I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the various new styles of evangelical church life that I see growing across America. While the church in general is declining some churches are still growing. Megachurches continue to spring up and the total number of such churches appears to be growing every year. Some of these churches have created their own brand of (independent) denomination. On the one hand I am very glad for every such church that reaches people who are outside the Christian faith. On the other I am perplexed and dismayed by a great deal of what I see. Let me explain.
America has always led the world in starting new brands and styles of Christianity. We have the most money, the most ingenuity and the most freedom to make and market new forms of Christianity. The pastor can become a CEO in a heart beat if he is very gifted as a preacher and has a great desire to spread the vision he has for the church. (Note: It is always “he” since none of the groups are led by women much less do most of them permit women to be leaders.) So you ask, “What’s wrong with this picture John?”
1. There is something off-putting by seeing new “denominations” spring up when denominations are dying. I believe, as my readers know, in missional-ecumenism. I believe churches need to be centered in Christ and his mission. I believe churches should be focused on serving the kingdom, not themselves. From here they should find how they can work effectively with other churches that are not like them. This will keep them from focusing on the “important man” who is their leader. (Most of these churches have important “men” but all are deeply influenced by ONE important man who is the creative genius behind the movement.) To pursue the missional-ecumenical vision will require a deep commitment to the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. These new churches do not share that commitment. The unity they pursue is a unity with those who are like them in every way, right down to their idiosyncratic ideologies.
2. When you begin to watch these new groups for long you are introduced to a whole new vocabulary. There are special names for small groups and for curriculum. There are unique approaches to membership and discipleship training. There are patterns that develop about music and worship. And they have a definite form of development. You can only function in these settings if you are willing to adopt the language of the parent.
3. These groups all seem to follow the same script yet each one acts as if they have written the truly unique script for church planting and mission in the twenty-first century. After watching this type of evangelicalism for sixty years I have begun to say to myself: “Been there, done that.” I have yet to meet a leader in one of these settings who understands why so many of their people hunger for catholicity and then leave their groups to find it. These groups are very efficient at bringing people into their churches but most have no exist process whereby they take a hard look at why people leave. They do not have to deal with this issue since they have a big front door.
4. All of these groups have a “big-man” leader, as noted in number one, and in every case the “big man” is a person who is admired, followed and never seriously questioned. There is not accountability to anyone from outside the group since the leader has elders, all males who agree with the “big man.”