So I’m having a conversation the other day with a lovely, young couple, exactly the kind of couple I would want to visit and join my congregation. To my surprise, I learn that they are active members of a local congregation. Not to my surprise, it is a megachurch. Their congregation was of the trendy, Post-modern variety that could boast of a membership roll in the thousands. This was a conversation I’ve had many times before with the same result, only with a variety of megachurches being offered as their own.
Now, because I don’t want to turn them off or cause unnecessary offense, I refrain from saying what I really think about their church. I might be coming from a place of sour grapes or being judgmental which should cause me to shut my mouth. And even if I’m not and I’m actually correct in my judgments, I might seem like a less-than-attractive pastor to serve as their future spiritual shepherd. So I generally applaud their churchgoing tendencies and try to find common spiritual ground. I want to be there, after all, to catch them when they inevitably fall out of love with their megachurch. (Which never seems to happen.)
So because I don’t say what I’m thinking then, I’ll share some thoughts here. After all, that’s what blogs are for, right? And since we all like lists, here are my thoughts in a nice, little list package. Here are the five things I’d like to say to members of megachurches…but would never have the courage to say in person.
1. You are just a number. None of us wants to be a number. Stormtroopers are just numbers. We are people. But I can tell you that it is a rare megachurch pastor that truly knows you and values you, warts and all. At a certain point – and surely 1,000 members is a tipping point – people are just anonymous faces that fill chairs and write checks. So if you belong to a megachurch, you simply are a number to your pastor. You have to be for that model to work! The only people who will ever offer you pastoral care or “do life” with you are those in your small group. Which is exactly why your pastor is always badgering you to join one. Because to him, you and all your problems are someone else’s problem. You are just a number to him, a “giving unit”, a statistic in his year-end report. Again, you have to be. For what pastor can actually get to know al the members of his megachurch? No person has that kind of energy and that kind of time.
2. You are needed elsewhere. If you are filling the pews of a megachurch, you are one of the very few Americans who is actually in a pew, er, theatre seat, on a Sunday morning. And you are needed at any of the hundreds of smaller congregations who have seen people leave in favor of the big box church. They need you to fill their ranks and support their ministries. If the megachurch has financial problems, it has taken them on and can live with the consequences of embracing the most expensive church model imaginable. If you are allowed to see its budget, just see how much they spend on marketing and then ask if they really have financial problems, and then ask if you should feel obligated to solve them. Meanwhile, the small church without all the programs, marketing, and flash, is in need of all that you can contribute, money or not. The megachurch will be fine if you leave. In fact, no one outside of your small group will even notice. The small church will be greatly strengthened and blessed, because there, you really are needed.
3. Your pastor isn’t your pastor. Surely you know this by now, right? How can he be? You can probably not even access him, even in an emergency. He is surrounded by associate pastors who are never allowed to preach, many of whom have probably not even attended seminary. He may spend time shaking hands with members after the service, but have you ever been in his home? Probably the only people he relates to in any significant way are his staff, and only a handful of them at that. He won’t attend your Christmas parties and he won’t recognize you in the supermarket. He won’t preach at your wedding or funeral and he may not even baptize your children, except at a service en masse. While he has somehow scavenged the title “Pastor” for himself, he in no way acts as the kind of personal, spiritual shepherd the Bible so clearly describes in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. In other words, your pastor is not your pastor.
4. You want the cool factor or anonymity more than a fallible community. Now I know this sounds really judgmental, but if you are part of a megachurch, it is probably because you want to bathe in its “cool factor” or you crave the anonymity it offers. The kind of messy, imperfect and personal community you will find at a relatively small church will not give you a safe hiding place. But you can definitely hide in a sanctuary, er, arena, with 10,000 other people. And you can also claim to be part of a successful church that is on the go. That is certainly more impressive than working hard to keep a historic, but small congregation alive. Ask yourself and be honest: are you at your megachurch so you can imbibe the coolness of it all or so you can hide? If so, the odds are pretty good that you won’t be there for long. At some point, the appeals for your cash will get old and you’ll realize you don’t know many people there. And you’ll probably just give up on church altogether. Because the thought of being known well in a small congregation is a thought you’ve already ruled out.
5. You may be a real, historical heretic. Of course, everything I’ve assumed so far is that megachurches offer a bad model for ministry, but perhaps are okay on theology. We should all know by now that is probably not the case. Many megachurches are infected with soul-destroying heresies and bad/false teaching. The Prosperity Gospel comes to mind. So does a reliance on spiritual gifts over the scriptures. Then there’s the rampant narcissism that tells the hearers the Bible is all about them. (Hopefully, Jesus will get an honorable mention.) Clear, expository teaching on the fundamentals of Christianity – the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, justification by faith through grace – are rarely taught at your average megachurch. It’s all about you, you, and more you. So there is a chance that if you attend a megachurch, you might be a real heretic, the kind that councils met about and excluded from the Church many centuries ago. Don’t think that because the words “Christian” and “church” are attached to your megachurch you are necessarily covered in orthodoxy.
So if I had any courage at all, I’d say something like that. But since I try to get along with just about everyone, I say, “Cool,” and ask if the coffee bar is really as good as everyone says. If you do attend a megachurch, though, I hope you’ll consider the thoughts above. For while they may be filled with a little sarcasm, my concerns are real. Not all churches have to be the same, to be sure. But they should at least try to resemble something found in the first century of the church. And megachurches, sadly, do not.