Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, and Mega-Churces

About 10 years ago I was shocked to hear my parents hated the movie “You’ve Got Mail”. As far as I could tell it was an inoffensive, bland and mediocre copy-cat of every other Meg Ryan movie. Nothing to love, but nothing to hate. It seemed the movie’s dilemma, of a small bookstore being threatened by a large national chain, hit a little too close to home. My dad is a bi-vocational pastor (that means he has two jobs) of a tiny country church in a growing suburban area. At the time my parents were feeling quite threatened by the great number of mega-churches that were overshadowing their long established family church of 50 people.

I attend ROCKHARBOR. A church that host between 5,000 – 6,000 worshipers of Jesus every week. When I first started attending, the church only had 1,500 people and rented space in the cafeteria of a local Senior Citizen’s Center. After a couple of years we were finally able to get our own location. We quickly doubled in about 9 months and then doubled again in another 12-18 months. Before we knew it we had become yet another Mega-Church in Southern California. After doubling the number of worship services offered over the weekend, the elders of the church decided to cap our growth at 6,000 and turned down opportunities for bigger venues and larger worship centers. We’re now focusing on ways to create more churches like us.

I’m both surprised and not surprised at the criticisms people have of Mega-Churches. Like any large entity they bring upon themselves a lot of attention and scrutiny. To be sure there are problems and challenges from having such a large congregation (as there are problems and challenges with every sized congregation). Often I hear that people can’t conceive of having any sort of community in such a crowd of people. How do you get to know anyone? Because of this obvious problem I think Mega-Churches as a whole actually do a much better job of forming community. People have to be intentional about it and Mega-Churches have extensive networks of small groups to make this happen. I have been in just about every size church and I can honestly say that I have never experienced authentic community quite as well as I have since I’ve been part of ROCKHARBOR. The way my small group over the years has sought to “love one another” has been nothing but inspiring. That is probably not true for everyone who attends. With a congregation as large as it is, it’s easy for people to slip in an out without being known. But for those who want to be in community with other believers, I think it is a vibrant place to be.

Another criticism I hear is that the preaching must be watered down to bring in that number of people. The cynic scoffs that people only show up in those numbers if they are hearing a feel-good message that leaves them content with their current lives. That is certainly true of some Mega-Churches. I think it’s also true of a proportionate number of smaller churches. I think one of the reasons my church has grown so much is precisely because it challenges people to pursue holiness and righteousness and to leave the brokenness the world offers behind. If you doubt me, go to this link and type either “sex” or “money” into the search field.

In all of my years as a Christian, I have never met as many new converts who have genuinely changed their lives as I have at ROCKHARBOR.

The third critique I often hear against Mega-Churches is that they don’t follow the New Testament model of house churches. I think this is an often spoken statement that doesn’t at all consider the environment of persecution that the New Testament churches existed in. Take a look at these passages from Acts.

Acts 2:41
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Acts 4:4
But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.

It seems to me that the early church was a Mega-Church and would have continued to grow as one if it had not been for the stoning of Stephen and subsequent persecution.

One of the beauties I think Mega-Churches have to offer is the ability for people to focus on their gifts. Those who excelled at preaching and teaching are allowed to focus on it and don’t have to figure out budgets. Those who excel at mercy can devote their time to it and don’t have to set up chairs and print programs. Those who excel at art can focus on it and don’t have to mind the nursery. Excellence can be sought and achieved because all the parts of the body are present. In fact, once again looking at Acts, the apostles set up deacons so that they too could focus on preaching. Very few people could preach with the passion and knowledge of Peter, so he was allowed to go on preaching while others took care of the widows among them. In the same way, very few people can preach with the excellence that our teaching pastor offers. So we allow him to continue to focus and develop that gift instead of pretending we all have it.

I don’t by any means think that the Mega-Church model is the only right model for a church. I confess that there are a great many problems with it. But in the same light I don’t think there is anything holier about small churches. Both fill culturally relevant ways of worshiping Jesus, and that is what I think all churches should be judged on. How well do they worship Jesus and transform people to be more like Him? I hope to see a greater number of Mega-Churches AND smaller churches as long as they both serve Christ.

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27 thoughts on “Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, and Mega-Churces

  1. “The third critique I often hear against Mega-Churches is that they don’t follow the New Testament model of house churches.”

    I don’t really consider this much of a critique really. No reason why churches today have to follow the Book of Acts exactly in detail.

    Another critique I’ve heard from some evangelical curmudgeon blogs is of all the fancy high-tech gadgetry accompanying Sunday services. Massive multi-media screens, booming sound systems, radio-ready power-ballads…

    Never been in a mega church before. The closest thing we have in my neck of the woods is a building about the size of a standard high school down the street with a large enough parking lot, that I imagine they must have over 2000 worshippers – maybe more (which would be more than I’ve ever experienced outside of Conference gatherings).

  2. Megachurches are certainly easy to pick on, but as Tim’s post indicates, there are also many positive aspects to them. Although I’m LDS, I have relatives on both sides of my family who attend megachurches, as well as a few friends, so I have had occasion to visit them. I don’t know if my experiences are typical, but here are 10 of my observations:

    1. My first observation is one that surprised even me. LDS churches are often accused of enforcing a sort of cultural uniformity about things that are irrelevant to the gospel, such as men wearing white shirts. A few months ago I went to a megachurch just down the street, and I found it even more culturally uniform than my LDS ward. I went to a Saturday night worship service, and of some 600 people present, two other LDS people I attended with and I were the only ones, male or female, who weren’t wearing blue jeans. I kid you not. Yes, you may feel out of place (and that’s unfortunate) if you attend an LDS service wearing something other than Sunday best, but there are more attending a typical sacrament meeting in my ward not wearing the “LDS uniform” than there were in that megachurch not wearing that church’s “uniform.”

    What that means, I’m not sure, and the last megachurch I attended wasn’t quite that way (although there still less diversity of appearance than in my LDS ward). What all that means I’m not sure, and such details are often the first things people notice.

    A few years ago I went to a megachurch wearing a tie, and I was mistaken for an usher.

    2. All of the megachurches I attended had pastors who were excellent speakers in terms of delivery. But all of them also had sermons that seemed pretty light on theological content. Just like many LDS speakers often look for scriptural selections or General Conference quotes to support what they had to say, these pastors pulled Bible verses out of context to support what they had to say. I was disappointed. They didn’t seem to offer a lot more meaningful than someone you’d see on the Oprah show would, but they had a few Bible verses thrown in. Gospel lite, I thought.

    3. The churches I visited seem to do an excellent job of providing small groups for a wide variety of people. And, according to what I’ve been told, some of these groups gave people real help with dealing with problems such as addictions and lifestyle issues. That’s something that the LDS church doesn’t do a very good job at; if you’re struggling with, say, alcoholism, there’s not a good place in the church structure where you can talk with anyone about it, and that’s extremely unfortunate.

    The LDS church often seems to give the impression that you’re welcome only if you’re “good enough,” while these megachurches give the impression that you’re welcome to come regardless. I’m not sure how well these impressions align with reality in either case; I know a struggling person in my ward who is well accepted despite his issues, and I know of one person who was removed from her “calling” in a megachurch over an issue that probably wouldn’t have caused problems in an LDS congregation. But my guess is that a typical person dealing with lifestyle issues is going to get more help dealing with them in a megachurch than in an LDS church.

    4. I found it interesting that for being so “cutting edge” how uniform the services were in the megachurches I’ve attended. All of them started out with about half an hour of congregational singing to a praise band. They’d spend about 20 minute with upbeat songs, then slow down to some serious-thinking-type songs, then have a half-hour sermon. In this sense, the worship service is every bit as ritualized as you’ll find at an LDS sacrament meeting or a Catholic mass. I’m not saying this is either good or bad (there’s something to be said about knowing what to expect); I just found it a bit surprising how alike the services were.

    5. These churches seemed to focus more attention on the pastor, and revered him more, than I would feel comfortable with. I got the impression that the popularity of the church would rise and fall with the popularity of the pastor, and that rubs me the wrong way. Indeed, this is what happened in the Colorado church where Ted Haggard preached; once he was forced to leave, the church struggled and had to make serious budget cuts. In the LDS church we do revere our prophet, but that is based more on his role than on his personality, even with someone as well liked as Gordon B. Hinckley.

    6. From what I’ve seen, the youth programs of these churches seemed overly focused on non-spiritual things, and they seemed to be trying too hard to be cool. This probably isn’t typical, but I read a few months ago about megachurches that were using adult-rated video games to attract teen boys to their youth groups, and that sounds to me like priorities are messed up.

    7. One of the megachurches in my city is a leader in community service. Although it is part of a national denomination it is very much locally run, and that allows it to do all sorts of things that you’d never be able to do within the LDS bureaucracy.

    8. I like contemporary Christian music; I wish LDS churches weren’t so bound to using a certain type of music because that’s what they used in Joseph Smith’s day. But the megachurches I’ve visited squander their music capabilities, in my opinion. It seemed like nearly all the songs they sing are ridiculously simple and repetitive; I could have written some of those songs on the back of a napkin while sitting in McDonald’s.

    9. I find it interesting that many megachurches seem to go out of the way to hide their denominational affiliation.

    10. In one of the churches I attended, the sermon and printed materials available at the church were quite politically oriented. As one with Democratic leanings, I definitely appreciate the fact that, despite some lapses, the LDS church stays out of politics (at least outside Utah) and doesn’t tell us wht to think politically.

  3. Seth, innovation and technology have historically always been opposed in Christianity. As much has been said against pipe organs as video effects. And the concern has some legitimate points. What we use to help us worship should never replace who we worship.

    Eric, Much of what you had to point out has nothing to do with the size of a church as the culture of a church. I can find just as many 300 member churches that are too political and have sappy music as Mega-Churches.

    As far as uniforms, there are a couple of churches that we joke about members needing to buy Hawaiian shirts before attending. It’s true, all churches have cultures and conformities and it shouldn’t surprise us that similar people join together to worship. I think the question that is more relevant is how and why are those conformities enforced.

    I think being personality-driven is one of the worst things that can come out of Mega-churches. That being said, every church is likely to have financial struggles after their head pastor is caught in scandal regardless of size.

    I think the trend to diminish denominational affiliation is for two reasons. 1) There has been a lot of sin committed in the name of raising the banner of a denomination. Protestants are realizing that and are trying to correct it. The LDS church may not have ever been founded if there hadn’t been so much Protestant squabbling in Upstate New York 170 years ago. 2) Churches don’t want their minors to get in the way of their majors. Mega-churches are typically much more concerned that people start worshiping Jesus than if they become 5 point Calvinist.

  4. Tim,

    Thanks for sharing some insight into your church. My only experience with a mega-church comes from my time in Brazil, with one church in particular, and I am certain that you would be just as disgusted with that church as I was. You make a good case for not judging a church by its size (or growth rate–ahem!), but rather by something that actually matters: how it helps its members to worship God.

    By the way, I would think that watered-down preaching could easily be just as big a problem in smaller churches because their pastors can’t afford to lose even a handful of members.

  5. One thing that LDS need to learn from Mega-Churches is innovation in worship. Mormon services can be unbearably boring and this drive people (like me) to avoid them. Mormons are far too focused on their traditional services and practices and their criticisms of contemporary Christian worship are simply prejudices. I would like to see more innovation in church services and a focus on quality of content.

    The problem I mainly have with Mega-Churches is the tendency for SOME preachers to get huge heads, very rich, and/or ultimately corrupt. The whole priestcraft idea. Tele-evangelists , TBN, and Ted Haggard, churches that focus on tearing down other religious beliefs (Calvary Chapel) give other more sincere, gospel focused communities a bad name. However, when there is money and power running around there is a natural tendency toward corruption.

    Mormons totally avoid this by taking money and politics out of the equation. Bishops have nothing really to gain by being bishops, except some status in the Mormon community, and it usually is a huge time burden. Most people don’t aspire to be bishops or stake presidents.

    However, because the church is not run by professionals, who survive in office because they have preaching ability, the quality of the Sunday experience is not nearly as compelling as in many churches with great preachers.

    In some ways I would be more motivated to attend services at church like Rock Harbor than at a lot of Mormon wards simply because people are excited about coming and excited about being there.

    The mormon attitude is that people should suffer through church, badly prepared boring lessons, banal talks, etc. simply because its important to support the person giving the lesson, and any criticism is very bad form. Most of what is taught in sacrament meetings is “gospel-lite” or simply “gospel-Cliché” . There should be a better balance between helping people become better teachers and making sure there is quality of teaching.

    There is nothing in the gospel that says that church should be boring.

  6. I’m as disgusted by prosperity teachers and TBN as anybody.

    As a contrast, Rick Warren refunded his church all of his past salary after his book became a best seller. He still lives in the same house. There are a number of well known Christian teachers that live on 10% of their income and/or send all of their royalties to a non-profit.

    I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that Mormons totally take the money out of it. There are people being paid to run the LDS church just as there is in every other church. It’s just that they aren’t at the local level.

  7. Tim,

    True enough, a select few leaders of the worldwide church are paid stipends, as far as I know, we don’t know how much. But they recieve set amounts, and I can’t imagine they are lavish. And they don’t depend on how many people join the church that year. I think having your sallary depend on how many people come to your church adds an inherently corrupting aspect to your motives in trying to share the gospel and convert, wouldn’t you agree?

    I applaud those who you mentioned who give back their past salaries or give all proceeds to charity. In the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, I hope they are in the majority.

  8. I think Mormons are overly prejudiced against preachers who make money. Money doesn’t necessarily make anybody less committed to the Gospel or corrupt, compensation often makes people more dedicated and focused to do well and teach better. I don’t think its inherently corrupting. As a capitalist, I generally think you get better products when the producers are paid well for producing them. You just have to be careful.

    Money is involved in the church at the highest level but it doesn’t come into play within the members who worship as Mormons. There is zero money motivation within the church except, maybe, at the highest levels of the church. The church funds a decent standard of living for Apostles but that is basically minuscule compared to how much the church is worth. Generally, for better or for worse, General Authorities are chosen that are somewhat independently wealthy or can maintain their standard of living without much assistance from the church (or could make more money outside the church).

    Church employees and general authorities are basically paid at government employee levels.

  9. For those interested, here is an interesting story about a white minister in a black church that addresses a lot of issues about different styles of worship and motivation for preaching the gospel professionally.

    This is an hour long radio show and I am referring to the last story…”Act Four”

    http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=202

  10. I also don’t understand the deep aversion to a paid ministry—at the local or general level. I can see why it just wouldn’t work in the LDS Church, because we believe in leaders being called by prophecy, etc.—in other words, no one aspires to be a _____ in the LDS Church. Some Mormons mistakenly think that we are theologically opposed to paid ministers, but I just don’t see it.

    Anyway, plenty of Mormons base their entire career on selling their preaching at firesides, in books, etc.

  11. I think you guys are also overlooking all of the paid employees in the COB, CES, MTC, Church Archives, BYU and Mission Presidents. The General Authorities and Apostles are not the only ones getting paid.

    Church employees and general authorities are basically paid at government employee levels.
    Same is true of most Evangelical churches and organizations if not less than government levels. You don’t get into it to make loads of cash. The % of Protestant ministers who are making a lot of money is really really small. The % who are making just as much as they would in the secular sector is pretty small too.

    I think having your sallary depend on how many people come to your church adds an inherently corrupting aspect to your motives in trying to share the gospel and convert, wouldn’t you agree?

    Sure. I don’t think I’ve actually ever heard of someone having that salary structure though.

  12. A ton of church workers get some compensation. But on a member-pastor level money has no part. The only salaried church workers that have ecclesiastical authority are General Authorities, to some extant Mission Presidents.

    My dad is a mission president and gets an apartment and a church car to drive and some money to cover expenses, but he took a huge pay-cut and big risk to leave his career for 3 years.

    My point is that money does not have anything to do with personal motivation for service or performance on how the member practices religion and how the ecclesiastical authorities run congregations.

    As the church has gotten more wealthy they have asked less money from members. Money does come into play on an institutional level lately because congregations are budgeted money from Salt Lake according to the number of people that attend vs. the number of members.

  13. Often I hear that people can’t conceive of having any sort of community in such a crowd of people. How do you get to know anyone? Because of this obvious problem I think Mega-Churches as a whole actually do a much better job of forming community.

    While I have no experience whatsoever with “mega-churches” this comment did strike me – and my advanced apologies if this is too far off-topic, and for the rambling, but you’ve got me thinking about community and churches…

    I grew up LDS, in the throngs of suburban Salt Lake and southeastern Idaho… I remember a talk, maybe 10 years ago, by some LDS Church person who said that instead of referring to people in our wards as being “from the ward” we should say that they were from our “neighborhood” because that would be more easily understood by “outsiders” and, for the most part, people in your ward are generally your literal neighbors. So, this was an easy exercise in word replacement, and I never really thought about it.

    After the first couple times I attended a non-LDS church one of the differences I immediately noticed was that no one in the congregation actually lived in the phyical neighborhood where the church was located. In fact, some people, including the pastor, lived quite far from the church. This, to me, creates an entirely different idea of community that the LDS folks don’t quite have. Sure, you can have Stake activities and whatnot, but you still don’t have folks from all corners of town coming out for worship or other functions.

  14. Actually the word “ward” is originally a term describing a political division within an urban area. Joseph Smith originally viewed the structure of the church as being modeled after the “City of Zion.” Nauvoo is as close as he ever got to this vision. So the original LDS ward was conceptualized, not as a method for gathering church members together in worship, but as a societal and political entity. The origins of the “ward” are expressly political.

    That’s probably why there’s a bit of cognitive disconnect whenever you try to conceptualize a ward as primarily a vehicle for worship. Normally, it hasn’t been. It may be growing more and more that way, but originally the ward was a social planning experiment.

  15. By the way, there is still a popular apocalyptic LDS belief that once Christ returns to reign on the earth, political and Church governance among Mormons will be merged as one. The ward WILL be the base political unit of society.

  16. This has been a fascinating thread, and one that I wish all Mormons could read. Is it just sick irony that Mormons have a sense of elitism because of the unpaid local ministry? I’ve recently become acquainted with the pastor of an Evangelical congregation here in Utah. He is one of the most sincere, honest, intelligent, and Christlike people that I know. Had I met him eight years ago, when I was a missionary, I probably would have dismissed him as another “paid corrupt minister.” His congregation is relatively small, but for the sake of Christians desiring true worship around here, I hope it outgrows its movie theater setting. He gets paid for preaching, and he ought to–he dedicates his life to it.
    Thanks for the fruitful thoughts and discussion, Tim.

  17. I taught a couple of persons who went to ROCKHARBOR while I was in SoCal and met quite a few others. When I was in the Fullerton Singles Branch, a few individuals from ROCKHARBOR came to attend our meetings (I think they told me they were having a “class” on Mormonism). I ended up teaching a class just for them where they could discuss and ask questions afterwards. The leader of the group was named Rich as I recall (he had studied Philosophy at Talbot to the best of my recollection). The reason they drove so far is because I have a good friend (who I still stay in contact with) who went to ROCKHARBOR (she has since moved away) and would come to our branch semi-frequently and meet with us (the missionaries) when she had time.

  18. Don’t forget that the function of ministry is not only preaching. Ministers need to be able to, well, minister–to provide counseling, pastoral care, etc. Having someone be paid to do that means they can give all their time to it, and are actually trained in that kind of thing.

    Psychiatrists and social workers get paid, and nobody thinks its a problem, or that they would do better work if they were entirely amateur.

    Another thing Mormons need to remember is this: very few Protestant churches vest final authority in their pastors/ministers. Almost always, there is a vestry or a presbytery or some kind of elected body in the congregation that the minister has to answer to. The minister doesn’t determine his own salary, for example–budgeting is set by the vestry.

    So although it’s easy to imagine all kinds of pastoral abuses in the Mormon priesthood structure if money came into the equation, there are typically some major checks in the system in Protestant congregations.

  19. Tim,

    “Sure. I don’t think I’ve actually ever heard of someone having that salary structure though.”

    My mistake then, I guess I am somewhat ingorant of the common forms of compensation for evangelical miniters. I was under the impression that the mega-churches were primarily a pay-based-on-attendance type of system. If I am wrong (which is more likely than not 😉 ) then it is a moot point.

  20. yeah, that’s a really insidious accusation. If you hear other LDS saying that’s the way it is, you need to correct it. I think I can safely estimate that 99.5% of paid pastors are given an annual salary plus benefits and that doesn’t change based on attendance.

    It can be though that if attendance significantly drops the church can no longer afford to pay the pastor.

  21. My understanding was that the Protestant clergy aren’t well paid enough actually. Bankruptcy is actually a growing problem in the job group.

  22. Jared C. said: “One thing that LDS need to learn from Mega-Churches is innovation in worship. Mormon services can be unbearably boring and this drive people (like me) to avoid them. Mormons are far too focused on their traditional services and practices and their criticisms of contemporary Christian worship are simply prejudices.

    Amen.

    Jared C. also said: “Most of what is taught in sacrament meetings is “gospel-lite” or simply “gospel-Cliché” . There should be a better balance between helping people become better teachers and making sure there is quality of teaching. There is nothing in the gospel that says that church should be boring.

    I agree with much of what you say. Some of that comes from having a lay ministry, and some of it comes from the size of our congregations. A church that can pay somebody full-time or even half-time to be in charge of music is obviously going to consistently provide higher quality. And someone who is trained to speak is probably going to be a better speaker.

    Years ago, before I became LDS, I attended a fair number of Protestant churches that weren’t megachurches, churches with, say, 150 or so in attendance (about the size of the wards I’ve been in). The “quality” of the preaching on the average wasn’t any better than a prepared sacrament talk. Some preachers preached well, some didn’t.

    And size, too, affects the quality of music. My ward has almost no musical talent (which is still more than I have). But I’ve visited some large wards (ones with 400 in attendance) that did an outstanding job with music.

    Kullervo said: “So although it’s easy to imagine all kinds of pastoral abuses in the Mormon priesthood structure if money came into the equation, there are typically some major checks in the system in Protestant congregations.

    From what I’ve seen and known personally about, the paid ministry doesn’t create much of a problem in Protestant churches, and I don’t see it as inherently evil, even though I’ve come to appreciate the lay ministry. The “prosperity gospel” preachers and others who abuse their status are a minority. And the Protestant pastors whom I have known as friends certainly weren’t overpaid.

  23. Tim said: “I think I can safely estimate that 99.5% of paid pastors are given an annual salary plus benefits and that doesn’t change based on attendance.

    It’s a common belief among LDS that Protestant pastors are paid based on percentage of the receipts and/or attendance. I’ve come to defense of Protestants more than once when I’ve heard search a thing.

  24. First of all Mormons don’t mean to be elitist, they are completely naive about the politics and financial gains in their church. Which I am sure Dr. Lowrey would be happy to comment on at length.

    They are taught at church to feel pride about having an untrained and unpaid ministry in their church in hopes that they never actually think it through… For if they did they might feel taken advantage of.

    I feel sorry that so many Mormons just trudge through their Sunday services. When we were Mormons we would bring our enthusiasm with us… I never went to a sacrament meeting that didn’t give me the opportunity to reflect on the important things in my life.

    If Mormons would just smile a bit and sing the hymns louder and with conviction, they would be surprised by how their Wards can change.

    Then as for mega churches.

    The one thing about them I don’t like is that most of the people have to drive to get to them, which means people are missing out on sitting in the pews with their actual neighbors. I feel that this type of interaction is good for our towns, unless there is only one denomination.

  25. ironically, I live 1/4 of a mile from one of the largest churches in the country. It IS my local neighborhood church. That’s not true of 90% of the people in the congregation though.

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