Published on

Busting Megachurch Myths

Busting Megachurch Myths
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
When you think of megachurches, what comes to mind? If there’s one thing I learned from blogging about the church, it’s that some people hate megachurches. With a passion. I try not to engage the trolls and the haters in the comments on my blog (engaging them just gives them what they want). But I’ve also noticed that even among more balanced church leaders, it’s easy to take swipes at megachurches. Sometimes I wonder how much of that is born out of envy, a sense of inferiority or simple misunderstanding, but after another set of cheap shots in response to my blog post on the recent exits of Pete Wilson and Perry Noble from their ministries, I thought it was time to engage the accusations that often come at megachurches. To give you a sample of what megachurch leaders hear regularly, take this comment that was posted on my blog in response to my post last week:
"Wish these guys would get wise and start obeying Scripture and follow the New Testament model of interdependent churches under presbytery rule with representatives. Of course these preachers get burned out. They’ve made themselves the lynchpins of megachurches. They should get burned out. It’s a bad model of church government on many fronts, and it’s actually from the mercy of God that these men burn out. Churches are meant to be small, tightly knit communities, not splashy corporations. You build a monster, you get devoured. Or you become a monster. Burnout of megachurch pastors probably saves souls." I wish I was making this up. But I’m not. Somebody actually wrote this. Sigh. Are megachurches perfect? No. But no church is perfect, including small and mid-sized churches.
Even on a simple logical level, saying all megachurches are bad is like saying all small or mid-sized churches are bad. It’s just simplistic and illogical thinking. If you’re against church growth, you’re against the basic mission of the church: to reach people. So what happens when a church starts to grow? Do you shut the growth down? Do you get bad at what you do so you stop reaching people? Do you keep your churches smaller on purpose and multiply (by the way, that’s now called multi-site)? The logical issues alone with slamming large churches are riddled with problems. But it’s even deeper than that. So here are five myths about megachurches it’s finally time to bust. If you’re against church growth, you’re against the basic mission of the church.

1. It’s a one-man (or one-woman) show

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that a large church is a one person show. That’s because—quite naturally—most of us think of the founder or senior leader when we think of a large church (there are some large churches where that isn’t the case, but they’re the exception). As a rule, most large churches hardly behave like a one-man or one-woman show. There are actually teams of highly skilled leaders around the point leader. Anyone who says a large organization is a one-man show doesn’t understand what’s required to lead a large, complex, let alone multi-site, organization. You simply HAVE to have dozens to hundreds of capable staff and thousands of capable volunteers. In reality, far more small churches are one-man or one-woman shows than large churches. It’s far more likely that a small church or a mid-sized church (say 400-600) is a one-person show because it IS possible for the leader to do pretty much everything. That breaks down entirely once your church is larger than 1,000 in attendance. In fact, your church will never sustainably grow to 1,000 people if it’s a one-person show run entirely by the leader. In reality, far more small churches are one-man or one-woman shows than large churches. While the reasons for Mars Hill’s collapse in 2014 are complex (I talk about them in Episode 79 of my Leadership Podcast with Mars Hill insider Justin Dean), you can argue that it wasn’t sustainably built because it imploded when Mark Driscoll left. But many other very large churches have gone through changes in leadership successfully. Southeast Christian grew significantly after its founder left. So has Christ Fellowship in Florida. Gene Appel handed over a very large Central Christian Church in Las Vegas to Jud Wilhite, who has led it to unprecedented growth and expansion. People who say large churches are one-man shows don’t understand large churches. Period.

2. The people who attend are just blind sheep

First of all, if you think the people who attend a megachurch are all blind sheep, why don’t you ask them if that’s the case? After all, it’s a pretty insulting accusation. If you visit most megachurches, you won’t find blind sheep. You will find leaders. Actually, most often, you’ll find capable leaders—independent men and women who appreciate the level of purpose, thoughtfulness and mission behind many of today’s larger churches. I’m not saying leaders don’t also go to small or mid-sized churches, but they also (perhaps predominantly) become engaged in large churches. Why? Well, because great leaders tend to gravitate toward churches and organizations that are well led. Great leaders attract great leaders. They want to be well led in church because that’s what they’re used to in the marketplace and in life. Great leaders attract great leaders. They’re used to leaders and teams of leaders who know how to make critical decisions, to advance a collective cause and who can lead and manage complex organizations. By contrast, capable leaders avoid poorly led organizations and churches. Great leaders tend to gravitate toward churches and organizations that are well led.

3. Megachurches don’t produce real disciples

Of all the criticism, this one stings me the most personally, mainly, because it’s just not true. And while I haven’t led a megachurch personally, I have led a large church (1,000+) and this criticism always chased our ministry. Start with the basics. What is a disciple? Someone who has decided to trust Jesus as their Savior. But how do you know whether they’re following Jesus? Jesus actually gave us a very practical test that helps us tell. He simply said: “By their fruit you’ll recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” In other words, look at someone’s life for the evidence. In this post, I outline in detail why the chief characteristic of a disciple is love, not knowledge. We’ve falsely defined discipleship in this generation. Knowledge, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, is not spiritual maturity. Knowledge makes you arrogant. Love transforms you.
If you go to a megachurch, you will discover thousands of people whose lives look more like Jesus a few years down the road than they ever did before. You’ll discover people who have placed their faith in Jesus and who are being transformed by the love of God (and you’ll discover that in small and mid-sized churches too). You know who isn’t being transformed by love? The critics. Think about that for a while. And maybe worry about that as well.

4. People don’t like attending large churches

This is a fun argument to spin because it sounds like what Yoggi Berra said about a certain New York restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” While it may be true that Millennials love relationship and smaller gatherings, the truth is people in every demographic continue to flock to megachurches.  Studies continue to show that megachurches keep getting bigger and there are more of them every year. Large churches are doing a better and better job of making things smaller too. The launch of new, smaller campuses and smaller worship spaces are models many megachurches are adopting. The paradox is that large churches keep getting larger and smaller at the same time. Which is why they keep growing larger.

5. Megachurches are unbiblical

This is a common criticism of megachurches. People don’t like the lights, the structure or “CEO” style leadership. I’m just not sure the argument stands up, though. First, the critics of megachurches are rarely practicing what might be called ‘biblical’ forms of church. My guess is most don’t get up at 5 a.m. each day before work, get together with other Christians to pray and promise each other that they won’t cheat on their wives, that they’ll care for the poor and stay faithful to Jesus. My guess is they’re not reciting ancient canticles, gathering daily in each other’s homes and radically pooling their possessions to care for the poor and help other fledgling churches fuel the rapidly expanding Jesus-movement. If they are, my hat’s off to them. This is probably a fair representation of the form of first-century Christian worship. The reality, of course, is that the church has always changed, adapted and responded to changing times. Organ music, now seen as traditional, obscure or even quaint, was the ‘radical’ new worship of the 19th century. It’s so easy to confuse the method with the mission and preferences with principles. The methods change. The mission doesn’t. In fact, if you want to jeopardize the mission, never change your method. You’ll become irrelevant in a generation. The person going door to door selling encyclopedias is going to have a tough time in the future, especially given the fact that Encyclopedia Britannica stopped publishing in 2012 after 244 years. It’s not that people got out of the information business, it’s just that how we consume information changed. Ditto with the church. There may be a day where large churches are no longer an effective way to share Christ with others. If that’s the case, they’ll fade. In the meantime, though, if they continue to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus, why stop them?