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The megachurch phenomenon is fraught with challenges and questions.  Increasingly we are also seeing not just one huge congregation that worships in a single cavernous space but churches with multiple campuses—sometimes over a dozen or so—where people gather and see the lead pastor most weeks only as beamed in from the mother ship and projected onto a giant screen.   Over the years I have talked to some pastors of exceedingly large churches and in a couple of instances they made it clear how they agonize over the challenges they face even as they and their staffs work hard to give a personal pastoral touch to all members.

But as much as anything, it is the lack of personal and pastoral connections that has bothered me where megachurches are concerned.  And yesterday a distressing article in the New York Times confirmed just how and why this is a valid issue to ponder.  The article centers on the Bragg family’s struggle to get a Dallas-area megachurch called The Village to take seriously their allegations that a children’s pastor at the church had sexually molested their 12-year-old daughter at the church-run summer camp a half dozen years ago.   If you read the article, you can draw your own conclusions as to whether the church has been straightforward with this family or completely transparent in how they dealt with what eventually became a public story.   (I myself see a lot of smoke and mirrors, some feints and some bluster, but others may disagree.)

The lead pastor and preacher of The Village is Matt Chandler.   The article tells us his sermons always make people laugh (so glad to know that) but also makes clear that he is the magnetic draw of this now sprawling church.   The woman whose daughter was molested testifies in the article that she had long respected Pastor Chandler, had looked up to him, had been among those wooed by his status as an evangelical rising star whose preaching was the center of the church’s success.  People regard Chandler as “authentic” and younger people think he has made having faith “cool.”

Despite lodging a major allegation against a member of the church’s pastoral staff and despite reaching out to Pastor Chandler and the upper echelon of the church, the one thing Chandler has never been able to do for the Bragg family is meet with them, talk with them (even by phone), or do anything remotely in the ballpark of being pastoral.  

Chandler would likely say—though he denied multiple invitations to be interviewed by reporter Elizabeth Dias so we can’t know what he might say—that with over 10,000 people coming to church every week, pastoral tasks and other such duties simply have to be parceled out to others.  He cannot know 10,000 people personally nor come anywhere close to taking point on pastoral visits.   (And anyway The Village is looking to build yet another church campus and so Chandler is very busy raising $70 million.)

Some of that may be valid.  Again, I know at least one pastor of a very large congregation who remembers when he knew all 200 people in his flock but those days are long gone, and he feels bad about that.  But this gets at what I regard as a core problem: Christianity is the religion of the incarnation.   Our Savior is a God with skin and hair and teeth.  What we have in Jesus Christ is the ultimate celebration of a truth you can see already in the Hebrew Psalter.   Again and again in places like Psalm 8 and Psalm 113 Israel praises Yahweh not just because of his awesome majesty and might but because the true greatness of Israel’s God was his ability to notice all of us in our littleness.   He stoops down to care for the widow and the orphan, he hears the distress of a childless mother and settles her in a home full of children (Ps. 113).

This is an interesting trajectory in Scripture that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnation of God’s Son.   Christianity is a solidly embodied faith.   Thank heavens God did not beam in our salvation from afar or merely send us a video projection of the Son.   God did not save us by remote control from a distance but he drew near, he got up close and personal.  When he breathed the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, they could feel the warmth of the air coming out of real lungs.

Embodiment lies pretty close to some core issues in the Christian faith.  Small wonder people want personal connections with all those under-shepherds of Jesus who serve as pastors.   Small wonder that in many churches when people hear sermons that are (objectively speaking) B/B- sermons, the people nevertheless perceive them as A/A- sermons.  Why?   Because the preacher is also a pastor who held their hand before surgery, who baptized their children, who showed up at the funeral home when Mom died.   They know they are loved by such a pastor and they in turn love him or her back.

Nothing succeeds in America like success, we like to say.  And so when we see a “successful” megachurch with multi-site campuses and high production values and big-time preachers who make people laugh and can really hold a congregation’s attention for long periods, we assume this has to be a singularly good thing.  But what if it turns out that the dynamics of such big operations compromise some key biblical and theological and finally human truths?   Perhaps there are ways to compensate for some of that but what if in the end such churches cannot deliver on some fundamental aspects of the faith and of discipleship itself?   Is it worth trading those things in just so that we can all fall back and admire such “successful” churches as some epitome of Americana?

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

20 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Hear, hear. And I would add that a megachurch is not a church, not one, despite the “thousands,” described at the end of Acts 2.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      This seems to be an awfully broad statement for which you should offer clarification or an apology.

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        Fair enough. Although an apologia not an apology. What I mean is Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is “church,” and anything less than this, these four things, although it certainly may be Christian, is not properly church.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you, Scott. The Times article was so troubling, I appreciate your tackling it. Grateful for pastors who’ve known my name, sat with my family, been with us!

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Well said, Scott. Gathering a crowd is not particularly challenging, particularly in America, where our culture is prone to worship celebrity. True shepherding is very challenging. Inescapable in Scripture is the picture of the pastor as under-shepherd (Eph. 4:11, I Peter 5:1-4). In John 10 when Jesus spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd, he said “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” and “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”

    It’s hard to square that passage and the intimate knowledge of shepherd and sheep with a model that seems to encourage, if not outright require, anonymity and unfamiliarity. Can a “pastor” who can’t be bothered by the suffering of his sheep be a true pastor in any real sense? It also seems inescapable that churches that revolve around a singular personality are in some ways not revolving around Christ. Such churches also tend to become cults of personality and are prone to all sorts of disasters (CR: Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, etc.). All-in-all, I see little, if anything, in the megachurch/multi-site model that is admirable, biblical, or exemplary.

  • mstair says:

    I am concerned about the correlation of the mega-“show” church and the pluralistic / all-inclusive movement in Christianity. There are choices being made about where to go on Sunday mornings.
    Our reformed churches that begin with worship with, “… Recognizing our unworthiness even to stand in the presence of God, we are compelled to repent, to confess our sin. What else can we do but seek the grace of God? … ”
    are just not bringing them in like worship that begins with
    “… we are all loved by Jesus for just way we are. If you’re a loving, tolerant child of God, looking for love and acceptance, you belong here with all of us…”

    two very different perspectives ….

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      We don’t begin that way. We begin with the original Reformed opening. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven earth, who keeps faith forever, and never lets go the work of his hands. Grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.” We don’t start with words about us, either in unworthiness or toleration. We start with words about a sovereign and faithful God.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Years ago, when a minister in the Tulsa area, I was part of a Monday morning weekly breakfast sponsored by the local hospital. It was always an odd experience, with nearly all of the ministers present being of the evangelical/fundamentalist mode, as the operative question of the morning was: “How many people came forward for you yesterday?”

    These days, it’s how many campuses do you have?

    There was a time in the 90s, when I thought the megachurches had something of value, and perhaps I was right at that point in time, but as the megachurch industry has grown all the more, I no longer believe that. In order to mass-produce the church, virtually everything of the gospel has to be transformed (deformed, I suppose) to fit the market of entertainment, laughter, and “inspiration.” appealing to the worst American instincts of success, numbers, prestige, power and influence.

    These churches reinforce the believer-centered theology of evangelicalism – “it’s all about me” … rather than the glory of God, nor can these churches deal with the prophetic message of a Jeremiah or an Amos, and what Jesus is and offers is reduced to a personal utility of salvation (meaning heaven at the end of life) or the means by which personal advantage can be gained, as with wealth, health and happiness, and these days, sadly coinciding with the dismissal and condemnation of the poor and the oppressed because they’re poor and oppressed as God’s punishment for moral failure, or some such nonsense as that.

    Your questions and comments here have hit the nail on the head.

    Thank you for this thoughtful article …

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks Scott. Your thoughts confirm that a “megachurch” is not a church. A collection of churches, perhaps. A bunch of people sitting or standing in rows and all facing forward on a Sunday morning are not a church. A collection of churches, perhaps. The actions of a church are described in Romans 12:9-21. What form does a church take to make those actions possible?

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I appreciate the questions, Scott, and I’m a bit surprised that I’m going to write this response, but it seems a bit too self-righteous for those of us who are not part of a mega-church to cast them aside so easily. I’m a pastor of small church in NJ. I’m proud of the ministry we do, but there are lots of folks that question whether we are a church because we are small. It doesn’t feel helpful to judge a gathering of believers by their size. It feels like it would be more helpful to discern a judgment based on the health of a church. I have multiple challenges before me every day as a small church pastor and none of them look like the challenges that a mega-church pastor faces every day. I don’t worry about knowing my people. I know them in such personal ways that I am challenged to work on boundaries and healthy connections. A mega-church pastor never worries about these issues. S/he must focus diligently on how they incarnate the word and build up healthy relationships in their large church, how they meet the pastoral needs of the 10,000 through staff, volunteers, shepherd ministry, training, etc. In some ways, it’s the reflection of Acts 6. The Apostles couldn’t meet the pastoral needs of the growing body of believers, so they developed something new. They ordained deacons and trusted the Spirit and the deacons maturity to do the pastoral work, they could not. The church is always developing new wine skins for the gospel wine as it changes and grows, expands and becomes something new.
    It seems to me that this church has its struggles with being healthy, and if half of the NY Times interview is accurate, then it surely has health issues, but tossing out that large churches can’t be gospel churches or effective bodies of Christ feels just as blind as saying that my small gathering is somehow deficient just because it’s small. I don’t think we should do that. Just my thoughts. Thanks for the invitation into thinking critically about the challenges we all face.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for an article that has caused several of us readers to ponder your wisdom or insight. It seems that you have some misgivings in regard to megachurches, especially when it comes to pastoral care. Such churches have a figure head but without pastoral care, at least pastoral care from the lead pastor. I imagine that the “Village” tries to delegate pastoral care through its ministry staff and through a network of church members who address a variety of spiritual needs within the congregation. Chandler is the minister of preaching. Willow Creek church, whom we (the CRC) have looked to in the past for leadership insight and training, has a number of programs for the purpose of giving intimacy (or pastoral care) to a large church. Much of ministry is through a system of delegation. And we looked to them for guidance.

    So is delegation bad? I would hope not. Isn’t that what the Christian church is all about. Isn’t Jesus Christ’s ministry (the head of the church) one of delegation? Aren’t ministers Christ’s delegates who preach the gospel? Isn’t the ministry of elders and deacons a delegated ministry of Jesus? What about youth leaders and Sunday School teachers? Aren’t they delegates of Jesus’ teaching ministry? Aren’t the members of the church the hands and feet of Jesus? If it’s a ministry of Jesus, it’s a delegated ministry

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a personal visitation from Jesus, nor do I know of anyone who has. I doubt that there are any that have had such a visitation since his death (except in the legendary accounts of the Bible). You could say, all church ministry is the delegated ministry of Jesus.

    But of course, the delegated ministry of Jesus doesn’t always meet with success either. As churches, we pray for the physical healing of members, the restoration of marriages, the success of our children, the unrest between nations, the honorable leadership of our president and Congress, the unrest in the Middle East, financial stability of our churches, and on and on. Other than answering the church’s prayer for daily bread (in Western society) there is little assurance that God (or Jesus) will answer any of our prayers. So the delegated ministry has a pretty miserable success rate. But what are you going to do when noone has had a visible visitation from our leader. We assume he’s out there somewhere. Thanks again, Scott, for making us think.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    The woman in the NY Times article said “This community…was “our whole life.”” That’s not pied-piperism. I dare any of you to attend (with a good attitude!) a mega-church for 6 months. I’d be shocked if you don’t find yourself more/better engaged then you currently are. There are more places to participate, with more enthusiasm and resources. All you need to do is not be a stick-in-the-mud.*

    As a matter of fact, I would encourage any small/struggling church pastors to partner with a mega-church. Pastoral/Worship/Ministry support (imagine 10-15 hours of your week returned to you), they’ll likely seed you with some transfers for a little bit of leadership help/enthusiasm, potential facility upgrades – and all you need to do is lay down a little bit of ego (not a lot mind you). It’s the biggest no-brainer in history.**

    * I don’t really want you to leave your church. I’m just saying that you will if you take me up on it.:)
    ** I’m dead serious about this. It’s a real option if you find that you’ve hit a wall.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It is part of my testimony that I did once have a personal visit from the Lord Jesus. Once in my life, while I was in prayer.

    • RLG says:

      That is quite impressive that you had a personal visit from Jesus. From what I’ve seen (or heard of) in a variety churches, very few Christians can attest to a personal visit from Jesus. That might seem especially true of Reformed churches. In fact, this is the first that I’ve heard of in our Reformed denominations. It seems (in my mind) that we might hear of such happenings in the Pentecostal line of Christianity.

      Assuming your experience is true, what do you attest such a visit to? According to your comment you’ve only had one such experience. Why doesn’t Jesus make more personal visits to members of his church? It could seem to most that Jesus prefers to delegate his presence to others through secondary means, such as the reading of the Bible, the ministry of a youth pastor, or the kindness of an elder, and etc. But very seldom through a personal visit from Jesus. Do you think there is a reason that Jesus makes such visits to so few people? You would think there must be some reasoning. Your comment is thought provoking.

  • Bob Bouwer says:

    We are who you are writing about. I am who you are writing about. I serve a Mega Church with 6 campuses. I believe Mega, Large, Medium, small and house churches are all their size by God’s sovereign hand. I celebrate every size church. So are you advocating a capping of size? When I came to Faith Church we were a church of 200 active members. I never set out to be a “mega”. I just sought to be a Gospel, Reformed, Evangelical, faithful to the word of God church. I felt the article and many of the comments hurts the church in several ways. When God looks down from heaven how many churches does He see? I believe the answer is one. Why would we judge a gospel proclaiming church like The Village church based on a New York Times article. Shouldn’t we be examining the church from scripture. Passages like Exodus 18 where Moses was confronted by his Dad-in-law about his “mega” church responsibilities and the plan to get elders to care and a system to protect Moses from burning out. Could it be that The Village Church Deacons are taking care of the tasks like in Acts 6? Scott, I would welcome you to visit our church and see the amazing Care Pastors, elders and Care Team in action. The people in crisis, brokenness and ill are amazingly cared for. I love equipping them as urged in Ephesians 4. My prayer is that we focus more on the real enemy that is seeking to destroy the church and not shoot the allies. A video venue of church may not be your preference but it is functioning with great health at many churches. Faith Church has “Live Preaching” at all sites except once in a while. When it is video I remind the people that the word of God is living even if the message isn’t live. In closing lets all pray for The Village Church and Matt Chandler and the Bragg family and God’s one church.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Rev. Hoezee,

    We were talking about your essay at the dinner table last night. I didn’t know who Matt Chandler was, but my boys knew of him well. Their high school Bible teacher shows clips of his sermons in class, and has for the last several years. It seems like he is quite a gifted preacher, and does much more than make people laugh.

    You should consider inviting him to you next Calvin Seminary Symposium on Worship.

  • Sean Lucas says:

    These responses are so interesting because they miss the point. I pastor a church with 2300 members. And this morning on my run, I was wrestling with this very question: how do I actually pastor them in an incarnational, embodied way? To where I know them and they know me?

    I’m preparing to preach a funeral for one of our leaders who was murdered last Friday. Even as I provide pastoral care for the family, these questions continue to rattle in my brain. It is not possible to know everyone to the same depth; it’s hard enough two and half years in to know everyone’s name (I don’t). Thank you for articulating the deep struggle that I feel as a pastor.

    • Bob Bouwer says:

      Sean, I hear your struggle. I live in that tension but I believe God’s word has given us the plan…elders, deacons and community. I almost think it seems “Celebrity”ish” to think everyone needs to know me and I know them. I disciple our elders that our people need to be known by God in Christ and others in community. Blessings.

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