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