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.

Mega-misconceptions

Over the years I have often heard about the virtues of small churches.  On top of that, over the years I’ve experienced the virtues of small churches!  I am deeply indebted in my faith to the small churches I’ve attended and helped lead as a pastor.  Often, with appreciation for smaller congregations, megachurches get a bad rap in popular comparison.  People say they are shallow, they are impersonal, they are shrines to consumerism, and so on, and so forth.

Most of you know I’m beginning a new part of my journey as the new Minister of Discipleship at Church of the Servant United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City.  Church of the Servant is a church of the mega variety.  On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of nine people who gathered to reflect on a passage of scripture and collaborate on a Sunday School lesson for this coming Sunday.  The discussion was riveting.  I was blown away, and even given chills at some of the deep insights from this group.  In one short hour, I saw nine contradictions to the assumption that megachurches create shallow, impersonal, consumeristic disciples.  Instead, I met nine folks who I found to be deeply faithful, incredibly personable, sacrificially committed disciples.

Don’t get me wrong, I have met these same committed folks in small churches too.  I just think it’s important to remind everyone that there isn’t a particular size of congregation that has a monopoly on producing faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  Needless to say, I’ve had a great first week.

Megachurch Musings

Since I’ll soon be beginning an appointment at a much larger congregation, I have found myself reading more about the unique opportunities and challenges within megachurches.  Scott Thumma & Warren Bird have released a new study which you can find here (h/t Todd Rhodes @ MondayMorningInsight).

Todd summarizes several changes that have taken place over the last three years including:

  • Growth without adding seats
  • More satellite campuses and off-site worship
  • More intentional training for ministers and ministerial candidates
  • Growing emphasis on small groups
  • More interest in social justice and outreach

He also shares a few things that have remained roughly the same:

  • Contemporary worship styles
  • Strong outreach and programming
  • Continued growth
  • Continued strong finances

I’m curious what will change in the next three years in these influential congregations.  Primarily, I can foresee the current financial situation in our country may start to have an impact on these congregations.