The number of megachurches, which refers to congregations with over 2,000 in weekly attendance, has more than doubled over the past five years. The number of such megachurches in America is now said to be 1,210. These churches draw an estimated 4.4 million attenders each week and collect more than $7 billion in donations per year.
I once thought that this megachurch trend was, overall, a very negative development. I generally saw megachurches as theologically compromised and culturally accommodated in harmful ways. I no longer believe this. Don’t get me wrong. I have deep concerns about some American megachurches. But I have deep concerns about most churches in the West in general. Furthermore, large churches have been part of the Christian story for centuries, not just over the last twenty years.
What I have come to see, by both more careful and honest study, as well as by first-hand experience, is that many megachurches have an incredible power to do good. Some are clearly using this power and influence in very impressive ways.
Why do people attack megachurches? I am not completely sure but I know why I once did. I felt they were, generally speaking, not faithful to the gospel. I also felt that they lowered the standards for moral formation and discipleship. I do not see hard evidence that this is true at all. Most of those who attack the lack of gospel clarity in the megachurch do so because they believe that they alone, and their few zealous friends and followers, preach the gospel faithfully. They reason semething like this—if you preach faithfully you will not, in most cases, draw huge crowds (because so few are being truly converted today). So, these people conclude that these megachurch pastors do not preach the gospel as faithfully as I (we) do. This is not only patently false, it is rooted in unadulterated sectarianism and pride. Some of the biggest promoters of this mode of attack are themselves the pastors of large churches that draw thousands of smaller church pastors into their influence by constantly attacking the megachurch. (I know this since I have been in these very same circles and preached this very type of message, to my shame and deep regret!) I ask you, very seriously: "What true good does this do for expanding the kingdom of Jesus?"
Quite to the contrary of my formerly critical views I have seen some wonderful things in some very impressive megachurches in the last few years. I have seen first-hand the quality of their ministry. The faithfulness of many megachurch pastors is no longer in doubt to me. What I hope for is that more and more of these pastors will become "catholic evangelicals" and thereby discover the whole Christian Tradition and by this discovery go much deeper. I rejoice in what these leaders have done and hope that they will do even more in the years ahead. I pray that I can somehow encourage such a transformation through prayer and true friendship.
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