January 21, 2011

Super-sized Churches

Megachurches have become big business according to Forbes magazine, raking in more than $8.5 billion a year in the U.S.A. alone. Defined as churches with more than 2,000 attendees a week, the average megachurch income was $6.7 million in 2007. The Lakewood church in Houston, Texas, the largest megachurch in the U.S.A., boasts a budget of $70 million and weekly attendance of 43,500. Leasing the former home of the Houston Rockets basketball team, the church spent $95 million just to make the facility feel like a church, putting wall-to-wall carpet underneath the 14,000 seats. “Twin waterfalls book-end a stage that rises and falls before a circling gold globe and a pulpit.”1 Even the financial crisis seemingly has not had much of an impact on these churches.
Of course, large churches are not new. They have long been established in major cities, and many great European cathedrals have 10,000-plus seating capacities. The largest megachurch in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, led by David Yonggi Cho. Founded in 1958, the church has a seating capacity of 25,000 and claims a current membership of 800,000.
But is bigger really better? Are more members, more money, more capabilities always “more,” or is something lost in the process?
How should we as Adventists relate to the megachurch movement? This raises an even more basic question: What is “church”? Is it something we “do,” somewhere we “go,” or something we “are”? All these definitions—as worship, as a building, as a congregation—and more have been given. What did Jesus intend by “church” (ekkl?sia, Matt. 16:18; 18:17), and what does the New Testament mean by the term? These questions are increasingly crucial in an age in which the church is struggling to remain relevant to the world around it.
The Biblical Concept of “Church”
How the term ekkl?sia came to mean “church” is debated. In the New Testament it may refer to a local congregation or, more comprehensively, to the church as the totality of Christians everywhere. The word is used more than 100 times in the Septuagint, usually as a translation of q?h?l (“assembly,” e.g., Deut. 9:10), the Hebrew term that seems to be behind the Christian use.2 In its most basic sense the church is a gathering of people in a particular place. Is its size important?
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From its earliest beginnings the church was conceived along the lines of a spiritual family (Mark 3:31-35; Matt. 23:8; John 8:34-36) so that words such as “brothers,” “sisters,” and “little children” could be used affectionately to refer to fellow church members who have close fellowship with one another. Gatherings in homes, already an important aspect of Jesus’ ministry, continued to be important church venues (e.g., Rom. 16:5, 23; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10). While some might argue that this practice may have been merely out of convenience or necessity, the importance of the family as a metaphor for the church, even in connection with church officers (1 Tim. 3:4, 5, 12), suggests this was not the only or even a determinative factor.
The largest New Testament “Christian” gatherings, numbering thousands, include Jesus’ teaching and feeding the multitudes (Mark 6:44; 8:9) and the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). However, these were unique, unrepeated gatherings, as was the assembly on one occasion of more than 500 witnesses to the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6). The fact that megachurches divide their members into much smaller groups reflects the importance of close fellowship that is not possible once a church grows beyond a certain size. This is also why Jesus considered a not overly large circle as His “church” (which included a significant contingent of women followers [Luke 9:2, 3]). The twelve, on the other hand, were being discipled—prepared for leadership—and it is to these that Jesus entrusted instruction beyond that given to the larger group. We see a similar pattern in Paul’s training of leaders who would oversee the congregations he established and who would spread the gospel to the surrounding areas.
A Closer Look at Megachurches
Rather than following the biblical model, megachurches “have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity.”3 Of course, there is nothing wrong with meeting societal needs, but as churches become megasized there is a tendency for the pastors to see themselves less like “shepherds of the flock” and more like CEOs whose job is to cast the vision and motivate people to carry it out.4 
Authors of the most thorough current study of megachurches in America attribute their rise to a changing American culture in which megainstitutions are increasingly prevalent: “Since the 1950s, hospitals, schools, stores, factories, and entertainment centers have all grown to megaproportions; therefore why shouldn’t churches?”5 These authors also enumerate many positive characteristics of the megachurch, including intentionality in ministry, a clear congregational identity and mission, and “professional-quality” worship services that are entertaining. But because of size, the megachurch also scripts member involvement, institutionalizing every aspect of church life from greeting and seating to indoctrination and in-volvement. “Nothing is left to chance. . . . The megachurch assumption is that contemporary individuals do not interact unless forced to and are relative strangers to those they meet.” In addition, in order to appeal to the contemporary culture “there are low, and often almost no, boundaries between where the church’s ministries start and the world’s influences end. The distinctions between secular and sacred are often minimal at best.”6
One unlikely critic of the megachurch movement is David Platt, once described as “the youngest megachurch pastor in history.” He writes in his recent book: “Soon I realized I was on a collision course with an American church culture where success is defined by bigger crowds, bigger budgets, and bigger buildings. I was now confronted with a startling reality: Jesus actually spurned the things that my church culture said were most important.” Further, he argues, “success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up.”7 Nevertheless, Platt still serves as senior pastor of the Church at Brook Hills, with a membership of 4,300.8
Adventists and the Megachurch Movement
What are we to make of the megachurch movement, and what lessons can we learn? First, relatively few Adventist churches in North America fit within the megachurch category. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which maintains a database of megachurches in the U.S., lists only eight Adventist churches. Their average weekly attendance ranges from 1,800 to 3,000, but all are either connected with or located in close proximity to Adventist institutions.9 Judging from membership records, 10 other Adventist churches may enjoy an average weekly attendance that could qualify them as a megachurch, but again most if not all are connected to large Adventist institutions.10 In these institutional settings, such large churches have much to offer.
2011 1502 page16Furthermore, they do not fit the megachurch pattern described by Hartford—an observation that points up a major flaw of the study. While the study recognizes that megachurches are not monolithic (i.e., they come in many different sizes and exhibit widely different personalities and practices), the statistical analysis tends to flatten out the sizable differences among them. For example, many established mainline churches that are very large bear little resemblance to the megachurch pattern the study describes. The same could be said of large Adventist churches connected with institutions. These are not really megachurches along the Hartford definition. It would have been better for the researchers to analyze the different types of megachurches separately, rather than lump them together.
There have been only a few deliberate Adventist attempts to grow megachurches, and none have been successful. They have only divided and decimated existing congregations and have sometimes broken ties with the denomination altogether.11 Why can we not point to a single example of a truly Adventist megachurch? Various factors, including local and specific ones, are no doubt involved in these cases. However, there are more fundamental forces at work too. The notion that methods and practices can be theologically neutral is a myth. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the methodology that churches employ always springs from theology. The two are inseparable, and each directly affects the other. So we need to consider the theological factors at work in the megachurch movement, as well as other reasons for concern.
1 Generic message. In order to attract the most people the message is tailored to avoid offense and underscore the themes all Christians share. “Thus doctrine should be downplayed, especially if it is distinctive and may lead those we want to reach to feel uncomfortable or excluded.”12 Sermons may tend to avoid or seriously dilute topics important to Adventists, such as the sanctuary, the Sabbath, the Spirit of Prophecy, the state of the dead, and the health message. Many lifestyle values are also virtually ignored as “eighteenth-century holdovers.”13
2 Little real evangelism. Some large churches may grow by drawing Adventists from other congregations. More than 100 years ago Ellen White mentioned this phenomenon, lamenting the threat it posed to the prosperity and even the life of smaller churches:14 “It would be vastly better for their children, for themselves, and for the cause of God if they [Adventists] would remain in the smaller churches, where their help is needed, instead of going to the larger churches, where, because they are not needed, there is a constant temptation to fall into spiritual inactivity.”15 Even the pastor of one of the largest churches in America wonders whether megachurches are “just taking people from other churches because we have a cooler church.”16

3 Spiritual decline. As the statement quoted from Ellen White indicates, larger congregations encourage inactivity because, as churches grow larger, only a few are willing and/or considered capable to actively lead out. Worship begins to take on elements of “performance,” especially with the growing prevalence of videotaping and live streaming of worship services. Ellen White likened Adventists in large churches to thickly planted trees that become “dwarfed and sickly” because they have no room to grow. They also act as “dead weights,” increasing the burdens on those who are active.17 Even “the youngest megachurch pastor in history” questions the focus in many large worship services: “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”18
4 Erosion of sacred funds. Very large facilities are not only expensive to buy or lease—they are even more expensive to operate. Comfort costs money. That is one of the reasons most megachurches hold four or more services over two or three days. According to Forbes magazine, only about 25 percent of total megachurch income is spent on ministry/mission work; the rest covers salaries and building costs.19 With greater size comes greater wealth but also many more expenses for infrastructure and operation—thus the tendency to feel that a greater share of the offerings needs to remain at the local level. Recently an Adventist pastor openly argued that some tithe moneys are best kept in the local church.20
5 Minimizing standards for baptism. One can note two tendencies that often reinforce each other in order to secure larger numbers: the identification of “core” doctrines from among our 28 fundamental beliefs (as if the other beliefs were not as crucial), and the idea that baptism into Christ is separate from church membership. However, by definition, the fundamental beliefs are just that: what Adventists consider of fundamental importance to faith. And Paul is clear that there is just one baptism, which is baptism into Christ’s body the church (Eph. 4:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:13).
6 Profanation of worship. If “the distinctions between secular and sacred are often minimal at best”21—and this observation may largely explain why some efforts at “contemporizing” worship seem offensive to many Adventists—then the essence of worship itself is being changed, even “profaned” (i.e., cheapened and secularized). In such a case, we must ask, with Platt, whether we are still worshipping God or whether we are merely worshipping ourselves. And if worship is more profane than holy, then are we really keeping the Sabbath holy?
Should We Supersize?
As tempting as it might be to consider megachurches as evidence of success, there are many reasons to give us pause. The obvious attraction of prominent facilities and resource-rich worship services are often more than offset by serious drawbacks, including fewer active members, the cannibalization of smaller churches, and a tendency to aim for the least common denominator. The following insightful statement provides food for thought: “It is the virtue, intelligence, and piety of the people composing our churches, not their numbers, that should be a source of joy and thankfulness.”22
1Jesse Bogan, “America’s Biggest Megachurches,” Forbes, June 26, 2009; http://www.forbes.com/2009/06/26/americas-biggest-megachurches-business-megachurches_slide_2.html.
2So Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 78, 79.
3David Brooks, “The Gospel of Wealth,” New York Times, Sept. 7, 2010, p. A25.
4S. Joseph Kidder, The Biblical Role of the Pastor,” Ministry, April 2009, p. 19.
5Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America’s Largest Churches (J-B Leadership Network Series, 2007), p. 14.
6Ibid., pp. 15, 16.
7David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah, 2010), pp. 2, 80.
9Hartford Institute for Religion Research, megachurch database listed by denomination;http://hirr.hartsem.edu/cgi-bin/mega/db.pl?db=default&uid=?default&view_records=1&ID=*&sb=2; accessed Sept. 8, 2010.
10 Appreciation is expressed to Sherri Ingram-Hudgins and Barbara Trecartin of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists (NAD) for providing current membership information.
11 Ed Christian, “Why Don’t Adventists Grow Megachurches?” Adventist Review, Oct. 16, 2003, p. 13. One example of a 1,000-member congregation is given in Jay Gallimore, “Can the Church Be ‘Relevant’ and Thrive? (part 1),” Ministry, April 2003, p. 17.
12 Described in Gallimore, pp. 17, 18.
13 Ibid., p. 17.
14 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 184.
15 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 198.
16 Bogan.
17 White, vol. 8, p. 244; vol. 2, p. 114.
18 Quoted in Brooks.
19 Ibid.
20 See J. David Newman, “Tithe—Sacrificing the Sacred Cow: Squeezing the Local Church,” Adventist Today, Fall 2009, pp. 11-17, whose opening sentence is: “Church growth is suffering in North America because local churches are not allowed to spend tithe.”
21 Thumma and Travis, p. 16.
22 White, vol. 5, p. 32.
Clinton Wahlen is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This article was published January 20, 2011.