The past few years have seen significant changes in Evangelical Christianity and the institutional church, some coming as a result of the church growth movement. With this movement has come the rise of the mega-church. In 1993 Os Guinness noted that there were over 300 mega-churches in North America, nearly fifty with over 5,000 in attendance, with experts anticipating 500 by the year 2,000. Ten years later (2004) Church Growth Today reported that there were 740 churches with memberships of over 2,000.1
While on the surface this might appear as a positive and encouraging sign in a post-Christian era, there are some very disturbing trends that accompany it. To put it bluntly, the Evangelical Church today has become quite worldly.
When the Mall of America opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1992, the Wooddale Church of Eden Prairie hung out its shingle along with hundreds of other retailers. Its services were described as some of the most enterprising and innovative imaginable! The local press described the sponsoring church as “a kind of mega-mall of suburban soul-saving.”2
While many objected that “a worship service had no more place in a shopping mall than in a bar or nightclub,” Guinness warns: “The problem is not the presence of a church in a mall, but the presence of the mall in the church.” To rephrase: It is one thing for the church to be in the world, but quite another for the world to be in the church! He goes on to explain:
“The natural association of the mega-mall and the three-thousand-member mega-church was precisely what the pastors of Wooddale Church had in mind. The symbolism was perfect: Modern Mega-churches have been built on the philosophical and structural pattern of America's recent shopping malls, which, in turn, have long been described as ‘cathedrals of consumption.’”
Walking a Thin Line
It is good for the church to grow, and there is a place for the mega-church. However, we should qualify this. First, the absence of numerical growth is not necessarily an indication that God is not at work. Secondly, there is more than one type of growth -spiritual as well as numerical. Third, not all growth is good. A tumor is a growth, but it is not healthy. In fact, there are a number of features that characterize many of these churches that are symptomatic of a very unhealthy condition, leaving us to conclude that they are diseased! But before we examine these, we are compelled to ask, What has lead to this state of affairs? While there are many factors, we cite two.
First of all, the church is often called on to walk a very thin line. Jesus spoke of not putting new wine in old wineskins. One application that has been made of this is that the Gospel is the wine - always new and fresh, always relevant. Circumstances change, how-ever. The skins (used to contain the liquid) represent the structures and methods we employ in communicating the Gospel. They grow old, outdated, and irrelevant as circumstances change. Thus, we must walk the thin line of being able to adapt to the changes without compromising the message. Methods change, the message does not. We are to be ‘in’ the world, but not ‘of’ it. Even the best intentions are not a guarantee that one will not cross that line, however, and unfortunately, in their attempts to be relevant, much of evangelicalism has compromised on many of the essentials in the process.3
Secondly, there is the problem of the flesh itself (Paul's term for the old sinful nature). Here motives take on greater prominence. Ideally there are checks and balances that provide for accountability for churches and leaders. However, in the current climate where the church is fragmented into literally hundreds of denominations, and when many churches are independent of any denominational influence, structure, or higher authority, the stage is set for misguided ambition to create monsters.
Misguided - because many have a vision of what the church is to be and do that is altogether unbiblical. Ambitious - because the church often becomes a monument to the ego of the pastor and leadership; little more than an ecclesiastical tower of Babel! 4
If, as we have suggested, much of the growth is unhealthy, what are the symptoms? We isolate seven features that are common to many mega-churches.
- Emphasis is almost exclusively on the local church
- Worldly paradigms become normative
- Pragmatic considerations replace principles
- The individual is sovereign
- Worship is man-centered
- Doctrine is downplayed or distorted
- Discipline is non-existent
First of all, the emphasis is almost exclusively on the local church. The concern is with building up our little corner of the kingdom without regard to the church as a whole or the greater impact of the Kingdom. Again, this is due to the fact that many mega-churches are built around personalities, the mega-pastor.5
Secondly, worldly paradigms become normative. For one thing the church has bought into the idea (borrowed from the business world) that the ‘bottom line’ is what counts the most. Success is gauged in tangible terms - numbers! A church is successful if there is numerical growth. This is the sign of God's blessing. By implication, a church that is not growing numerically is deemed unsuccessful. Chuck Colson comments on this aspect of the movement.
“Cultural values have so captured the church that we equate success with size. It's a reflex reaction. If a church isn’t growing, someone is doing something wrong. . . . According to one Church Growth Movement leader, a minister's performance is measured not by faithfulness to the Gospel but whether ‘the people keep coming and giving.’ With the right strategy, there's no limit to growth; it's simply a matter of finding the right formula. To this end many professional organizations furnish churches the same services commercial marketers or political campaign strategists subscribe to: polls, market studies, message analysis, image making, advertising, and product labeling.
"Church growth has not only become big business; it also emulates big Business. Church growth literature often speaks of products and services and investments: x amount of time and money invested in a particular program will yield y results. Believing that successful business principles can produce similar results for the church, one mega-church sent groups to study firms like IBM, Xerox, and Disney World.” 6
Os Guinness, who describes the mega-church as ‘flirting’ with modernity, writes:
“The two most easily recognizable hallmarks of secularization in America are the exaltation of numbers and of technique. Both are prominent in the mega-church movement at a popular level. In its fascination with statistics and data at the expense of truth, this movement is characteristically modern.
“Some people argue that the emphasis on quantifiable measures - on counting - is the central characteristic of a rationalistic society. Thus the United States has government by polling, television by ratings, sports commentary by statistics, education by grade-point averages, and academic tenure by the number of publications. In such a world of number crunchers, bean counters, and computer analysts, the growth of churches as a measurable, ‘fact-based’ business enterprise is utterly natural.” 7
The author goes on to note that while numerical growth is unquestionably taking place in these churches, it is unimpressive upon closer examination.8 For one thing, numerical growth is no substitute for spiritual growth - something conspicuously absent in many mega-churches. Further, a large part of the growth (some say as much as 80%) is by transfer, not conversion. He cites another author at this point: “Increase of this sort isn't church growth at all. It's just a reshuffling of the same fifty-two cards.” In other words, the numerical benefits of one church comes at the expense of another - typically a smaller struggling congregation who is attempting to be faithful to God. Rather than a spirit of mutual love and support, churches often found themselves in an adversarial and competitive posture. 9 Paul House, in his book, Who Will be Saved?, expresses similar concerns:
"Statistics compiled by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention reveal that as many as half of all the adults baptized in Southern Baptist churches are rebaptisms of persons already baptized by Southern Baptist pastors. Another 40 percent of adults baptized are Christians from other denominations who had never been immersed. Only 10 percent of all adults baptized by Southern Baptists [sic] churches are making first-time professions of faith. Though it is wonderful that many persons are converted after a false start, these statistics cause one to wonder what Southern Baptist churches are teaching about salvation. One also has to wonder if things are all that different in many other denominations." 10
Another result of this mindset is the changing profile of the pastor. Guinness compared studies done in 1934, 1980, and 1986 with respect to the duties of the clergy. In the first, the roles of the pastor are few in number and biblical in content (teaching and preaching, pastoring, leading and administration). In the second his role expanded and grew more secular. In the latter, however, “the differences in expectations between liberals and evangelicals had almost disappeared, that secular expectations grew while the spiritual shrunk, and that the profile was dominated by two sets of considerations - those therapeutic and managerial.” The pastor has become a CEO responsible to manage a business! Consequently, “the disadvantage of the CEO-pastor is that those who live like CEOs are fired like CEOs - and spiritual considerations have as little to do with the ending as with the beginning and the middle.” 11
Third, pragmatic considerations take precedent over principle. Again, if tangible results are indications of success (God's blessing), then we need to do whatever it takes to bring about those results. This means that often times the end justifies the means.
Fourthly, the individual is sovereign. The church has become man-centered. In its effort to be relevant, things got out of hand. Consumerism took over the church. The customer became king! Chuck Colson refers to this as the McChurch mentality. It comes as a result of he variety of choices people have, and the freedom they have in choosing the church they will attend: “Thus, the church becomes just another retail outlet, faith just another commodity.” Leith Anderson describes the scene in today's culture:
“Modern American culture places great emphasis on self, independence, and personal fulfillment. Combined with mobility and uncertainty, these trends make long term commitment seem inappropriate. . . . Once upon a time churches were seen as destinations. When you found the church you wanted to join, you stayed with it through good and bad times. With the present mobility mentality, churchgoers now see specific churches as ‘way stations’ along the journey of life.” 12
Studies indicate that the primary motives for joining or attending church are largely self- centered. Their incentives are not religious - worship, but to meet personal needs, leading one sociologist to speak of a ‘culture of narcissism.’13 Rick Warren, one of the spokesman for the mega-church movement, asserts that “a church will never grow beyond its capacity to meet needs.” This has led to ‘marketing’ the church as one would market any other commodity, and the development of ‘seeker-friendly’ services that are designed to guarantee their satisfaction. The result is, as Guinness observes, that the audience, not the message, is sovereign. The people and their wishes set the agenda for the church. Further, as he observes, “driven by the dictates of consumerism, relevance becomes overheated and vaporizes into trendiness (and) . . . becomes the fast road toward irrelevance.”14 15
In their efforts to be inclusive, churches have contented themselves with ‘zero commitment.’ “We place no demands on you, and expect nothing from you.” However, even secular observers have noted how the demand for ‘feel-good’ religion has had a detrimental impact the church. An article in Newsweek magazine noted that while over 80% of baby-boomers consider themselves ‘religious’ and believe in life after death. . .
“. . . unlike earlier religious revivals, the aim this time is support, not salvation, help rather than holiness, a circle of spiritual equals rather than an authoritative church or guide. A group affirmation of self is at the top of the agenda which is why some of the least demanding churches are now in the greatest demand.” 16
Citing other polls, Colson notes that the lifestyles of professing Christians and those making no profession are almost indistinguishable. Research done by George Gallop found “little difference in the ethical views and behavior of the churched and the un-churched.” “Astonishingly,” Colson continues, “another survey found a deterioration in behavior among those who professed to be born again.”17 This led him to conclude that “while the church may seem to be experiencing a season of growth and prosperity, it is failing to move people to commitment and sacrifice.” Or, in the words of Richard Niebuhr, what we are left with is “a God without wrath (bringing) men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” 18
Five, worship tends to be man-centered. It is reduced to entertainment, with the primary concern being what ones out of it, rather than what he puts into it. Again, Guinness warns that when Saturday Night Live becomes Sunday Morning Live, “the typical church Staff question - after worship becomes ‘How did it go?’” 19
In keeping with this, we have seen the rise of the celebrity syndrome (called the ‘pedestal complex’ by Colson). 20 Dan Schaeffer opens an article in one publication with the question: What do Earl Woods (Tiger Wood's father), John Tesh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Jim Nabors all have in common? Answer: They have all hit the mega-church personality circuit! Big bucks go to big names to bring in big crowds. 21
Six, doctrine is downplayed or distorted. Theology is avoided at all cost in many churches. The focus in preaching has shifted from exposition and theological content to therapeutic advice. In 1990, Kenneth Woodward wrote an article for Newsweek Magazine. Chuck Colson cites him as accusing some clergy of having . . .
As Colson would himself later observe, “This is why the therapeutic gospel we discussed earlier is such a dreadful heresy. It works from the outside in to restore self-esteem by enabling us to adjust to our circumstances; carried far enough, it can lead us to feel good about being bad.” 23
“. . . airbrushed sin out of their language. Having substituted therapy for spiritual discernment, they appeal to a nurturing God who helps His (or Her) people cope. Heaven by this creed is never having to say no to your- self, and God is never having to say ou're sorry.” 22
The result of this absence of doctrinal substance is that the faith of the typical church member is at best superficial, and at worst downright heretical! Biblical literacy is at an all time low, in spite of accessibility to more resources than Christians have ever had in the history of the church. Adherence to the truth claims of the Gospel (Biblical and theological orthodoxy) is deemed unimportant - or worse yet, divisive! What really matters is one's feelings.
As Chris Accardy suggests, “The question is no longer, ‘Does the Bible teach it?’ but ‘Can someone get to heaven without believing it?’” 24 And as Gene Veith remarks, “the downplaying of doctrine and objective thinking helps explain why 53 percent of evangelical Christians can believe that there are no absolutes (as compared to 66 percent of Americans as a whole).” 25 The extent to which the problem has gone is evident in the denial of biblical authority in theory (in the denial of inerrancy), in the embracing of feminist theology, and, perhaps most disturbingly, in the toleration of those holding to views like the ‘openness of God’.
In addition to being deficient in theological comprehension, many evangelical church members exhibit the typical post-modern antipathy for truth itself - as it has been history-ically understood. That is to say, they are irrational. Logic does not apply to matters of faith, if to any area of life. Mega-church pastor Leith Anderson describes the mindset of the baby-buster (post- modern) generation:
“While the baby boomers are tolerant of diversity and comfortable with change, the baby busters are comfortable with contradictions. . . . What they have in Common is that they have little in Common. Their consistency is their inconsistency. They may hold contradictory beliefs, say contradictory things, and feel fine about it. Rather than trying to integrate all aspects of life and philosophy, they select their convictions a la carte.” 26
Elsewhere he described a young man in his church who said that he believed in Reformed theology, the inerrancy of Scripture, and reincarnation! When confronted with the inconsistency, he felt no need to revise his beliefs.27 Objective truth is replaced by the subjecttive, with an emphasis on feelings, likes and dislikes.
Seven, discipline is non-existent. Colson cites Tai Collins, the former Miss Virginia who posed nude in Playboy,. She spoke unashamedly of the church she had joined, and when asked if that would affect her modeling, replied, “I don't think so. I mean, there's a lot of people in my church that have been in Playboy.” 28 While this is an extreme example, the point stands. In the typical mega-church, one is accountable to no one.
In summing up the trends we have described, the authors of The Cambridge Declaration lament the fact that in many churches there has been “a substitution of wholeness for holiness, recovery for repentance, intuition for truth, feeling for belief, chance for providence, and immediate gratification for enduring hope.” The loss of God's centrality in the church has, they conclude, allowed us to “transform worship into entertainment, gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, being good into feeling good about ourselves, and faithfulness into being successful.” 29
But what difference does it make?
First of all, God is glorified to the extent that His Church is faithful to its calling, and dishonored when it is not. It matters to Him!
The second consequence of a compromised church is that the individual church member suffers. He is deprived of the spiritual benefit that should come from the church that, in belief and practice, is grounded in Scripture, and where he is held accountable. He becomes a casualty in the process.
The third casualty is the church itself. On the surface the evangelical world is “humming like a finely tuned machine.” It is highly prosperous and highly successful, at least in its own eyes. However, as David Wells notes, “Evangelical abundance on the surface, and boundless evangelical energy, conceals a spiritual emptiness beneath it,” leading him to conclude that a major crisis is in the making. Spiritual life is always flowing and ebbing, he notes; the tide comes in, and then it goes out. His conclusion: “I believe that the spiritual tide in the evangelical world has begun to go out.” 30 The church is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.
The fourth consequence is the impact on the larger society. The church is to function as salt; it is to act as a preservative preventing moral decay. When the salt loses its savor it is of no benefit to anyone. The savor - its distinctiveness - is lost because it has sought to be ‘relevant’ without maintaining its essential character.
We close with a quotation cited by Os Guinness.
“The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that, and bring his finished product into a marketplace in which others are trying to do tile same. The public, turning to our culture to find out about the world, discovers there is nothing but its own reflection. The unexamined world, meanwhile, drifts blindly into the future.” 31
1Os Guinness Dining With the Devil, p. 12 and information from Church Growth Today, a Bolivar, Mo. Organization - as cited by Dave Hunt, in the Berean Call February 2004.
2With reference to the win-win relationship with the mall, the pastor remarked: “We're going to bring the mall a lot of business. We've suggested to our people that they wear comfortable clothes in which to do any shopping they have in mind after lunch.”
3see Guinness p. 28
4One mega-church pastor in the Memphis area was the guest speaker for a series of services in a church not far from his own. During the meal following the service, he learned of a mission church that was to be planted not far from his own, which evoked a response of outrage; “He went ‘ballistic’” the host pastor remarked!
5Baby-boomers and those who follow have no allegiance to denominations. Since churches cater to people who are concerned only with their own personal needs, and since it is at the local level that their needs are met, there is no concern for the larger entity.
6Chuck Colson, The Body p. 47
7Guinness, p. 49
8Ibid, p. 81r.
9Ibid, p. 26
10Paul House, Who Will be Saved? p. 165 The author went on to make a couple of other significant observations. First, of 42,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, only 30.3% reported growth in 2003. Secondly, while 1,409 of the churches in the ‘growing’ category reported no baptisms in 2003, others have a member to baptism ration of 1,100 to 1.
11Ibid, p. 52-52
12Leith Anderson, Dying for Change p. 35,27
13Colson p. 42
14Guinness p. 58; 63.()4
15David Wells, Introduction, The Compromised Church, p. 32
16Colson, p. 42
17Ibid, p. 31
18cited by Guinness, p. 78 .
19Ibid, p. 64
20Colson, ch. 22, p. 299f.
21Dan Schaeffer, article ‘McChurch’ in Journey Magazine
22Colson, p. 44
24Chris Accardy, ‘Neo-liberalism: The Liberal Ethos in Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Church’ in Reformation & Revival, p. 102
25Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times p. 211
26Anderson p. 107
27Anderson cited by Veith, p. 175
28Colson, p. 45
29The Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
30Wells, p. 19, 23
31Guinness, p. 59
Providence Reformed Home Page