When it comes to churches, is bigger really better? There is a common assumption among church leaders and church attendees, that the bigger the church is, the better they are doing. More members, a bigger budget, a new building, additional programs, and better technology are commonly seen as really good things. But are they really?
What is a Megachurch?
The common definition of a megachurch is a church that has 2,000 or more in attendance each week. The megachurch mentality is more than just numbers, however. The majority of churchgoing Americans attend a church with 200 or fewer members. Nonetheless, it is the megachurch model that many churches claim as their pattern. The megachurch mentality involves a certain leadership, a kind of personality, a plan for growth and expansion, and a set of goals and priorities, dreams and aspirations.
The Influence of Megachurches Today
The megachurch movement is over a generation old. Reactionary movements such as the Emerging Church movement have appeared. Yet the megachurch still holds profound influence on the American church landscape. Megachurch pastors hold the most TV airtime, write the most popular Christian books, and affect more church leaders than any other single group of people. The megachurch is not dead.
Is the Megachurch Good or Bad?
Is the megachurch, or the megachurch mentality a good thing? Surely, many megachurches have many things to commend them. However, megachurches—and the thinking that affects megachurch wannabes—have several pitfalls. Here are some of them—and how to avoid them.
Megachurches often to place an improper emphasis on size and numbers to the neglect of spiritual development.
God has given us His plan for church growth, which has nothing to do with numbers. “The building up of the body of Christ” is true church ‘growth,’ which results in attaining…to mature manhood” (Eph. 4:12-13). The growth of the church should first of all be spiritual, not numerical. In an effort to avoid this numbers-game pitfall, church leaders must prioritize spiritual growth above numbers growth. In addition, they should be hesitant to expand the church’s numerical size without accompanying growth on the spiritual level.
Megachurches can allow individual members to get lost in the crowd, thus neglecting the specific needs of specific people.
The church is about member fellowship (Acts 2:42-47). In the biblical model of church interaction, members should be active serving one another, loving each other, and ministering to one anther’s spiritual needs. In a megachurch, it is possible for someone to slip in for the service and leave, without forming relationships, exercising his or her gifts, or experiencing the ministry of other members. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest dangers of the megachurch model. The larger the church, the easier it is to forsake one of the most important aspects of church life. To overcome this danger, churches should work hard at member interaction, perhaps developing a small group program to involve people in small, tight-knit groups for fellowship and spiritual development.
Megachurches tend to foster an entertainment model for church, rather than properly emphasizing involvement and interaction.
Megachurches are usually really good at what they do. They’ve got top-notch musicians, expensive A/V equipment, plush seating, amazing architecture, talented speakers, engaging drama, advanced technological accoutrements, and even good coffee served fresh in the lobby. But does all of this really foster spiritual growth? Some would say, “yes.” Others would question that claim, since it is easy for a member to be lulled into the entertainment of the experience rather than the spiritual impact of the service. Sitting back and enjoying the show is not what church is to be about. Megachurches must strive to involve members in ministry and focus on spiritual development, not just a great show.
Megachurches are often built and organized based on the interests and desires of the attendees, rather than the biblical paradigm of churches.
The flagship megachurch is Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, Illinois. Under the leadership of Bill Hybels, Willow Creek skyrocketed in population during the 80s and 90s, forming a blueprint of how to do megachurch. How did Willow Creek get as big as they did—to 23,000 attendees? One of the ways was by matching the church to the desires of their potential community. Prior to the founding of the church, Hybels and his associates spent months surveying the neighborhoods around South Barrington, discovering what people liked and didn’t like about church, music, worship styles, and traditional religion. The result of their survey was a guide for what Willow Creek was going to look like. The plan worked, bringing in thousands of new attendees each week. Unfortunately, with such a seeker-sensitive plan for church, it is easy to neglect the biblical model and priorities of doing church. Sure, the Bible provides some flexibility for how churches should function and operate, but a church should be careful not to allow the preferences of its constituency to alter the biblical model of church.
Though there is nothing inherently sinful or wrong about megachurches, we should occasionally stop to think about whether the megachurch mentality is really the way of doing church. We know that the early church grew by thousands, and those thousands were added to the church (Acts 2:41; Acts 4:4). However, there is more evidence to suggest that the “church” was a loosely organized collection of smaller house churches, not a massive single megachurch. Whatever our stance on the megachurch model, let us be sure that we make the Bible our touchstone for church growth.