Sunday, March 30, 2008

My love / hate relationship with megachurches

For nine years before I became an Episcopal priest, I was a Baptist minister, serving part of that time on the staff of Bellevue Baptist Church, in Memphis, Tennessee, which was then one of the largest congregations in the United States. The late Dr. Adrian Rogers was the senior pastor under whose ministry I was licensed and ordained. Adrian Rogers died a little over two years ago, but you can still hear his broadcasts on Christian radio stations in many cities; and his ministry continues at Love Worth Finding. I will always be indebted for what I learned during those years at Bellevue.

Many people I know today speak derisively of "megachurches" and attribute their tremendous growth to gimmics and shallow preaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truly great megachurches have reached their present size through: (1) articulate, relevant, biblically faithful preaching; (2) effective ministries for children and youth; (3) small groups to help men and women grow in personal discipleship. Congregations of any size could benefit from doing these things.

It is not that megachurches are perfect. Far from it. Being relatively close to the Chicago area, it has been easy to follow developments at one of the best known megachurches in America: Willow Creek, where, occasionally, I have benefitted greatly from the exceptional preaching of two teaching pastors: Gene Appel and Mike Breaux. In November 2007, Willow Creek announced that Mike Breaux would be leaving to become a teaching pastor at Heartland Community Church, which has two campuses in Rockford, Illinois, and one in Madison, Wisconsin. This was a natural and logical step, since Mike Breaux had been close to the folks at Heartland for quite some time.

In January 2008, Willow Creek announced that Gene Appel and Randy Frazee would be leaving Willow Creek to pursue other opportunities. Randy Frazee, who had only been at Willow Creek for 2 years, is becoming Senior Pastor at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, where Max Lucado has had a remarkable ministry for many years. Gene Appel resigned from Willow Creek without indicating where he would move next. The announcement of their departure should have been made by Senior Pastor Bill Hybels; instead it was made (as another commentator noted) by a relatively little known and seldom seen elder. This past Wednesday night, I was at Willow Creek for Gene Appel's last time to teach there. Again, a group of elders prayed for Gene and said farewell. Bill Hybels was nowhere to be seen.

Another megachurch pastor I know had a showdown with his elders last year and barely survived a vote by his congregation to remove the entire pastoral leadership of the church. He spoke about sitting with his wife in a quiet corner of a restaurant for a long time one afternoon, trying to work through the pain of ministering in "this thing called the church."

One very large thing for which I would fault megachurches is their tendency to treat people--expecially pastoral staff and their gifts--as mere commodities to be used when they are helpful and discarded when they cease to be so.

While still living in Memphis, my wife and I were drawn to Calvary Episcopal Church. It was a startling and intriguing contrast to see the way they valued people. This was a historic, prestigious, "old-money" kind of parish, yet their loving outreach and genuine inclusion made everyone feel welcome. A farm family from the outskirts of Memphis was as much a part of the congregation as some of Memphis' wealthiest families. A child with Down's Syndrome was loved and embraced by the whole congregation. The parish welcomed street people who would have been escorted off the premises by security guards at the Baptist church where I had served.

But guess what: this church wasn't perfect either. A radical view of inclusion led some to condone the sin along with loving the sinner. A cultural experience of Christianity supplanted a serious pursuit of true discipleship and personal holiness.

So, amidst all this imperfection, where is the Church to be found? Some think the answer is in Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy. While there is much that I respect in both of these traditions, there are problems also that are too numerous to deal with here.

In a sense, the Church is to be found in all these imperfect places: in megachurches that preach the Word but value numbers more highly than individuals, in parishes that love people but fail to obey Scripture, in churches that struggle with the Leaven of the Pharisees (dead ritualism), in churches that struggle with the Leaven of the Sadducees (unbelief and liberalism), and in churches that display none of these traits but are the victims of the collective imperfections of their all-too-human members. In all these places, the Church is imperfect because it is composed of imperfect people. If I had a congregation of 10,000 people, and they were all just like me, it would still be an imperfect church (wow--would it ever!), because I am imperfect!

But in the midst of all these imperfect places filled with imperfect people, the Holy Spirit indwells a people who are Christ's body on earth. And, despite our feet of clay, he calls us, and loves us, and bids us to serve him. What a glorious mystery!

"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine, He who pastures his flock among the lilies." (Song of Solomon 6:3)

"To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 1:5-6)


Unknown said...

Great, very balanced, post on the whole megachurch issue, Robert. Thanks for that.

Blessings to you and everyone at Nashotah. I still think of my weeklong retreat there in June 05 with great thanksgiving. And I hope to come back!

Craig Higgins

stephseef said...

'One very large thing for which I would fault megachurches is their tendency to treat people--expecially pastoral staff and their gifts--as mere commodities to be used when they are helpful and discarded when they cease to be so.'

Dean Munday - this was certainly my experience when I worked at a mega-church. And I think it's so very sad when people are not the priority. The size of the church enables them to do great ministry... but the size of the church also seems to necessitate more business-like structures that are not people-first or, better yet, Christ-first, and it's people who always pay the price for the corporate. And, when you leave, there's a cursory goodbye, and then the moment you leave, they forget you were there. Heartbreaking, indeed. Thanks for giving us a moment to think of it - and to pray for them!


Tony Hunt said...

I too spent years ministering at a megachurch and among the many things I found to be unsatisfactory was its inability to minister wholisticaly. Sure the pastors preached 'bible based' messages, but if you were to compare the money and energy spent producing a twice a week service to its outreach to the community and care for the discouraged, even within its own community!, the balance would be tipped against its favour. Neither did I find this to be idiosyncratic to this megachurch.

Tregonsee said...

Locally, the mega-churches are referred to as the local branch of "Six Flags over Jesus."