Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Reply to Megachurches


This post is an OpEd piece that was published in the Louisville Courier-Journal December 29, 2006. I wrote this as a reply to a pair of front-page articles in the Courier about megachurches, which in our area means Southeast Christian Church and a handful of others. You can certainly disagree with me, but I think it's time we think very carefully about the negative implications of the megachurch movement. But you can read on to see for yourself why I think this way . . . oh, and notice the irony of the title the Courier placed on this OpEd.

Small churches make news, too

By David Charlton
Special to The Courier-Journal

As the pastor of a church, I read with great interest the pair of front-page articles about megachurches in the Nov. 26 issue of The Courier-Journal. The articles provided a powerful reminder of the tremendous impact megachurches are having upon our society.

As megachurches increasingly influence both the religious and political agenda of our country, they are redefining what it means to be Christian and a church member in America, and there are some troubling implications to consider.

One of those implications is the damage suffered by all of the smaller churches that serve as the source of members for megachurches. The sheer size of megachurches creates an illusion of church growth that is not entirely accurate.

Though one of the articles quoted a researcher as saying growth in megachurches is occurring as many smaller congregations are dwindling, there was a failure to note the connection between the growth of the megachurches and the corresponding decrease of many other congregations.

A large portion of the growth of megachurches -- perhaps the majority -- comes as a direct result of people moving from smaller to larger congregations. A survey of churches in the Louisville region would probably find that most congregations have lost some members to one or more of the megachurches in the area.

The result of this shift has been the decimation of countless smaller churches and the decline of community-based congregations. Just as more and more businesses succumb to the "big box" retailers, increasing numbers of small churches are losing members to the "big box" churches. And just as the loss of local businesses hurts neighborhoods, so does the decline of local churches that serve the communities in which they are based.

A less obvious, but perhaps more troubling implication of the rise of megachurches, is the creation of the "religious consumer." A religious consumer mentality, encouraged by the sheer range of options and activities at megachurches, is reshaping the mission and function of churches as prospective members "shop" for a church the same as they would shop for a place to get their hair cut or buy their groceries.

As the religious consumer shops for a congregation that will offer the widest range of choices for his family, he is asking, essentially, what will the church do for me?

This consumerism fuels the rise in coffee bars, "family life centers" that are basically religious health clubs, and a full schedule of activities to keep every member of the family busy.

While effective in attracting members, these may have little to do with the central mission of the church, which is to encourage people to be followers of Jesus and his way of life. Jesus said he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 10:39), reflecting an attitude in direct opposition to the spiritual consumer mentality that asks, "How will I be served?" -- rather than, "How can I serve others?"

This religious consumerism would certainly be alien to the persecuted early church followers, who worshipped in secret among the decaying flesh of Rome's catacombs. Such difficult conditions, rather than being an impediment to growth, fueled the explosive growth in the early centuries of the church.

Perhaps the church in modern America would do well to consider the lesson from the early church: that it is challenge and the giving away of one's self, and not comfort or activities, that ultimately grows churches.

Bigger, while helpful in attracting media attention and members, is not always better.

Finally, one could question whether the paucity of articles about small churches is indicative of a belief at The Courier that nothing newsworthy happens in such congregations. As media attention is often equated with significance, it is important to note that countless numbers of small churches faithfully serve their communities every day, gaining no attention except from those they serve.

While that service may not make headlines, it certainly makes an incalculable difference in the lives of millions of people.

David Charlton is pastor of the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Ky. He is a 2006 Forum Fellow.


3 comments:

Merrily said...

David, let me try to respond to your piece. You state: “One of those implications is the damage suffered by all of the smaller churches that serve as the source of members for mega-churches.” And you state: A large portion of the growth of mega-churches—perhaps the majority—comes as a direct result of people moving from smaller to larger congregations.

The damage suffered is a dramatic statement that in my opinion blames the mega churches for the failure of smaller churches to reach people for Christ. The average church in America is 85 people. It reaches 1 person for Christ per 100 people in attendance. That means less than 1 person per year is coming to Christ. In the average church in America. 50% of all churches led no one to Christ this past year. Is the Mega-church taking the people who would lead someone to Christ in the small church and that is why they are not? Is the mega-church responsible for this or is the smaller church and it’s leadership? You site the growth of mega-churches is from the small church. But of the small church is not reaching anyone for Christ, yet sustaining numbers even despite the loss of people to the mega church, where are those people coming from. The answer, from other churches. The small church benefits just as much, if not more from member transfer than the mega-church. http://theamericanchurch.org/

Your article states that one implication of the Mega church is the “the creation of the religious consumer.” All people are consumers. The mega-church did not “create” the religious consumer. This phenomenon is just as prevalent in a small church as a mid sized church and in a large church or a mega-church. You show no evidence that the mega-church created the consumer as you state. What if sin created the consumer?

What if my neighbors desire to see his kids find safe, healthy activities and his marriage to be healed and the addiction to alcohol broken could be met in a church that had the ability to offer programs designed for kids during the week and a ministry for struggling couples and a recovery ministry? Is it the Mega churches feeding the consumer or is it the mega churches meeting a need a church of 85 cannot?

Your article states: The result of this shift has been the decimation of countless smaller churches and the decline of community-based congregations. Just as more and more businesses succumb to the “big box” retailers, increasing numbers of small churches are losing members to the “big box” churches. And just as the loss of local businesses hurts neighborhoods, so does the decline of local churches that serve the communities in which they are based. Could it be that the decimation of smaller churches is not the fault of the Mega church but the fault of leaders who have lost God’s vision to reach people for Christ, grow them to maturity and then empower them to lead? Could it be that the smaller church primarily seeks to grow people to maturity while talking about reaching people for Christ?

David, your piece states implications of the mega church but those implications are all negative and can be directly attributed to other factors. In fact it is my belief that other factors are more to cause than the mega-church but the mega church is easier to blame. That is what I felt your piece did. The responses here on MMI were in answer to Todd’s question. s this a fair treatise of the ‘mega-church’? Or is it a public whine session from the pastor of a smaller church? So our responses while not to your piece directly are to Todd’s question.

I guess you could say I disagree with you on some points here.

Merrily said...

Sorry David, My wife was logged in and I ended up posting under her name. It should say Leonard but I do not know how to fix the problem.

Jason said...

David, contrary to the mega-church apologist that posted before me I believe you are right on the money with this piece.

I've done the mega-church and the small church through the years and inevitably the mega-churches turn into nothing more than numbers games and how big can they get. It's not about reaching one lost person for Christ....it's "How can we reach 10,000 people today?" The focus on the sheep is lost in the view of the herd. It's sad.