Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I rarely dis the so-called "megachurch," for a few reasons, the two most important being that I don't think there's anything automatically wrong with having a big church (I say that as the pastor of a very small church who, honestly, doesn't care if it grows "big," whatever that means) and that the term "megachurch" can encompass lots of different types of churches. Certainly Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian is "mega" in size, yet it is not usually the sort of church in mind when critics pounce on the "megachurch."

When I agree with folks who are harshing on the megachurch vibe, it is typically because what I see them criticizing is the attractional model of church, and while I've gone on record several times acknowledging that there are certainly aspects of our ecclesiology and methodology that can be attractional, I think the attractional mode of "doing church" is counterproductive to discipleship. (Because it doesn't work.)

So when Jim West, for instance, bags on the megachurch, and I understand that it is typically big churches who fit this bill, it is the attractional church that I see in view here, and there are plenty of small to mid-size churches with attractional aspirations that are heading down this road.
West writes:
Mega churches exist for one simple reason- the accumulation of wealth. Churches, you see, once upon a time would grow, flourish, and in order to extend their ministry establish mission churches in areas where no church work existed. Their goal in the establishment of such churches was to realize the goal of local churches sprouting up everywhere. Neighborhood churches, though, over time, became too small and offered too little to the consumeristic American who wanted more and more.

So, in order to quench the unending thirst of American Christians, Churches ended their missionary outreach and instead of planting small churches in local neighborhoods they began drawing people from miles and miles away. This allowed them to offer more glitzy programs for the thirsting public (a public which thirsts not for righteousness but for entertainment). It also allowed them to collect larger offerings and once that pandora’s box was opened, it became a free for all for as many members as possible concentrated in the fewest churches possible.

Churches turned inward rather than outward, and began to reverse their policy of planting churches to a policy of sucking the life out of the smaller churches which couldn’t compete for the shallow members or their shallow dollars because of a lack of programmed entertainment.

I've even seen this phenomenon -- attractional/big churches sucking congregants out of smaller churches -- defended from the standpoint that the big church has more to meet the congregants "needs."

On the flipside, of course, people can go wherever they want. No church is coercing anyone. Which is why this is about the discipleship culture of the evangelical church, not necessarily what Such and Such Church is doing. And I might even suggest that it might not be a bad thing if consumerist Christians with a shallow perception of what they need leave your church. Certainly if someone leaves my church, I don't sweat it too much if it's because we don't have a Starbucks or original video content or whatever. (If they're leaving because they don't hear about Jesus or aren't treated with grace, then I sweat it.)

West hits on the greatest irony of the attractional church. The inward focus. It exists to keep the machine running. And it has not only failed in what it set out to do -- make "fully devoted followers of Christ" (which is a Willow Creek phrase, by the way, for all you who are weirded out when you hear your church's pet phrase used by another church, as I witnessed in a blog comments section recently) out of the unchurched -- it has succeeded in attracting the very people it claimed it wasn't all that interested in -- the churched. (Again, the data demonstrates this. It's not just hunches anymore.)

But there are indications that the tide is turning. Al Hsu recently posted on The Rise and Fall of the Megachurch relative to the cultural tides of suburbia. Hsu writes:
So are the suburban megachurch's days numbered? Perhaps. One of the dirty little secrets in church growth circles is that many prominent megachurches are plateaued and or declining in attendance.

He also excerpts Christine Wicker's The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. Wicker surveys attractional church burnout, which I've witnessed numerous times personally. Committed Christians are used up and spit out in service to the Program, and if they ever so much as suggest something isn't right, they are accused of being immature and told to go self-feed or whatever. Church isn't "for them," they are sometimes told, which is doubly hurtful when the volunteer is a believer who was a seeker or baby Christian when they first entered the church. The church itself makes it clear the volunteer has outgrown the church, and then it will act surprised or indignant when the volunteer realizes he has outgrown it and takes his service elsewhere.

Wicker writes:
A large reason megachurches grow is because of where they usually locate--in burgeoning suburbs. Young families, attracted to the suburbs' less-expensive housing, want religion for their children. They're energetic, and they have rising incomes. Megachurches have enormous overhead and a huge need for volunteers. Burned-out megachurch staff members sometimes complain that they spend more time "feeding the beast" than feeding the flock. Feeding the beast requires a constant hunt for "good" families. To the dismay of the more idealistic, good families don't mean those who need God the most but those who are committed, able, energetic, and prosperous . . .

[Megachurches are] top heavy on services for members, which means they must have huge budgets to keep the pace. Their building programs, their missions, their children's programs, their worship services--all have to be top-rate, which requires top-rate staff and plenty of volunteers. At Willow Creek the children's programming alone requires a thousand volunteers a week. As quickly as megachurches burn out one family, they need to replace it. Add to their troubles the fact that their growth has been supported by location. They started in rapidly growing, young communities. As young families are priced out of communities served by megachurches, they'll move farther out, and the megachurches, pinned down by big-box facilities, won't be able to follow.

I don't know if the attractional model is dying. As long as there are believers who only know that form of church, I suspect there will still be some life in it for some time to come. But I also know of a few folks who were converted and trained by the attractional model who are rapidly becoming disillusioned. Conversion to disillusionment averages about 8 years. That's not a very good track record and does not bode well for the attractional future.

No comments: