Megachurches: Storm Clouds Ahead?
By Brian Maris
It’s not all smooth sailing for the megachurches. Church leaders I interviewed foresee some storms on the horizon.
In my previous column (May 27), I shared seven positive trends megachurches are experiencing. These were gleaned from interviewing nine authors, academics, megachurch pastors, and missional church planters. These nine were overwhelmingly optimistic about the future of megachurches.
But not everything they see is positive. Today, we’ll look at three concerns that were mentioned in those interviews.
1. Overfishing in Other Churches’ Ponds
“There are two kinds of megachurches,” states Eddie Gibbs, senior professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, “those that have grown at the expense of other churches and those that have attracted the dechurched and the never-churched.” The problem is that many megachurches belong to the first kind.
Missio director Hugh Halter believes that “in 10 years or less, the feeder system of small, dying churches will dry up completely, and eventually the big fish tanks will feel their water level dropping as well.”
Alan Hirsch, a leading voice in the missional movement, is more favorable toward the megachurches’ past growth, but more concerned about the future: “I believe that the church growth movement has reached an impasse. While it has certainly been a great move of God and has brought millions to faith in Christ, after 40 years of best thinking and practice, it has not altered the decline of church in every Western context. In fact, this is precisely the time of our most serious decline.”
There are more megachurches than ever, and they are bigger than ever; but overall fewer Americans are going to church than ever.
2. Financial Resources Drying Up
Megachurches have megabuildings, megastaff, megaprograms, and megaexpenses. So, who’s been paying for all this? “It would appear to me,” says Hope International University President John Derry, “these endeavors have largely been underwritten by the baby boom generation and will certainly continue for some time. However, as I observe the values and attitudes of the millennial generation, I wonder if they will be as eager to make that kind of investment or if they will desire the same kind of experience.”
It appears many of them won’t. Derry points out that we’ve already witnessed the decline and bankruptcy proceedings of the Crystal Cathedral. Not far from the Crystal Cathedral is a Christian church Derry recently visited. “Not that many years ago, it was a vibrant megachurch in Southern California. Attendance is now just a handful of people in a large building in need of major repair.”
Younger generations have more options and easier access to causes they care about and want to support—and those causes don’t include internally focused financial concerns.
3. Stuck in the Harbor (Sunday-Centric Systems)
This issue is hotly contested. Can megachurches be missional churches? Ben Cachiaras, senior pastor with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland, is one among a growing number who believe they can. “In the past some megachurches have been criticized for being mostly about the church gathered—come to the event, we will serve you; be a consumer and come here because we have the best goods. What I see is megachurches catching the vision for the kingdom of God in our midst and releasing their people and resources toward that vision—which means they are going to be just as concerned about the church scattered as they are about being the church gathered.”
But there are critics of this point of view; they don’t believe megachurches, as they exist today, can give much to missional efforts in comparison to their total resources. That’s because most members of the executive staffs of megachurches give the best of their time, attention, and resources to weekend services. Why? Because (related to the point above) the weekend services are what bring in revenue. The system, therefore, feeds on itself. As a result, it severely inhibits a megachurch’s ability to send resources into the community. In other words, the gravitational pull of the gathered church competes for resources rather than compelling resources to be scattered.
It should be pointed out that these issues aren’t exclusive to megachurches; medium and small churches face the same kinds of problems. It’s simply the size of the megachurch that makes the problem more obvious. But, given their size and reputation, it’s possible some megachurches will be the first to show churches of all sizes how to navigate these issues.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as the community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.