Saturday, June 16, 2012

Can Mega Churches Survive Their First Generation? : The Acton Series

This is the forth of a series of blogs based upon my prevention at Acton University, 2012. Visit the website to learn more about Acton and its role in American life. Their faculty works hard to teach economics in reasonable easy-to-understand language and interesting lectures they make available online. ( )

Mega churches have a number of positive features.

For starters, they allow seekers to enter and exit church anonymously. That allows people to decide for themselves if and when they are ready to take their spiritual quest to a new level.

Mega churches offer quality expressions of faith to the world through drama, music and media. Less well-funded institutions often find such expressions difficult to produce.

Mega churches make the Christian presence visible in their communities. Due to their large structures if nothing else, a mega church forces people to recognize the vibrant Christian community in their midst.

The leaders of mega churches have a large platform. It is difficult for a community to ignore their words when they address its ethical and spiritual issues.

These mega church strengths can support the witness of the smaller Christian groups near them. If the mega church is even moderately healthy it's existence is thus a blessing to the Christian community among which which it operates.

Mega churches do not tend to perform well in every category of spiritual life however.

They often find it difficult to maintain an authentic sense of community among their attendees, for example. Without authentic community, it is challenging to provide the type of spiritual direction that develops a deeply rooted Christian faith. Nor do mega churches always provide quality theological instruction or personal discipleship. They may not offer transcendent and biblically faithful worship either. The lack of these important ingredients of Christian life results in a weak and uninformed Christian commitment over time.

Unfortunately, these challenges are not merely the result of the size of the mega church but of its culture. The attitudes, drives and techniques that create a large congregation tend to push spiritual matters to the back-burner. Mega church leaders usually focus on immediately pressing and practical issues. It is easy in such a climate for spiritual concerns to disappear altogether, except as window dressing to hide the hustle and bustle of the true enterprise. Like all great companies, the mega church succeeds by understanding and adapting to the realities of a consumer market. However, that reality is the source of many of its spiritual vulnerabilities.

Because of such challenges, many predict the demise of the mega church. The reasons for this pessimistic forecast can be persuasive. For example, many young people seem drawn to smaller and more intimate communities now. Many of them grew up without a stable family. They hunger for life-long friends. This often leads them to choose a small church or even a house church. Mega churches face a host of other serious challenges, not the least of which is simply surviving their first pastoral succession.

Despite these challenges, mega churches will not disappear any time soon. What is more likely is that some will successfully face these and other challenges e and rebound, though perhaps with a somewhat different purpose than before.

Mega churches will survive in part because, like all institutions, they desire to survive. They are filled with creative and trained people who diligently search to help them survive. However, like any large business, mega churches often grow myopic over time, which makes it difficult for them to renew themselves.

And, renewing a mega church requires a different approach than building one.

When building a mega church, visionaries attract the gifted people and finances that gradually create organizational and physical structures to serve the founder’s vision. The vision gets implemented piece by piece. Each level of accomplishment reveals a new horizon toward which the growing community can reach.

When renewing a mega church, leaders begin with an existing culture and existing structures. Whether or not those structures are helpful by the time they are inherited, they must be used, modified for new uses, or dismantled. This is often a challenge because organizations become sentimentally attached to all such things and will usually protect them whether or not they remain useful. The maintenance of structure can thus become the end rather than the means, which of course destroys vision.

All this to say that there are real challenges involved in transitioning a mega church. On the other hand, every significant work involves challenges. The question is whether one believes the potential of transitioning a mega church makes it worthwhile to face the challenges. That question in turn requires a leader to determine whether he has a calling to accept the responsibilities that come with the task.

In the long history of our faith, every generation has faced challenges to our continued witness as the Body of Christ. In each generation some have shrugged their shoulders when confronted with difficult problems. They have refused to risk their lives or livelihood to defend the faith. Others, often feeling utterly inadequate, have stepped forward and remained at their post. We owe our faith to such people.

The Holy Scriptures tells us that God calls his servants to different posts and equips them with different gifts. Not all prophesy. Not all do miracles. Not all sell everything to move to Borneo in order to reach lost people. Not all are called to lead large churches. Its not a matter of saintliness or even human ability. Being a missionary in Borneo may require a much higher level of intelligence than leading a mega church, for example. The question is one of vocation: what is one called to do?

I have been called to transition a mega church. I am called to lead it in such a way that it remains a  faithful witness of Christ and a blessing to our city.  This calling requires an appreciation for the economic reality that we face, which is sometimes daunting. That is why I need the help of those who are gifted and called by God to understand and manage money -- people like you. It is not your money I most need moreover, but your knowledge and wisdom.

My Pentecostal upbringing taught me to appreciate the way our Lord has chosen to manifest His presence through the various gifts of the Holy Spirit. According to Romans 12, administration is one of those gifts. Economics is a manifestation of that particular gift. It is unfortunately a gift I do not have, at least at the measure required to do what God called me to do. However, he has given me the responsibility for recognizing and acknowledging the gifts He has placed in the body.

All this to say that I must remain focused on pastoring, on helping midwife the spiritual gifts of the people of our congregation and teaching them the faith 'once and for all delivered to the saints.' If I try to be a CEO, marketer, or even an economist, I will not only fail personally, I will alter the nature of God's church by abdicating my guardianship of the church's core purpose.

I believe that is what has occurred in some mega churches. It must be avoided. Renewal of a mega church in the end requires a spiritual revival, which must be the pastor's central concern. Finding solutions for the structural, financial and pragmatic issues requires his humble and cooperative efforts with others the sovereign Lord has placed as leaders within the body.

It is difficult work on many levels, beginning with the pastor's need to  keep growing spiritually, intellectually and socially. However, as with all important kinds of enterprise, this one grows people in ways that releases the purpose for which God gave them life.

1 comment:

William Vaughan said...

The real question is... what's apage and what's eros. What's light and what's darkness. What is incorruptible and what is corruptible. What pleases God the Father and what doesn't. If you and we, don't know the difference of these issues we will end up just like the church's of europe who built up majestic buildings which now are run down, empty and being sold for scrap. A mega church isn't a new thing, history can tell you that. The thing is, where are they? You present the same argument the Roman Catholic Church does about their cathedrals.