
1) They teach the Bible 2) They value young people 3) They foster relationships 4) They have a desire to take people deeper in Christ and do that by helping them engage in Christian practices and serve rather than just learning dogma 5) and more and more, they are exploring the totality of Christian history as part of those practices.
So, there are big churches that I really like. And, yeah, in light of a growing mountain of data, I do have serious questions about the way popular Christianity is doing Church and whether it has staying power. Again, I am not criticizing motives but rather methods. I am leery of the way the Church has hitched its wagon to the culture of preference. When the culture changes, and it is changing rapidly, what will a church built on being “relevant” and “just like” the culture do? Will it give up beliefs and sit with empty buildings? Or will it change its theology to remain “relevant”? For centuries large swaths of the church embraced slavery to keep the seats filled. What will this generation’s slavery be? What will pastors be willing to preach or willing to stop preaching to keep the lights on?
Pastors can defensively criticize the messengers or look at the data and try to be in front of the trends when they arrive. The failure to anticipate change in a big-box facility has catastrophic potential. If current directions continue, the donut hole of young adults will become entire missing generations.
The original mega-church, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold in bankruptcy to a new Roman Catholic diocese in 2012. The Crystal Cathedral will not be an isolated instance. That is not “hating.” It is sounding a warning before our suburban churches, built as surrogate main streets for housing tracts without town-centers, become ghost towns. Big can be beautiful. It can also be sold at auction to the highest bidder when the culture takes a left-turn evangelicalism missed.
 Including: Luis Lugo’s, “The Decline of Institutional Religion”(goo.gl/DiR6A), which describes 2008’s Pew Forum report that those in their 20s and 30s attend church at one half the rate of their parents and one quarter the rate of their grandparents. Brett Kunkle listed seven other such research reports in 2009 (goo.gl/s1vnv). Depending on the researcher, between 60 percent and 88 percent of churched youth will not attend church in their 20s (Time, 2009, Lifeway, 2010). Last year the Pew Forum confirmed the data in a follow-up carried in USA Today (http://wp.me/p2Gq9e-4u). As did this year’s “Hemorrhaging the Faith” study from Canada.
“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 the over 30 but not those under it. And, Potential ways forward for both the church and the youth program.