In Defense of the Megachurch

Lately, I’ve heard and read several conversations wondering about the megachurch.  Some question its authenticity,  others question its methodology, while some just question whether big is good.   As these questions bounce around in my head, I’m serving on staff at the largest United Methodist congregation in Oklahoma City.  Needless to say, I’ve got a little different take on the megachurch than some of the voices you hear.

Just this week we started Vacation Bible School.  Yesterday, those of us here in OKC were just about washed away in a torrent of rain, and we ended up having to cancel the first day of VBS.  As a result, several of our members who were volunteering quickly found themselves as volunteers without a cause.  In the end this was a real blessing, because I was able to have some great conversations with the folks who waited inside to avoid going home in the hardest rain.

As I was speaking to one of our volunteers, we began to talk about her children.  As we talked she mentioned a friend of her children who has experienced some hard times, but is facing those difficulties with the help of an amazing community surrounding them.  As she described the beauty of this caring community, she gestured around at our building and the people gathered there and said, “You know, this is that community for our kids, and it has been since they were little.”

In that moment, I realized something.  This family has specifically chosen to raise their kids in an intentional way, surrounded by incredible men and women of faith, and it just so happens to be here in a megachurch.  When I look at this family, I can say the same thing for myself.  I want my kids to grow up in a community of faith like the one I’m appointed to serve.

Although megachurches are bigger than the churches many of you attend or pastor, they are no less communities of faith and discipleship.  In fact, they aren’t even necessarily big for the sake of bigness.  In a very large urban or suburban area, the megachurch actually shrinks the city and becomes a smaller community of faith and discipleship within that setting.  We aren’t the big box store selling religious experiences or goods; we are a community of people, albeit a large community, who’ve said, “This is where I want my family to grow and be shaped in their faith.  This is the place where I want to live out my faith, both inside and outside the walls.  This is the place where I want to nurture Christian friendships and live out my commitment to Jesus Christ.”

Are we bigger than some of the small towns in Oklahoma?  Sure we are.  But just as people who live in those towns are shaped by the life of those communities, people here at Servant are shaped and formed into the image of Jesus Christ because of the living, breathing, faithful men and women who come here to celebrate the goodness and grace of Jesus.

Who is Your Tribe?

Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog has a guest post by Mary DeMuth that explores how she discovered her tribe (a la Seth Godin‘s, Tribes).  This post got me thinking about the ways we find our tribe.  How do we figure out the group where we have the most potential for impact and influence?  DeMuth has a few suggestions.

  1. Ask others, “What is my one thing?” My friend Alex has often said everyone has a “one thing.”  This is the theme of your life and ministry – the well you find yourself continually returning to when you feel dry.  If someone asked you to communicate one message (verbally or through actions) and one message only, what would that be? DeMuth suggests sending a wide variety of people you know an email asking them to help you define you and your ministry (or calling).  I may do this.
  2. Seek Professional Help. As an author, DeMuth had the ability to consult with a variety of experts to help her whittle down to the core of what she lives to communicate.
  3. Finally, so some soul-searching.  Here, I’ll quote DeMuth in full, “Frederick Buechner says that the place that you ought to serve is “where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” So define that.  In your opinion, what is the world’s greatest need? (Everyone’s will be different). What is your greatest joy? How do they intersect in your life right now? How would you like them to?  Another exercise: List your three favorite movies. (Don’t think about it; just list them.) Now look over your list. What is the common thread in all three? That common thread is typically your passion colliding with the world’s greatest need.”

I’d take the movie thing with a grain of salt, because I’m not quite sure what gritty westerns (Tombstone, Unforgiven, etc.) and stupid comedies (Talladega Nights, Dumb & Dumber, etc.) have to do with my passion colliding with the world’s greatest need, so take the movie thing with a grain of salt.

However, it could definitely be a good exercise to spend some time thinking about your greatest joy,  your understanding of the world’s greatest need, and how you see those intersecting in your life.  If you’ve identified your tribe, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Open Call for God-Called Preachers

My two oldest kids stayed overnight with my mother back in southeastern Oklahoma, so I drove down and picked them up in Henryetta today.  On the way back to Oklahoma City, I decided to take a different route.  We ventured through downtown and made a stop by an older United Methodist Church off the beaten path, several streets north and west of downtown.  As I pulled alongside the church my four year old said, “Wow, it’s dirty.”  I said, “why do you think it’s dirty,” and my seven year old daughter said, “because they don’t take good care of it.”  I then told them that any church that stops reaching out and bringing people to Christ ends up in even worse condition.  At the same time, across the street, I saw two young men.  They were dressed in white shirts, black ties, and backpacks and were walking from door to door in the older neighborhood around the church.  I pointed them out and said, “They don’t believe the same thing we do, but they are out telling people what they believe.”  I then told them how our church would look just like this one if we stopped inviting people to our church to come to know Jesus.

After getting home, I looked up this church online and found the typical non-webpages listing the congregation’s name.  However, I also found a defunct website on the Oklahoma City Cooperative Urban parish.  Here is an excerpt from that website (I’ve changed the name, because I’m not writing this to embarrass anyone and I think it’s common for many of our congregations regardless of the name),

In 1969 on a typical Sunday morning 365 people gathered for worship in the beautiful Gothic sanctuary at ____________ United Methodist in Oklahoma City. “On Easter, every pew was packed, even in the balcony, and we brought extra chairs in,” recalls a retired United Methodist pastor who was then pastor at ________.

“Our educational building was less than ten years old, and we needed every room in it,” __________ says. Average Sunday school attendance was 368. The church had 206 children from birth through the sixth grade and 184 youth.

Compare this with its current situation at the time,

On a typical Sunday last year, 85 gathered at __________ for worship. Seventy came to Sunday school. The church had 15 children from birth through the sixth grade and three youth.

The neighborhoods weren’t empty, people just moved and stopped commuting back to attend on Sundays.   For whatever reason, the church stopped reaching out to their local neighborhood (or any other neighborhood for that matter). So what was our ingenious solution to this dramatic shift?  We formed a cooperative urban parish whose purpose statement read,

The Oklahoma City Cooperative Urban Parish is composed of churches and organizations who have a common heritage in the Christian faith; are located in a common geographical area; share common commitment to effective ministry with persons in their congregations and the surrounding community. The members of the Parish covenant to identify resources, establish goals, and develop ministry strategies designed to achieve those goals. In no way does the Parish compromise the integrity of member institutions, but through cooperation strengthens the ministry of each

While I’m sure this doesn’t completely encompass their vision for these congregations, I can’t help but notice Jesus Christ is not mentioned anywhere here other than in their “common heritage in the Christian faith.”  In fact, the article said the goals of the urban parish could be summed up with our denomination’s campaign, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”  I also can’t help but notice how uninspired this makes me.

It just so happens we’re approximately ten years removed from what the date of this article.  Yes, this means we can judge the effects of this particular approach to revitalizing a series of churches.  According to the most recent conference journal, this congregation averaged just over 60 people in worship during 2008.  That’s right, down 25 in worship from the time of the intervention.

While I was parked in front of this old building, I took a picture with my phone and sent it to a friend of mine who is beginning to more fully grasp and develop his understanding of God’s call on his life.  All I did was take a picture of the exterior, and send him a note with the word, “Calling” in the subject line.  His reply?  “This made me tear up, let’s do it!”

We have young women and men in our conference who have a deep-seated Spirit-filled longing to lead congregations like this to revitalized ministry for Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God the Father.  We have young men and women who are tired of campaigns, sick of non-descript goals and efforts, and dying to be used by God to share the Gospel.   My 95 year old Grannie once called these “God-called preachers,” and I’m praying their tribe will increase and be invited to lead.  Let’s stop wasting time adding pages to the Book of Resolutions that no one will ever read, and begin to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Who knows what ten years of that might accomplish?

Mission Trumps Tradition

In case you don’t  know, I really like Dan Kimball.  Why?  Because I think he does his very best to connect with the people in his community who don’t know Jesus Christ.  I think he carries a sense of urgency about sharing the gospel that we need to reclaim across the Church.  I also think he properly understands sharing the faith with our community as an essential piece of our overall mission as followers of Christ.  Take time to watch his presentation from the Nines (FYI: I have  an HP laptop and a Mac, so I’m like Switzerland in that debate), and see what I’m talking about.

Core Values & Mission

While the United Methodist Church has agreed on its mission, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we have yet to have a common agreement on what this means!  Words like “disciple” and “transformation” are fairly nebulous and vague when you don’t have a common culture throughout your organization. Maybe this is just the nature of having a statement that is supposed to fit a global organization. Perhaps the best place to truly have mission and vision statements are on the local level.  

In my mind, the best vision statements provide focus.  They set the scope of your mission.  In a way, they function like fences around a daycare playground.  The fence keeps the kids in one general area, but within that area they have the freedom to play and do what kids do.  Core values then, are like the behaviors we expect from the kids: play nice, share, etc.  

So, a congregation and its leadership functions best when focused by a clear vision and guided by core values that can be embodied across the board.  One of the places that understands core values better than anyone is Zappos, the online shoe specialist.  Their core values are clearly and concisely articulated both in their culture and in their employees imagination.  They are focused – THE online shoe store – and they understand the behaviors they embody in carrying out that mission.

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace & Drive Change
  3. Create Fun & a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth & Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

In my two interactions with Zappos, they deliver.  While I was serving in a rural area of Oklahoma, I needed some brown dress shoes.  Wearing size 14s, it becomes pretty hard to find exactly what you want and get them quickly.  A friend told me about Zappos, so I took a chance.  I needed them in a few days, and figured it would be cool if they could get them there in a couple of days, but if not I wasn’t going to have a real problem.  I ordered them on Monday, and they were sitting on my porch Tuesday afternoon.  Magic.  WOW.  I told everyone.  They knocked core value #1 out of the park, and I’ve told the story several times.  Mission accomplished on their part.

What are the core values in your church?  What are the values you communicate in evereything you do from greeting guests on Sunday morning to cleaning up after wedding receptions?  Do you know?  When people leave your church on Sunday, do guests say, “WOW, I felt like an honored guest,” or do they say, “Wow…they acted surprised I was even there”?  Do the people on your leadership team understand the values they’re called to embody in everything from answering the phone to sending out emails?  If not, it may be time to give it some thought.

Servant Walk Curriculum

Several folks have been asking me about the Servant Walk curriculum, so I thought I’d post one of the handouts we use each Sunday.  This link (OK, I’m working to fix this) should take you to a Google Doc version of the PDF that I send to each of our teacher/facilitators. OK, so Google Docs doesn’t support sharing PDFs yet, so I’m going to try to post pictures of the PDF at the end of this post. We also print out the curriculum for each of the classrooms.

Right now, we’re going through Bill Hybels’ “Just Walk Across the Room” as a congregation, so you will see references to his book here.

FYI – we have already shared this with a congregation in the Northwest Texas conference, and I dream about ways to make it avaliable, if they find it useful, with smaller congregations in other UM Churches.


Top Ten Differences – Small Town to Megachurch

Sometimes people ask me, “So Matt, what’s it like serving in a Church that is 5.85 times bigger than the town you grew up in?”  OK, maybe no one else actually took the time to divide the membership of the church where I serve (7086) by the population of my hometown (1211 in the year 2000), but I like to be accurate.  I guess that’s a leftover from my research days.

So, without further delay, I thought I’d give you the top ten differences between serving in a Megachurch vs. serving in a smaller two-point charge (total combined membership around 180).  These are in no particular order.

  1. I no longer can tell the difference between visitors, members, and long-time regulars by looking at the crowd on Sunday morning.  In fact, I see completely new people every single Sunday and most days of the week.
  2. I used to preach all the time and teach occasionally.  Now, I teach all the time and preach occasionally.
  3. Believe it or not, I now work with a much smaller budget!  Before, I was involved in the finance committee, administrative council, etc. for two congregations.  That meant I was in some way directly responsible for every dollar of the congregation.  Now, I’m responsible in a direct way only for my departmental budget (roughly 7 percent of what I oversaw before).  Of course, I do think that I’m responsible for the larger budget as I teach the meaning of giving and discipleship, but let’s not get too technical here!
  4. Within that vein, I no longer handle any charge conference forms or end of the year reports.   Before, I handled (either directly or indirectly) the reports and charge conference for two congregations.
  5. One of the great benefits of my new setting is working with a staff.  In our case, that means working with an incredible staff, and I would write that even if I knew none of them would read this. 🙂
  6. In the rural/small town church you find yourself much more connected with pastors of other UM congregations.  I do miss the fellowship that took place when I saw the other pastors of my former district at district events.  I had heard about this before, and it seems to be true.
  7. I now own a home, even though this still hasn’t sunk into my mind.  My wife and I have either rented or lived in a parsonage for the first nine years of our marriage, so we still sometimes say, “oh my goodness, we own this place!”
  8. In the rural/small town church, you’re never really off work unless you’re out of town.  Here, when I’m at home, for the most part I’m at home and not working (at least not in the sense of being on the phone or running back and forth across the street to the church building).  It is a little different doing all of the pastoral care for two congregations and then being on a staff with a full time department of pastoral care.
  9. Before, I saw someone from church nearly every single time I went to the store or post office.  Now, believe it or not, our congregation is large enough this still happens quite frequently.  However, sometimes they know me and I have no idea who they are!  Again, this is different!
  10. Finally, I want to end with a similarity.  In both places,  I have been incredibly impressed with the genuine faith, love of God, and passionate conviction within the people who worship in the congregations I serve.

I wondered if I could get to ten when I started this post, and I realize now that I could have probably written at least 25!  So, consider this the first ten things that popped in my mind.

Thanks to John Meunier, who suggested he’d be interested in reading something like this when we were chatting on Facebook the other day.

Organic Community

Yesterday, I bought Joseph R. Myers‘ book, Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect. In the first chapter, “Synchronized Life: Moving from Master Plan to Organic Order,” Myers discusses the differences between programattic models of prescribing community and organic ways of developing environments in which community emerges. In describing the point of community, he suggests that the end goal is,

…a search for wholeness, not for totalitarian order.

Overall, he seeks to argue that it is important to move from a master plan (eg. the master plan of a city) understanding of building community to an understanding of organic order or an environmental model of allowing community to build and grow naturally.

In the second chapter, he begins to break down the way organizations deal with patterns using a master plan (programmer model) versus organic order (environmentalist model). He argues that the master plan has a bias for a prescriptive approach, whereas the organic order way of thinking favors a descriptive approach.

The prescriptive way of looking at patterns tries to import successful models from other communities wholesale into new settings.

We get into trouble when we think someone else’s model will work exactly as described with our participants, in our communities, in our environments.

On the other hand, descriptive ways of being attempt to pay careful attention to specific local communities.

Perhaps the most helpful comments in this chapter comes in his four “descriptive patterns of belonging. These come from Myers’ study of Edward Hall’s theory of proxemics which proposes four spatial references: public, social personal, and intimate.

  • Public space is the connection people have through an outside influence (i.e. sporting teams, etc.)
  • Social space involves the connection people have by sharing “snapshots” of themselves, the piecemeal sharing of personal narratives (eg. neighbor relationships, personal connections, acquaintances etc.)
  • Personal belonging is the space where we share private experiences, feelings, and thoughts, though not in a completely transparent way (eg. close friends, etc.)
  • Intimate space is the place where we share our most closely held experiences, thoughts, and feelings (eg. mentors, spouses, etc.)

Myers writes,

The four spaces describe an organic order, descriptive pattern for helping people with their search for community. We do not experience belonging in only one or two of these spaces. All four contribute to our health and connectedness. We need connections in all four.

In contrast to some models, the goal is not to prescribe these as essential steps. For example, Myers suggests that small groups might not necessarily be the best place for intimate space, and other groupings might best serve the same role as small groups. In other words, this is by no means a “one-size-fits-all” model that can be imported into any situation. Instead, by creating environments with an awareness of these levels of connection, we can provide opportunities for health and growth. I resonate with this language, and I think he’s hit on some very strong ideas about building community in the context in which we live.

However, I do have a few questions about Myers thoughts on this. First, as good Wesleyans, we have a strong heritage of prescriptive groupings. How would we reconcile Myers’ more descriptive environmentalist model with Wesley’s prescriptive progressive model of discipleship (Kevin, are you out there)? Second, how would we encourage people to do things that aren’t necessarily “natural” (eg. love their enemies, serve the poor, etc.) in order to grow spiritually? I like Myers ideas, but I think we’ll have to wrestle more with how we can encourage discipleship through a fully organic model.

Shifting Values, Structural Monuments?

Jim Collins of Built to Last and Good to Great fame has an interesting chapter in Leading Beyond the Walls: How High-Performing Organizations Collaborate for Shared Success. In “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” he talks about organizations of the future,

[in the future] the defining boundary will be a permeable membrane defined by values, purpose, and goals; organizations will be held together by mechanisms of connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice, rather than by systems of coercion and control. Executives will need to accept the fact – always true but now impossible to ignore – that the exercise of leadership is inversely proportional to the exercise of power.

These echoes of the one who once said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” led me to compare some of Jim’s other insights to the way we operate in the Church. So when he defines great organizations as places where core values and fundamental purposes stimulate ongoing responsive change in things such as operating practices, strategies, tactics, processes, structures, and methods, I can’t help but sigh. Using this definition, I’m afraid the Church sometimes does the opposite. There are times when we immortalize structures, methods, practices, and operating procedures while watching fundamental shifts in core values and fundamental purposes.

Jim even specifically references great churches who he claims, “understand the fundamental values and purpose of the religion must remain fixed while the specific practices and venues of worship change in response to the realities of a younger generation.”

Could we develop more fluids structures and organization within the UMC? Might we someday realize that the 800 page (and expanding) Book of Discipline is a bit too modernistic and unwieldy for the challenges facing our world? Could we simply and succinctly emphasize core practices and values that are marks of a United Methodist – things that mark ones commitment and connection – while encouraging creativity and flexibility in structural and organizational elements? What do you think?