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.

Megachurch 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.”

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  1. Adam S September 30, 2009 at 5:17 am

    I think you are painting with way too broad of a brush. Many mega church pastors have appropriate levels of accountability. I think that your first point is just strange. You write frequently about economics and you know the idea of creative destruction. There is a reason that many denominations are dying. They are dying because they don’t want to reach out, do evangelism, start new churches or change. For all of the weaknesses of mega-churches (and attending one I know of many weaknesses) what they are good at is reaching new people. The recent Hartford study confirms that large churches have a higher percentage of new Christians than any other size of church. I do agree with your second comment, but that how they communicate their vision. There is a weakness to it, but it is also a strength.

  2. jls September 30, 2009 at 7:24 am

    John, you have just put into words what I have been thinking.
    Why does everyone presume that the next generation of Christian leaders will be hip, postmodern white dudes with goatees doing church in awesomely creative and cool ways? God bless these guys. But ministry must be driven by the Word and the Spirit, not by winsome human personality.

  3. Chris Criminger September 30, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Thanks John for once again raising a red flag with the mega-church phenomena. If the largest mega-church in America is Joel Olsteen’s church (notice people remember the personality and not always the name of the church as you suggest), what does that say about the mega-church phenomena?
    Can Christianity in the future survive from this kind of Christianity? I remember many years ago Os Guiness wrote a provocative book called “The Gravedigger Files.” Guiness proposed that the church was digging its own grave with the kind of Christinianty it was producing would be its own undoing in the future. His words seem just as prophetic today as when they were when it was first written.

  4. Bob Myers September 30, 2009 at 11:40 am

    I also think this is painting with too broad a brush. There’s not much if any real accountability in the denominational churches, whether they are dying denominations or not.
    I am saddened at dying denominations, but I can’t see any possible connection that blames the “new” churches for what are often self-inflicted infirmities of the old. If the old denominations are experiencing powerlessness as you referenced in your article caused in part by caving in on sexual ethical issues, then I simply praise God who has raised up alternatives. These alternatives are seriously flawed, but God is working through them.

  5. Edward Holm September 30, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Is it not possible that the trend for megachurches to attract people and not hold them is much like the parable of the soils whereby the seed falls on soil that looks good on the surface but cannot support deep growth? It is a problem and we seem to have failed in many cases to have developed communities of those who would follow Jesus but rather have developed communities which merely call themselves Christian.

  6. Anthony September 30, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    I wonder if there is a way for mega-churches to be an effective part of a larger catholic reality regarding the Church’s mission in America and the world? The emphasis of this question being on the word “part.”
    I think one of the problems of mega-churches is that they are presented as a kind of benchmark of Church existence. Related to this, success is too often measured by numbers, which is important, but is not the full picture regarding whether a church is fully and effectively ministering the Gospel.
    Again, perhaps mega-churches have their place in the overall mission of Christ, but no matter how effective they might be, even if effectiveness is measured holistically, I still can’t imagine the mission of Christ being advanced only through their way of doing ministry and being the Church. If only because, as you say, they don’t seem to be consciously or intentionally connected to the larger stream of the Church’s existence throughout history and throughout the world.

  7. John H. Armstrong October 1, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Normally, I do not post a comment from someone who is anonymous but I happen to know this person quite well and know that they have a very good reason to retain their anonymity at this point. After an email exchange I decided to post this comment under my name but the words are quite obviously not mine.
    Click this link, watch what this pastor says…My relevant comments follow…
    I love this man and this church and I don’t even know them personally. I love the work God is doing through them. I love the blessing being poured out. Yet, I wish that unity with Christian communities “already there” was happening. I love everything about this “movement” except one thing…the notion that since “the world” is not yet “redeemed” all those who came before have somehow failed. I think the attitude can be summed up by this quote…
    “Many churches, denominations, Bible colleges are museums.”
    The problem? The attitude fails to acknowledge the simple fact that BEFORE Mars Hill & Acts 29 someone else, some other church, some other movement shared the Gospel with Mark Driscoll, and God saved him. Likewise, someone did the same for that movement or person before him who shared with Driscoll!
    If we as the people of God hold his Word in the highest regard, then we must be honest about whatever the work being done today through us…someone else came before us to enable us to do it and we must honor them for it. Even Jesus Christ honored Abraham, Moses, and the prophets who came before him and who preached the truth about God pointing to redemption (the whole truth, too, if we are to believe the claim Jesus makes at the end of the story about Lazarus and the rich man.) Yes, Jesus accused the Pharisees, and so many others, for losing the mission and failing to love God and God’s people. However, not all had failed. What are we to say of John the Baptist? Jesus said of him, the one who came before him, that of man none was greater. There are more examples of this and I need not reference them.
    I am so conflicted about all this…

  8. Anthony October 2, 2009 at 11:22 am

    After watching the video you referred to in the above comment, the parallel Driscoll gave about kids being raised in Disneyland thinking that that is how the world is, and kids being raised in his Church thinking massive baptisms and conversions are the norm, is resonant of the problem you are addressing in this post. For one thing, it was interesting that he used the alternate universe of Disneyland to make his point. Perhaps I have been drinking too much critical theory, but when I see those kinds of selection of examples, I wonder what kind of unconscious forces are at work prompting them.
    Disneyland is not real life; rather, it is life idealized in a particular way, and it is important to note that it is both idealized and that it is idealized in a particular way. Relating this to the ministry of the Church, there are the times when its ministry is sensational, but the question is, should these times be the benchmark or norm for ministry? Off the cuff, I say no. Adequately supporting this response is beyond the scope of this comment. For now, however, I will say that often the most significant spiritual battles are fought in the ordinariness of life, without obvious signs to mark their significance.

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