Thursday, June 14, 2012
Whats Going on In America's Mega Churches? : The Acton Institute Series
This blog is the second of a series based on a lecture I gave at the Acton Institute in 2012.
With few exceptions, mega churches enjoy their greatest success during their first generation. As they age, the mega church tends to plateau, enter an era of gradual decline, or implode as its founding era comes to an end. This presents a major crisis for mega churches. To transition from their founding generation, they must both maintain an infrastructure built to service the larger crowds of an earlier generation and adapt their programs and structures to serve people with different needs than those who preceded them. If they make these changes to their programming, they risk losing their seasoned members, who, after all, pay the bills. If they don’t make the changes, they risk the loss of younger adults and new converts. That can create an age wave, making the church’s long-term future unsustainable.
For these and other reasons, most of our older mega churches are in trouble.
But before we go on, perhaps we should stop to ask, what exactly is a mega church?
Glad you asked.
American mega churches are the result of a massive national migration that took place in the generation from immediately after the Second World War. This migration dislocated young adult believers from their family’s traditional denominations. As they moved from place to place, Baby Boomer Christians lost their loyalty for any specific branch of their faith. As a result, they tended to choose churches for the services they provided, or because those who attended them embraced social values similar to their own.
A generation later, we are experiencing a global migration. This has accelerated the demographic shift of our cities and towns. A generation ago, the members of churches in our large cities came from many different states. Since then, the dislocation, rootlessness and social transition that characterized the makeup of those first mega church congregations have intensified, so that today, most mega churches consist of people from many countries.
Mega churches are also the result of a post-modern distrust of tightly arranged doctrinal and hierarchal systems. On the “liberal” side of the church, this has resulted in a syncretistic culture that openly relativizes religious and secular systems of thought. On the “conservative” side, the same attitude results in a verbal commitment to basic Christian orthodoxy (Mere Christianity) and an emotional alignment with social and political conservatism. Nonetheless, conservative Christians are as suspicious of authority, and of the institutional church, as their liberal counterparts.
As a result of this loss of confessional identity, the doctrinal content of many mega churches is seriously deficient. For liberals, this loss of doctrine has been intentional and deliberate. For many conservatives however, especially those in mega churches, the erosion is the result of a pragmatic decision to replace theology with self-help pep talks and good music. That is why many “conservative” mega churches have been getting better and better at saying less and less.
This lack of theological gravitas has led some Christian thinkers to judge the mega church as an aberrant form of the faith, utterly lacking in historical roots. Admittedly, the history of the mega church is brief. Unless, that is, we think of the cathedral as a type of mega church.
Thinking of churches like the Hagia Sofia, St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s as mega churches suggests that although mega churches may be something different than what Protestants have traditionally expected local congregations to be, they are not aberrant or alien to historical Christianity. In fact, they perform similar roles that some churches have played throughout Christian history.
Like cathedrals, mega churches serve a congregation. However, also like a cathedral, the mega church provides a common space and cultural buttress for smaller congregations around it. Thus, a member of a smaller church may be quite familiar with a neighboring mega church and may regularly use its facilities without having any intention of ever shifting his membership there. The cathedral has historically played a similar role. Although a cathedral has played an ecclesiastical and theological role that contemporary mega churches do not claim, the mega church shares with the cathedral the call to play a different role within the Christian community than its smaller counterparts.
Whether or not they are in any sense “cathedrals,” mega churches are relatively new for Protestant Christianity. Already though, they provide services that traditional Protestant congregations have not. Were this not so, millions of believers would not have been leaving smaller congregations to attend them. This should be acknowledged before offering any critique of the mega church.
Critique is in order though and at least some of that critique should come from those who believe the mega church brings certain unique gifts to the cause of Christ and not merely from those who dismiss the mega church as automatically detrimental to authentic Christian life.