Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good and Bad Things About Megachurches

Some of my earliest memories pertain to the tiny country churches where my father, a professional optometrist, served as a Methodist "lay minister" (back in the sixties, shortly before a merger caused that denomination to change its name to the United Methodist Church). There really weren't many "megachurches" in those days, if any, but even by the standards of that time period, the churches where my father preached were incredibly small churches.

Over the years, I've watched as local churches have developed and expanded, to the point that some of them now have to meet in sports arenas or in buildings of comparable size. Or they may have four or five church services every Sunday. Or they may have numerous "satellite" churches which serve various communities throughout the city. Or all of the above, in some cases.

On one level, I think it's great that there are churches which have experienced that level of success. There are definite benefits associated with such growth, such as the fact that larger churches have considerably more resources with which to put on presentations which can compete in terms of quality (to some extent) with the secular concerts and other events which increasingly compete for the attention of their friends and neighbors. I think there's a lot more that could be done in order to achieve that goal (particularly in terms of remuneration of the musicians and others who are involved with such presentations, so that those people can afford music instruments and other related expenses which will enable them to achieve their full potential), but there's no question that the presentations already being offered at many megachurches are extremely impressive in comparison with the types of presentations which were once common in traditional churches.

In theory, such churches should also have far more resources with which to deal with crises (particularly economic crises) which affect the lives of their members. Unfortunately, the theory doesn't always match the reality.

That's just one aspect of the megachurch phenomenon which bothers me tremendously. Another aspect is the tendency of the leaders of such churches to develop supersized egos which can make it very difficult for them to humbly accept criticism. This can lead to some abusive situations, some of which have been documented in several well-known books.

There are different levels of abuse, of course. Most churches don't become as abusive as the infamous cult which was led by Jim Jones, and which led to the mass suicide of most of his followers at Jonestown in Guyana. But even lower levels of abuse can lead to a substantial diminution of the pleasure which ought to be associated with being involved in a church.

When I use the word "pleasure" here, I should hasten to specify that I am not talking about worldly or carnal pleasure. I am talking about the legitimate satisfaction which comes from believing that one is genuinely loved by one's fellow Christians. I am talking about the satisfaction which comes from believing that God is using one's association with other local believers in order to accomplish his purpose on earth. People who attend churches which are devoid of those types of pleasure and satisfaction are being cheated out of what is rightfully theirs. No one should go to church solely for the purpose of receiving benefits, but it is equally true that no one should feel more drained and dissatisfied after leaving church than they felt before they came.

Megachurches also tend to foster a sense of isolation and distance from one's leaders, and that sense of isolation further exacerbates the tendency to place such leaders on a pedastal. No one should feel intimidated by the thought of inviting his or her pastor to dinner, but some Christians do indeed feel that way. A certain amount of delegation is necessary in any large church, but it can become excessive. When one has to get on a waiting list and wait for several months in order to sit down and have a personal discussion with the lead pastor of one's church, then something is seriously wrong with that church. There is a difference between a preacher and a pastor, and one of those differences is that a pastor is accessible!

In megachurches, it's easy for people in leadership positions to get the attitude that they have no real need to resolve conflicts or address problems within those churches, because it's no big deal if people leave on a regular basis because they're dissatisfied with the way that they're being treated. After all, there are always new people where those people came from. It's like there's a revolving door on many megachurches. If you dare to voice a complaint or criticism, you're likely to hear a subtle version of the old statement, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!" People with unusual needs are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing. Such people are often denied a voice because their needs are considered unimportant relative to the needs of the majority of those who are relatively satisfied with the status quo.

Is it possible for a church (or a parachurch ministry) to experience phenomenal growth without becoming impersonal and insensitive to the needs of all of its members? Yes, I believe that such a thing is possible, but it's uncommon. It requires leaders who actively cultivate personal humility, and who guard against the temptations which are inherent in such growth by resolutely determining that their churches will not become victims of their own success.

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