I’ve heard people who love their mega-church, pastors who strive to make their churches more like the Mega-church, people who condemn the mega-church and who think it is a horrible affront to Christianity. The thing is, they are here to stay, and are in countries around the world, the largest of which is in Seoul, South Korea, but most of which can be found in any big city around the world.
So what is the draw? Why are they successful? Why do we shop at mass chain stores?
Yes, I said it – I think the era of the big church is mostly a by-product of mass commercialism. This in itself isn’t bad, it’s just an observation of where it comes from. The era of small mom-and-pop stores has mostly disappeared. And the church is just one more symbol of how times have changed. A large church has more to do with its own internal advertising ability, cutting edge technology and youth-based relevance than its own merit many times.
Is this a bad thing? Not really. It just needs to be understood for what it is – a result of the culture and developments of today, not that the Spirit of God is more or less in a big church than a small one. If the doctrines of Christianity which claim that God is in every generation meeting them where they are are true, then it should be no surprise that big churches would pop up everywhere. It’s just a modern cultural phenomena, which is in and of itself neutral.
We have today, better transit, better social networking, better connectivity, more opportunity to put out our advertisements and get more attention than we ever have before. In eras past it wasn’t possible to ride your horse into the city every week (or you were crazy if you did) in order to go to a larger church. Now it is. (Well-its possible to drive your car in anyway, let me rephrase that) Cities have become the new local, and suburbs and small towns are no longer geographically as isolated as they once were. In times past people sucked it up and attended a nearby church not necessarily because that was what they agreed the most with, but because of their local isolation. Now there is no reason to do that.
Much the way local musicians have found it harder and harder to compete with big-name artists because now people don’t have to ever pay to listen to them when they can just go buy the latest Jack Johnson CD – or whatever their big-name preference happens to be – the same has been true of pastors. In some ways, this has been good – weeding out the bad theology and Pastors who are not necessarily that good as pastors and providing them with the opportunity to do more what they are good at which is often local Bible study groups. Many of these people have no gift for administration, and are more comfortable in a small-group setting. This just means their roles have evolved; they will always be needed.
As for those that continue to live in small towns (despite the city ward migration of the past 30 years) there will still be a place for them too, albeit it needs to be noted that their roles also have evolved. People in the town now have access to the Internet and Television and may see no reason to come to their churches anymore. These pastors also have the added stressor of disgruntled past congregants blogging about them, and as result they may need to adapt and be more accountable to sound doctrine than in ages past. This is again an evolution, not a good nor bad thing.
What of the CEO style pastors? It’s telling that 47% of Americans thought that electing a former CEO for president was a good idea. Why would they think that? It is a part of society that needs to be acknowledged whether we agreed (I did not vote for Romney) or not – nearly half the country did. It has become an intricate part of American culture (and culture across the board in this age in general) to view systems more and more in the light of the commercialism culture that we are a part of simply by being a part of modern society. We view it as the way things are; and see things now through the light of this commercialism. The lines are no longer so easily delineated, religious life, academic life, social life has all been affected by commercialization. The lines are blurred and commercialization has changed us as a society. It is now in our culture and we don’t often consider it in concrete terms.
So – what does this mean for the church? It just means that we need to recognize the culture that we are a part of. Celebrity pastors are not to be worshipped, but we should respect that many people have been able to hear their voices and find something that has drawn them to that pastoral style, while understanding that like any CEO, the storefront is sometimes not the same as the back office. They should be held to a higher standard, while people need to understand that these people are at the core just that; they are human like everyone else.
Churches need to stop being afraid of bloggers who sweep out the dark corners. A new age of accountability provides as much opportunity to work out the issues as it does threatening them. Issues of lack of compassion, abuse etc need to come out in the light and be exposed. This should make pastors, staff etc. rethink their roles. It is actually very good for the churches to have the bad exposed. Painful, but if they will humbly accept it, they will be better for it. Racism, sexism, abusive programs, controlling tendencies will come out. Churches should take the criticism humbly and learn from it.
Many small churches like the small towns that they are a part of will slowly die. It is neither good nor bad, it’s just what is happening. The focus on church growth will remain as that is the hallmark of success in modern times; grow or die, it permeates every part of the culture. Churches are not exempt.
With every generation, religion adapts to meet the needs of that society. Christianity is no different, and was never intended to be stagnant. When seen for what it is; that the modern meg-church movement is simply a part of modern culture – the mega-church is both less intimidating of a force to be reckoned with and less awe inspiring. But perhaps that is the point – it is like many other aspects of religion just a part of modern culture. In it there is good and bad, which is simply a part of what it is to be human.
If we keep this in mind, it will tone down our reactions. We are less likely to be overly absorbed into the potential flaws and at the same time less likely to be angry at some of the unintended consequences. It is a cultural phenomena, one that has had great successes and horrendous failures. But one that has not died in the process of change.
That lack of death is significant, and in itself worthy of consideration – through so many cultures and so many changes, always looking a little different than it did before, it is still here.