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?