The problem with the Mega-Church (part 1)

Authors Note: Having been asked to write a blog about the mega church phenomenon I feel obliged to do so and to give it my best effort, (as I always do, unless you count this sleepy Saturday morning post.)  However…I feel as though I must start with a disclaimer of sorts. I have never been to or attended a church that would be considered “mega” in fact, in my lifetime I have only set foot in one church that is near the top of the list of Mega-churches, that would be Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago (whenever I hear someone say that they are from outside of Chicago I always think “So you’re not from Chicago…me either.”) I attended Willow for the annual “Leadership Summit” as a staff member of my church along with the rest of the church staff. However, I have not been to an actual weekly service at a Mega church…so I am afraid my point of reference is going to be very narrow so please bear with me as I will referencing Willow Creek more often than Luke Skywalker gets referenced at ComicCon.

With an average attendance of over 23,000 Willow Creek is the fourth largest “Mega” church in America. Walking in to the building at Willow Creek is somewhat like walking into a typical suburban mall, there’s a coffee shop, a book store, all kinds of helpful and informative kiosks, an escalator, elevators and so on, but one thing that is conspicuously absent is the cross, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg of the larger problem in this mega church.

The Big Question

I’m going to answer the big question right up front: Are Mega-Churches all bad? The short answer is “No, not all mega-churches are bad” the longer answer is: of the 1,100 plus churches in the US that are considered a “Mega” church (meaning they have at least 2,000 in attendance regularly) only a handful of them that I know of could be considered a “good” church. And of the churches that are in the top ten on the list I count eight, EIGHT, that regularly twist and mangle the Bible to preach a watered down, feel-good, self-help message that has a sprinkling of Bible verses ripped out of context so that everyone can get they’re warm fuzzy for the week and go home and try harder to be a good person (the other two pastors on the top ten I’ve never heard preach) Why focus on the pastor? you may ask, there are many other factors involved in whether a church is “good” or “bad.” While that is true, much of the church, how it operates, what it teaches and so on…flow from the pastor. Whether the pastor is the innovative, vision casting CEO pastor who regularly fleeces the flock, and doesn’t care whether you come or go as long as you pay your tithe or whether he is the caring shepherd who does his best to take care flock as scripture commands.

What is a good church?

There many indicators of what makes for a good church and many other people who have done a much better job of defining this than I have. (For instance, 9 Marks has some great information on their website and to what the indicators of a true church are) Here are my main indicators of a good or true church if you don’t want to click over to another site:

The gospel in it’s entirety is preached. That we are born sinners, that no one of their own free will would choose God, but that while we were still sinners Christ loved us and died for us and rose again on the third day so that we might be called the children of God. Much of how a church operates and functions flow from how it understands the gospel.

Sound doctrine is taught and proclaimed by all church staff, in worship, in Sunday School, in Small Groups…in all levels of church ministry so that everyone who leaves that church has been taught according to the scripture. So that no one church member would go wandering off into silly and irreverent myths without another church member there to pull them out.

Discipline and Discipleship are practiced by all Staff, Elders and Deacons. Discipline is everything the church does to help the church member pursue a right relationship with God.  Just like when one of my kids needs disciplined I do it, whether it be by grounding or spanking. I don’t discipline because I’m a sadist who enjoys torturing my kids I do it to correct misbehavior in their life and to keep them on the correct course. And Discipleship is an extension of that discipline; True discipleship shows us how to live as Christians in a fallen world.

I believe that a church, no matter the size, as long as it is practicing these things is a good church and one that you will be safe and grow as a Christian in. However, therein lies the crux of the problem with a mega church. These three key areas are totally neglected, not only are they totally neglected in some of these Mega Churches you risk being called selfish, fat, and lazy by the pastor himself (and worse, I promise you) if you want to go deeper into God’s Word. (see Pastor Perry Nobel, Pastor Steven Furtick)

As I said earlier much of “face” of the church can be summed up in the pastor and in the past three years I have listened to many sermons from Saddleback, Willow Creek, Granger, NewSpring, Elevation, Fellowship Church, LCBC, South Hills, Fellowship of the Woodlands, Mosaic, The Orchard, and National Community and I can tell you without a doubt that the members of these churches are NOT being preached sound biblical doctrine, the gospel hardly EVER makes an appearance in the sermons (although Jesus name is mentioned a lot, this is only done to sound church-y), and church discipline and discipleship are foreign concepts, in fact in most of these church you will be flat-out told if you want to go deeper into God’s Word go to church somewhere else, they do church for the un-churched.

Church for the Un-churched

Taken at face value most people would think when a pastor says this, it means they do evangelism. And it sounds great too doesn’t it, to say: “we do evangelism here, that’s our focus…church for the un-churched.” It’s not hard to see that people need Jesus, just look at the newspaper and you’ll see daily people living in a lost and dying world. So to claim that your focus as a church is to “Do church for the un-churched” sounds like you really want to reach out and spread the good news of Christ. But if we zoom out from that a little bit there’s a problem. Church isn’t for the lost. Church is for Christians. I know your thinking, “What…” But it’s true, the main purpose of the church is the edification of the saints…not “soul-winning” or “evangelism” Ephesians 4 says it this way:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

I can never say it better than the Bible. If evangelism is the main focus of the church than the pastor is not only NOT doing the job he is called by scripture to do, he is putting his church at risk of never maturing in Christ, something that we as Christians are both urged to pursue and it is assumed of us in scriptures (Assumed: 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Eph. 2:19-21; Col. 2:19; 2 Thess. 1:3, Urged to pursue: 2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:14; 2; Pet. 3:18.) Furthermore the pastor is endangering his members of being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes”  In short the pastor isn’t doing his job.  I’d like to say this is merely an oversight on the pastors part and in some cases it may be, but I’m afraid in far too many mega-churches that it is not the case, it is more intentionally done in most mega-churches than is merely an oversight.

If the churches focus is the edification of the saints then healthy growth is taking place, then the unsaved who are in attendance will hear the full gospel and the believers who are growing are not neglected. This is why I say church is for Christians. Maybe you’re asking then how evangelism happens…it happens by the Christian, who knows the gospel sharing it with someone who needs to hear it. Lest we forget the great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  In these verses the word “Go” would be better translated from the original Greek as saying “As you are going” meaning: as you go about your day as you normally would…make disciples…and notice that it doesn’t say converts…it says disciples, teaching them ALL I have commanded you.

The Further danger of making “Converts”

If you have spent any time in church you have a pretty good idea that the Pharisees are like the bad guys. If there was a street fight ala Anchorman, Jesus and the disciples, except maybe Judas, would be meeting the Pharisees for a throwdown.  Towards the end of the book of Matthew, Jesus is in the middle of calling down “woes” upon the Pharisees and he says this: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte (convert), and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”  You have to understand that the Pharisees, while being “good, God-fearing church people” on the outside had abandoned God’s Word in order to have the praises of man. (Matthew 16:11–12; 15:1–9; Mark 7:6–13) Does that sound familiar to you given the context here of the “mega church” pastor? So when this Pharisee made a convert, he had made them twice the child of hell as they were, twice as bad as the Pharisee were.  The message that is so often preached in these “seeker-sensitive” mega churches is so void of the gospel that a Mormon or even a Muslim could live it out…because there is no grace, and there is no cross…there is no Jesus. In short many of these mega churches are about converting people, or enslaving them, to a life of try harder to be a good person, think good thoughts of yourself and it will come to pass. (Not kidding I just quoted that from Joel Osteen.) In short making the convert twice the sons of hell as the pharisee pastor.

But that, I think, is the appeal of the mega church. They are telling people what they want to hear. The Bible put it this way: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” 2 Tim 4:3. This verse sums up perfectly many, many of the churches, big or small, mega or not, in America today. As I said earlier it doesn’t matter the size of the church, size is not the issue, what’s being taught from the pulpit is the issue. Everything the church does, practices and believes flows from the pulpit. And because a church is drawing in large numbers, some pastors of smaller churches who want to see their church grow assume that the mega church must be doing something right, so they copy the mega church model ad infinitum never stopping to think if what the pastor is doing is biblical or not. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that is the biggest danger in the mega church phenomenon, pastors who copy the unbiblical mega church methodology to their small church in order for the small church to grow. This pastor forgets the words of 1 Corinthians 3:7 “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”  Most mega churches aren’t experiencing God-given growth,  they are drawing a crowd, any fool can draw a crowd. The growth that God gives the true church may not be visible, numeric growth…it may be spiritual growth…and that is the best benefit of attending a true church. A church that is growing spiritually is a church you want to be in, for there you will hear the gospel, your will be taught sound doctrine, and discipline and discipleship will be taking place.

Remember when you were watching a show and it said: To Be Continued at the bottom…today is one of those days. Next post: Some, but not all…or Why I like going to a church that isn’t “mega”

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