Monday, March 7, 2011

Too Big For Their Own Britches

I came across a discussion of this blog post yesterday. What a long, sad tale of mega-church madness and the devastation it can have on the people in it's wake. Sometimes the people in power forget that their are real human beings with real lives, real loved ones, and genuine hearts under their sway.

It would be an understatement to say that I'm no fan of the mega-church dynamic. I've been a guest performer at several, 1st Baptist Atlanta and Bellevue in Memphis among them. The "campus" at Bellevue was freaking enormous. There were a couple of guides assigned to us just to help us find our way from the tour bus to the sanctuary and vice-versa - and they were needed. When a church "campus" has become so large and boisterous that the common person can't find their own way through it, it doesn't give one much hope of the spiritual landscape being all that much more navigable. A hurting person, broken and spiritually battered, left bleeding by the wounds of life (or the church) can, and often does, get lost in the shuffle.

This isn't to say that there aren't some wonderful people who attend mega-churches. There most certainly are. Also, the staff members assigned to us at mega-churches were generally very cordial and friendly. Truth be told, it's harder to gauge the staff members cause they were obviously assigned to begin kissing our aesthetics the second we stepped off the bus, and some were genuine, unabashed fans of the artist I was with.

The problem for me was this: With every turn of my head I could see a dozen new social goodies and amenities designed to attract, yet at their core, I can't help but believe they take the focus entirely off of Christ. So much of the experience seemed to be about developing and promoting the brand. I've seen coffee bars, bookshops, libraries, gaming, and just about every other kind of trendy do-da. Worship "team", Praise "team", big screens, video people, light apparatus, sound techs, equipment techs, greeters, ushers, parking attendants, Senior pastor, Executive pastor, Associate pastor, Youth pastor, Music pastor, Worship pastor, Sunday School pastor, you name it. And those pastors wear the label proudly, let me tell ya, relishing in being referred to as "Pastor Steve" or "Pastor Lyle" or "Pastor Joe". We would have complete access to all of the above - with the notable exception of the Senior pastor. To be graced with his presence, we would be whisked away to a private room in the inner sanctum where we'd get to shake the man 'o God's hand, exchange a couple of pleasantries, and then have the privilege of being prayed for. And...other than that, we had as much access as anyone else in the church - none.

In every corner of the facility, the brand is being peddled. The Senior pastor's books, audio tapes/cds, and dvds dominate the bookstore or library, along with the latest musical offerings from the "Worship Team" under the title of "{insert church name here} Worship", and posters or fliers litter the hallways and coffee bar walls promoting the soon coming releases of books and music.

Hillsong has made a fortune doing this. Others are following suit. Just the other night I saw the last few minutes of the broadcast of Elevation Church in Charlotte (which is extremely closely tied to the church in the blog post linked at the beginning). All of the same stuff, right down to promoting their music as "Elevation Worship", copying the stylings of the Hillsong crowd, with equal blandness and slightly less musicianship. Their television shows are just a 30 minute infomercial for the brand. It's like there's a big mega-church cookie cutter. It all becomes very cultic. It can also become dangerously coercive aside from the obvious cult of personality aspect.

It's big business. I just wish it could be done without slapping God's name all over it. He gets blamed for enough already.

I've always been a bit skeptical of why people attend these churches. Mind you, some attend for genuine and innocent reasons, and I don't knock that or them at all. Others, though, and perhaps most of those who attend, do so for all the wrong reasons. It's easy to do. If you're looking for social gratification, they're just like honey on a biscuit. Trendy? They got ya covered. Looking for some place hip and happening? Check. Want to be in the general vicinity of a spiritual rock star? Meet the Senior pastor (and perhaps the Worship pastor).

Funny stuff here...
Courtesy of

That makes me double over laughing every time I watch it because the portrayal of the superficiality of it all is so frighteningly accurate...but if you think of it in the deeper context, it's pretty sobering.

I'm sorry to say that for every mega-church I've been in, there's a dozen medium-sized churches (300-500 members) striving diligently to become a mega-church. It's troubling. They even put in the coffee bars (that may have a dozen patrons in a month), try to market their pastor as a rock star, record and try to sell their "Worship Team" (which in most cases ranges from middling talent to a human tragedy), assigning staff members to line up and kiss our aesthetics and look "mega-churchy" doing it. Building the brand for the time when, if they follow the business model properly, they'll one day be a mega-church financial windfall all their own and swim with the big boys.

Even the folk at Landover Baptist are catching on (and for the record, I don't recommend Landover for the faint of heart or church ladies anywhere - this clip just happened to be appropriate for the subject at hand)...

All too often a reasonable representation of Christ gets squeezed out, a "spiritual experience" is substituted, and you end up with something about as deep as a day-old muddle this...

Frankly, the people in attendance there could get the same "spiritual" experience at a nightclub - but of course that would be sinful and all - so they do it in a church, with a big cross out front, a coffee bar and bookstore in the lobby, et cetera. 

The power paradigm gets distorted in these settings, as I wrote about here. Lots of other potentially unhealthy little nasties, too, such as the midweek bible study and cell group dynamics in some (not all) mega-churches being used to reinforce a particular indoctrination. That's something I'll probably write some more on in the future. Yes, groups of any and all sizes have problems, just as any and all people have unique problems. I just happen to see the mega-church phenomenon as a HUGE problem with an ample supply of satellites orbiting - it never ends well and people get hurt. 

I've seen my share of this kind of baloney - pimping the love of Christ to sell more units. As soon as I see a church beginning to "brand", it's the only red flag I need to see to know that before long I'll just be seeing red.


  1. I couldn't imagine how that last video could get any crazier and then he started singing.

  2. kissing our aesthetics....LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thank you for this!!!

  3. That middle vid - Wow- that guy totally creeps me out!!!

  4. I won't ever be able to use the baby and bathwater phrase again ; )... but in that vein, there are things I like that have come from the mega-churches. I am a hard rock / heavy metal (and even worse) music fan, so contemporary worship is a must for me. I like the social aspect; while it is misused in fundamentalist churches, it is sorely lacking in many mainstream ones, and encouraging church to be more than a Sunday morning pitstop is a good thing. And knowing they will get a full hot breakfast and I will get my coffee is good motivation for getting reluctant teens to church.

    On the other hand, it becomes a problem when: 1) The pastor or other staff members have too much power, or are in power too long; 2) The trendy stuff costs more money than they have, and needs a constant heavy stream of income to survive; and/or 3) They get too caught up in their "brand," so that everything has to conform to it.

    Power. Greed. Money. Pride. Probably the biggest stumbling blocks for churches and people leading them.

  5. I don't like large churches because, for me, the point of "church" is to have a family that you live life with. How can you do that with 1000+ people? And I hate the "production feel" of the whole "service". It seems put on, an act, not real life. Our church is very small and I like the intimacy of it. Everyone is real and our worship is real and we make mistakes (like two people starting in different keys because the guitarist forgot to take his capo off) and everyone laughs and we praise the Lord. Because we aren't performing, we're just doing life and worship together.

  6. Ditto to that Darcy! I have been a few times to mega churches with my sister and brother-in-law. I think, Darcy, they tend to attract people who want to go to church WITHOUT becoming a family. I mean... the probably 10 times I've been to 2 different churches, not ONE person came up and introduced themselves to us. Probably because you can't tell if someone is new or not.

    There is a special row of seats down front (about the size of a small church's) and the rest is bleachers. With so many people (and that many 2 or 3 services per sunday!) it would be very hard to get to know anyone. Even the youth group was 3 times the size of my whole church. o.O

  7. IMO, both large and small churches can be healthy and helpful, as well as dysfunctional and damaging. My husband is on staff at the largest protestant church in our area, yet we have totally had the same kinds of bloopers Darcy described, because it isn't a show (although there is an expectation of excellence; I'm not implying that sloppiness is the status quo). I believe transparency, godliness, accountability, and humility among the leaders is key.

    The church I'm in now is 1,000+ people, yet it's the healthiest church I've been part of. Relationships, support, and intimacy of smaller groups are available for anyone who chooses to get involved. Anyone who asks has access to a pastor (not always the senior pastor, but whoever is available, and that often includes the senior pastor). Anyone who wishes to is welcome to participate in public ministries, such as choir, from the very gifted to the mentally and physically disabled, those often outcast by performance-oriented churches.

    Many people don't realize that in any church, regardless of size, the core group (ppl who are involved and do everything) is quite small. Putting the word out that you wish to be involved, or just jumping in, is usually all it takes to get to know those people quite quickly, including staff. I'm sure there are a few celebrity churches where people are kept in the outer court, but in most of the larger churches I know, ppl make assumptions that the church is too big or that they wouldn't be welcomed or that they can't get to know ppl, before they ever attempt to get involved. Usually, lay leaders and staff alike are delighted when someone shows an interest, and welcomes them quickly.

    That's not to say that mega-churches don't have their share of problems. Large church pastors certainly make mistakes like anyone else. However, my worst experiences personally have been in smaller churches. The pastors of large churches I know (quite a few) are great guys who love Jesus and are doing their best. I don't think one can generalize.

    I usually love your blog, Lewis, even when I disagree, but on this one my experience has just been different. Oh, and I used to be completely against mega-churches too, until I became part of one. I was pleasantly surprised.


  8. I attended some mega-churches during my first year of college because that's where my friends enjoyed attending. They had plush upholstery, grand halls & staircases, wings for every activity & age group, a coffeeshop, state of the art acoustics, choir & orchestra every Sunday morning, huge screen projections, and cameras everywhere for broadcasting the service.

    This was around the time that I was becoming more socially conscious. I remember sitting in that larger-than-life sanctuary and wondering how I could be genuinely worshipping here in this extravagance while there were people living in extreme poverty just 5-10 miles across the river. I didn't stay long. On Sunday mornings for worship, I started venturing-- yep, you guessed it-- across the river.

  9. I suppose this is going to be one of those things where everyone will have had different experiences. It's nice, Grace, that you've had a good experience. My experience with big churches just hasn't been that great. I'm not saying all small churches are wonderful. I personally avoid home churches too. :P

  10. The only thing I kept thinking while watching that last video is, "Ew, I hope people didn't have smelly feet that day." Can you imagine the stench spinning around that auditorium with all those socks going around?

  11. I could not agree more. Even though I've had enough with the small church I'm currently attending, I'm not a fan of the megachurch movement. If church members could find a way to love, forgive, laugh with, and cry with their brothers and sisters while being in a slightly larger church than I'm used to, I'd be more ready to form meaningful relationships with them than I am with my current fellow church members. Right now, I wouldn't dream of sharing my life and my dreams with them -- they disapprove of my attending college and working outside the home (definitely proponents of the patriarchal crowd). However, I'm not ready to give up on small churches yet -- but they need to prove to me that they're more concerned with loving the way Christ loves than having 12 children in jumpers.

    I do think church music and activities should be done in moderation, however -- once the focus on worshipping God is lost, they cease to be worship of God and become worship of man. This is where I believe megachurches go wrong. Even though I'm at the point where I believe love between Christians is more important than the loudness of the music, don't make me choose :)

  12. As a former Memphian? Bellevue is the literal worst. The people who were loudest about how awesome it is were invariably the most despicably rude, bigoted and supercilious people to deal with. We called it Six Flags Over Jesus because it was less a church than a Christian-flavored theme park.