A growing number of Christian leaders are suggesting that the megachurch boom equals the next national revival, or a Fourth Great Awakening in American history. You can hear this kind of analysis almost every week. I heard it in Dallas this week. Megachurches talk about it constantly, as if talking a lot about it will make it happen. And I read the same analysis in my local paper (The Daily Herald) on Monday, October 3, in an article titled: "Signs of Revival, or Premature Leap of Faith?"
For religious and social analysts the dispute about present revival movements comes down to whether or not the changing shape of evangelical Christianity in America will translate into another large-scaled awakening, much like the three national movements that took place in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.
Some of the "signs" that are cited for revival include the following:
1. A new mega-church (more than 2,000 people in worship) is now born in America every two days.
2. Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, has sold more than twenty-five milion copies.
3. Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, had nearly 57,000 people for its worship service on opening day in August.
4. "The Passion of the Christ" was one of 2004’s greatest movie hits, with a staggering $370 milion in domestic sales.
5. The book series "Left Behind" has sold over 65 million copies. Interest in the coming of Christ is high.
6. The evangelical vote for George W. Bush was the major factor in his re-election in 2004.
7. Locally, the author of The Daily Herald article cited above adds that Willow Creek (20,000 weekly attendance), and Harvest Bible Chapel (8,000 weekly attendance), are having a large impact on the Chicago region.
This, and a number of similar points, convince church growth expert John Vaughan, of the Missouri-based Church Growth Today research center, that "We’re seeing seismic growth in certain parts of the country. It’s a great day for the country and for the kingdom of God."
If you believe that this kind of hubris and church growth rah-rah equals real evidence for revival then there is little I can say about real revival that will interest you. You should stop reading right here and chalk me up as just another pessimist. I am not "Bad News Barna" for sure, but I do not see how any insightful friend, or enemy, of Protestant revival can equate these indicators with a move of God’s Spirit that radically transforms both church and culture.
Interestingly, even John Vaughan admits that only three percent of all church goers attend a mega-church. The optimistic Vaughan is exceeded in this positive analysis by the even more optimistic Ted Haggard, pastor of a Colorado mega-church and president of the NAE. Says Haggard, "We are in a better position now than we’ve been in the last hundred years. We are on the move." What is so deeply troubling about Haggard’s comments, at least to me, is the tribalism and triumphalism inherent in his conclusion. It is the "we are on the move" statement that rightly scares non-evangelicals. Can you honestly imagine Jesus ever saying something like this? Here is how the scenario would go if we had a twenty-fifth chapter to Luke’s Gospel: "You know men, I have conquered death. We are small now but we are growing and very soon the promised Holy Spirit will come to enlarge our little group in a single day by adding three thousand converts. Then, you will know real revival in the days following. And then we will really be on the move!"
Robert Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1963), still the finest book in our lifetime on how one-to-one discipleship connects with real evangelism, rightly notes that big numbers simply do not equal change in behavior. Coleman, who now teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is very sanguine about these claims for spiritual renewal on a massive scale. He says, "With each gain the church has made, I’ve seen a strong counter-movement of evil. Relativism, lack of moral absolutes, these permeate our society now. I think we’re on the verge of something, but that could be judgment."
Coleman rightly adds that if we were seeing revival we should expect to see big declines in corporate scandals, the divorce rate, abortions, political corruption, and crime in general. The current data indicates no such change is going on at all.
Wheaton College historian Mark Noll got a lot closer to the truth when he commented that "There are islands of revival bit it’s not across the board." I have seen a few of these islands myself. I believe there might be one in the middle of Seattle. Time will tell. I also believe there are pockets of this on college campuses here and there. I am hopeful.
Noll further believes that a classic awakening would affect everybody, even non-Christians. He adds, "Past revivals saw one-third of the population convert to Christianity, one-third deepen the faith they had and one-third were offended by the whole thing."