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The Failure of the Megachurch

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The mega-church model which was the flavor of the week in church leadership circles for decades is now beginning to crumble. Financial troubles forced Rick Warren to send a desperate plea for money to his Saddleback congregation two years ago. A Kansas City mega-church just lost their 20 million dollar campus to the bank. One of the country's first mega-churches, the Crystal Cathedral, recently filed for bankruptcy, and these stories are becoming more and more common. Yet, could it be that financial problems are just the symptom of a much deeper issue?

If the church is the body of Christ, then the mega-church is a body on steroids. The latest and greatest example is Andy Stanley's Northpoint Community Church, who recently raised five million dollars to build their own three-lane overpass so that they could keep parking-lot-exit-times under thirty minutes. Stanley's congregation numbers over fifteen-thousand people. For a church to become that abnormally large it has to make use of such artificial means that it actually ceases to be a healthy church model. Here are three reasons why:

  • Mega-church size insulates the body from the natural pains and tensions which keep it healthy. Pain is good, even in the church. Pain forces a community and its leaders to grow deeper and more mature. For instance, if two families leave a small church it cannot be ignored. The small church will have to face underlying issues and learn how to heal and grow. Small church leaders are constantly confronted with their own shortcomings and thus experience true accountability. However, if those same two families left a mega-church, no one would even notice. By virtue of its size the mega-church is insulated from the naturally occurring tensions which make for a healthy body, and dysfunction is allowed to build up over time. Eventually the mega-church will become symptomatic, but by then it's usually too late. And even if it does begin to feel the pain, this pain is derived from a threat to the institution itself and not from any inherent relational dynamic which gives dignity and importance to every single member and family.
  • Mega-church size inhibits diversity. Pastors flock to mega-church conferences attempting to copy the latest leadership techniques and strategies. I have been part of an entire generation of pastors who have attended conferences at Saddleback, Willow Creek and Northpoint Churches in order to become the next Rick Warren, Bill Hybels or Andy Stanley instead of simply being ourselves. Leadership must grow from within the neighborhood. It cannot be imported from another context because no two contexts are alike. Author Tim Keel often says copying another leader's strategy is like gluing fruit from one tree onto another tree and saying, "Look what I grew!" It is not reality. The strategy of a church and its efforts toward mission must always grow out of the context of the community in which the church exists.
  • Mega-church size exploits the mega-church pastor. The mega-church pastor becomes like the liver of an alcoholic body. The anxiety, pressure, and stress generated by the mega-church is not shared by the typical member but is focused primarily upon the pastor. This pressure molds the pastor into something more akin to a CEO of a large corporation than a wise rabbi. Even pastors who attempt to stay healthy will end up flaming-out and suffering because the systemic issue cannot be mitigated by sound personal practices. All of the artificial means used to grow something so large become focused on the pastor and the pastor has to somehow try and cleanse the system. This is, as it turns out, an impossible task. So the church resorts to dialysis. They give the pastor a year off to try and get healthy again. Or they do a transplant and replace the pastor altogether, only to have the problem recur some years later.

If the mega-church is a failed model, then what is a better option? Recently the house church network has become the new solution. Small groups trained on discipleship which are loosely connected into a church network are cropping up all over America. Ministries like the British company 3DM will virtually franchise you a house church network for around $10,000. Boasting high success rates, coaching, and curriculum, 3DM will teach you everything you need to know about how to start your own house church network. However, undergirding the house church movement are the very same assumptions which fund the mega-church model -- only this time it isn't Applebees, but the boutique restaurant which they are peddling. The house church network is the boutique mega-church model.

The solution is to stop focusing on strategies meant to help a church become the next big thing, and simply be the church in your neighborhood in whatever form that takes. In the end, the age-old parish model, or neighborhood church is still the healthiest option. Tensions are present, but close proximity requires the fidelity which is essential to a healthy church. Small churches celebrate diversity. They no longer copy the mega-churches, because they don't have the resources to replicate their programs anyway. The small church doesn't ask, "What program can we create for single mothers," but rather, "What do we do for Sara? She's raising her kids all by herself." The result is a wonderfully diverse response to the challenges of communal life. When the solution to each local issue is not a program, but a relationship, then it is sustainable over time, and is free to grow without artificial means.

Most of all, the parish model supports the local pastor. Free of the constant pressure to grow bigger, the pastor is able to concentrate on growing deeper. The task given to the smaller Christian community is not to achieve success (i.e. size), but simply to be faithful within their particular context. Faithfulness is about organizing our common life together in such a way that we image God to all creation and experience peace. We need more small, healthy and vibrant communities of around 200 to 400 people -- natural and organic -- who do not feel a massive inferiority complex and pressure to expand. We need churches who are content to grow more mature and not necessarily bigger and if perhaps they do grow bigger, to simply divide and multiply while never leaving the neighborhood in order to become the regional mega-church. Because when it comes to church, bigger is not better -- and there is a point at which bigger inevitably becomes unsustainable and unhealthy.

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