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In Praise of the Megachurch

megachurch-1If you’re a critic of organized religion, there is no easier target than the megachurch.

Take this infographic I cribbed from a Facebook friend. It was initially posted in Atheists and Rational Thinkers (which is an irony I’ll leave for another time). It cites one of the most common accusations against megachurches — that they are mega-marketing, empire builders, more concerned with over-paying celebrity pastors to entertain the masses and milk them of enough money to keep the “business” humming, than actually preaching the Gospel, making disciples, and caring for the needs of their community.

As someone who has pastored and attended small churches (those under 120 members), and also served in and attended several megachurches, I’ve seen both sides of the debate.

One of my first pastors, Dave Jacobs,  retired after thirty years of ministry and now runs a ministry for small church pastors. Both Dave and I are “survivors” of the church growth movement. By that I mean, we have struggled pastoring smaller churches while wrestling against the misguided notions of “success” so deeply imbedded in American evangelicalism. Many small church pastors wrestle under the assumptions that “bigger is better” and that some formula is available (usually for a fee), to help the average pastor make his church both bigger and better. These dynamics have left many pastors, and church attenders, disillusioned.

It’s why statistics like THESE from ChurchPlanting.com which suggest that “smaller churches consistently scored higher than large churches in seven out of eight qualitative characteristics of a healthy church” cannot be ignored. No doubt, there can be some clear advantages to a smaller church. However, one downside of stats like these (apart from their statistical accuracy or inaccuracy) is the “either / or,” “us against them” mentality that often follows. Megachurches are often unfairly caricatured as Gospel-lite sheep-herding mills for the naive and worldly.

But are megachurches inherently flawed?

And are small churches inherently less flawed?

As someone who’s been on both sides of the aisle, I answer “No” to both.

Let me offer Seven POSITIVE advantages of megachurches that should be celebrated by smaller churches. Note: This is not to suggest that there isn’t theological concerns pastors and members should consider about the megachurch model. Nor is it to skirt very real problems that exist in many megachurches.  This is simply to acknowledge that all megachurches are not inherently evil and, in many ways, should be celebrated.

1.) Megachurches can reach more people with the Gospel. Dave Holden, pastor of global training at Saddleback, one of the leading megachurches in the world, suggests that the most often ignored fact about megachurches is their ability for “reaching new people for Christ.” Of the 30,000 pastors Holden networks with, he says “76 percent of the members [of those churches] have been baptized in their church.” It’s a simple reality: Because of their size, influence, talent pool, etc., a megachurch can have a much larger platform for sharing the Truth and Love of Jesus Christ than a smaller church.

2.) Megachurches can give more to causes outside themselves. Leadership Network, which among other things studies trends in churches, noted that in 2013 not only did larger churches remain more viable during the recent economic downturn, “a majority of large churches spent at least 10% of their budget beyond themselves.” It is often argued that the ratio of facilities, staff,  and programs, compared to giving, is inconsequential. In some cases, it may be! What can’t be argued is that if the above statistics are accurate, megachurches are in a position to aid, assist, and support significantly more hurting people and/or causes than smaller churches.

3.) Megachurches can create MORE opportunities for friendship, ministry, and personal accountability than smaller churches. Quoting from the book Beyond Megachurch Mythsthis article notes that attendees of large churches OR small churches tend to develop the same percentage of friendships. “Of the 320,000 Christian churches, 60% of them have fewer than 100 participating adults and children (p. 45). And when surveyed, 64% of megachurch attendees knew as many or more people in the megachurch than they did at smaller churches (p. 46).” Although a significant number of those who attend a megachurch do so for anonymity (which can be a good thing in some cases), because there are more contexts for friendships, more ministry opportunities, and a greater number of people, the potential for friendship and growth is much higher in the megachurch.

4.) Megachurches can be both “missional” and “attractional.” The missional church is designed to be mobile, to be decentralized and less encumbered by facility and financial needs, whereas the megachurch is typically described as more “attractional,” built around a “come and see” mentality. In his excellent five part series, Can Mega Be Missional,  Ed Stetzer suggests that because of their very size, “megachurches can leverage their people for greater kingdom impact.” (Here’s PART ONE of that series.) For instance, the list of community outreach opportunities undertaken by our local megachurch is quite impressive: from free auto repairs for struggling parents or getting Rizzo Roofing to repair their roof courtesy of the church, of course if you’re in Palm Beach you could instead use a Palm Beach Roofing Expert to resolve any issue with your house’s roof. A mobile medical unit, to low-income tutoring, to a food warehouse. Because of their size, megachurches can have significantly more reach into their community than the smaller church.

5.) Megachurches can do things well. While many megachurches can get caught up in putting on a performance, the larger talent pool and financial flexibility almost always allows them to excel in areas where small churches struggle. For example, I was compelled to lead worship for over a decade for churches I pastored, not because I was/am a good musician, but because we simply didn’t have enough musicians. Our “professionalism” was mediocre, at best. While the more mature Christian can tolerate mediocrity, many can’t. In fact, one of the charges against contemporary evangelicalism is its lack of aesthetic excellence. Megachurches, however, often have the physical and financial resources available to function at a more “professional,” quality level.

6.) Megachurches can be more demographically diverse. Leadership Network’s Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches notes that “Nearly a third of megachurch attenders are single, unmarried people. In a typical church, however, singles account for just 10% of the congregation. It is more likely in a typical congregation that the vast majority (80%) of attenders will be married or widowed.” This tends to be true across the board. Because of their size, smaller churches are often more impacted by demographic divides. A church of one hundred that is made up of primarily any one single demographic, will have a harder time broadening its reach.

7.) Megachurches can facilitate more pastors and churches. Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest megachurches in the United States, began an Association of Churches in 1992. Its Global Leadership Summit is now a two-day leadership training event that reaches more than 170,000 leaders around the world, representing more than 14,000 churches. Throughout the fall, Summit events take place in an additional 300+ cities, 92 countries—and is translated into 42 languages.  This is not an endorsement for Willow Creek, but simply an illustration of the obvious: The bigger the church, the more people it can potentially reach. When it comes to training pastors and equipping churches, this can be a very good thing.

If you are predisposed to denouncing megachurches, I realize that none of these things will matter. I also realize that there much anecdotal evidence of bad things happening in big churches. My appeal is that we not throw out the baby with the bathwater, that we not resort to caricatures, and that we not create an us v. them divide that pits small churches against big churches. Truth is that God can use the megachurch and their much smaller neighbor. And I believe He does.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • CKoepp January 30, 2014, 12:07 PM

    I prefer a small church because I really, /really/ hate crowds.

    Large churches are often knocked for going astray into the gray areas or falling off the path of sound doctrine altogether. I’ve found, though, that it has more to do with leadership of the church rather than the church’s size. I was in one huge church that was doctrinally stable until the pastor retired, and another fellow came onboard as a pastor and the whole thing went downhill.

    I’ve also found small churches that were doctrinally messed up, too, but others that are sound and stable.

    There’s a place for both… and all the ones in between. Churches patterned off Laodicea are all over and come in many sizes. Those more akin to Philadelphia, likewise.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller January 30, 2014, 12:28 PM

    I also think this divide between small and large is missing the point. Small churches can be legalistic and rigid and aging and . . . you name it. Or they can be communal and caring and prayerful and doctrinally sound. Megachurches can be all about show and personality driven (not the personality of the Lord Jesus Christ, unfortunately) or they can be diverse, outward thinking, “missional.” The size simply does not dictate how biblical a particular body will act.

    The real divide is based on how a church handles Scripture, I think.


  • Lelia Rose Foreman January 30, 2014, 12:33 PM

    I really love what Saddleback is doing in Rwanda, from representing widows in court (and urging legislation to give them property rights) to setting up and teaching Rwandans how to run clinics, to teaching business procedures, to more.

  • Donna Pyle January 30, 2014, 2:54 PM

    Mike, your list is well thought-out and right on point. I appreciate that you’ve served on both sides and approach this topic from an informed standpoint.

    I attend what is considered a megachurch in my denomination, and kept nodding throughout your post. The potential of megachurches to reach more with the Gospel (locally and globally) is the most incredible advantage, along with leadership training that such a platform provides. And when pastors and their members openly dialogue about theological concerns, vital iron-sharpening-iron and team-building take place, which unify and strengthen their position to proclaim the Gospel. Thanks for tackling this sensitive subject with grace and wisdom.

  • Jill January 30, 2014, 7:56 PM

    Megachurches strike me as modern day cathedrals. They may have a lot of outward show, but they are places where the gospel is (hopefully) being proclaimed.

  • Bob Avey January 31, 2014, 11:57 AM

    I belong to what could be considered to be a megachurch, Asbury United Methodist Church in Oklahoma. The church started in the 1950’s with around 9 members. Today I believe the membership is around 6,000. All of the points you made above are valid.

    I didn’t start out to join a megachurch, or any church at all for that matter. I went to Asbury after being invited by a friend. The pastor was so engaging that I began to come back regularly until my family and I finally joined. The pastor of Asbury probably doesn’t even know my name, but with his sermons he brought me to Jesus. What more could you ask for?

    I believe there are good churches and there are bad churches. I don’t think size is that much of a determining factor.

  • J.S. Clark February 2, 2014, 10:18 AM

    I am skeptical of large churches. Mainly based on the repeating pattern in scripture of the many being contrasted with the few, the warnings of the last days where many will fall from faith/love/sound doctrine.

    That being said, I don’t think they are inherently flawed, but I have serious doubts about the function. I don’t see anything wrong with a big beautiful building if its built in praise to God as the temples were. But the temple seemed to be more the place for gathering the large crowd for “direct worship” (for lack of a better term). Yeshua of course taught there as did the apostles, but I get the impression it was a “small group”, not a central podium at the temple.

    So pie-in-the-sky, I think megachurches would function best as “high feast” congregation centers that a city’s smaller congregations would converge on for feast days.

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