Upon this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Twenty centuries later, Christ’s church has crossed the globe. Yet, in its visible form, we often define it by buildings or large gatherings of people.
So how big does a church need to be in order to be effective? If we believe the church growth movement, then mega-churches of two or three thousand members are the ones driving the kingdom of God. But is this true?
Movements or denominations
Last month, David Murrow mused that within fifty years denominations would be replaced by 200 celebrity pastors. Small local churches would be consumed by satellite campuses of mega-churches. Rather than people identifying themselves as Baptist, Presbyterian, or Anglican, they will identify themselves as Driscollites, Hylesites, or Warrenites. Personally, I hope this is not true, as it would foster a host of problems—not the least of which is the idolatry of man worship. I find it hard to see how mega-church pastors can even retain the title of pastor, when they maintain personal relationships with paid staff rather than members of their congregation. That is not to say they don’t have a valid role. It is just that they are in reality CEOs of organisations that direct functional program managers and cell group leaders. The cell group leaders are probably the ones who should hold the title of pastor.
From a risk management standpoint, Mr Murrow’s vision is concerning. Why centralise all the church’s leadership in the status of a few mega church pastors? Leaders, like us all, inevitably fall. While I understand that Jesus builds his church, when we define the church by a mega pastor rather than Jesus, we set it up for failure. In their book The Spider and the Starfish, the Power of Leaderless Organisations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom surmise that if you want to kill a spider, you step on its head and the whole creature dies. If you want to kill a starfish… well it can much more organically reproduce. In Acts 8, the church was being persecuted and one of its heads (leaders), Stephen, was killed. This caused God’s people (the church) to scatter through-out the known world. However, it was through this scattering and decentralisation, that the church grew. I personally believe the future would be better served with more local churches and less centralised leadership.
The church service
The key ingredient that has helped the mega-church movement rise is the “church service.” While the New Testament does refer to the saints gathering on a Sunday, nowhere does it call that gathering a “service.” I service my car; I don’t service people. The idea that we can package our faith and worship into seventy-five minutes of slick choreography once per week seems cheap. Yet contemporary Christianity does this with such regularly that it has become how we think of church. I believe the rise of the church service is directly related to the declining commitment and a large part of why people don’t take church seriously. If a church is trying to compete with a rock concert, the rock concert will win every time. Instead, our church gatherings must be based on substance, not style.
The cell group
Despite my generally hesitant views of mega-churches, I don’t believe they are an illegitimate form of church. Mega-churches can be effective in certain contexts and with certain people groups. They are not however a one-size-fits-all model, and they certainly must not deride and belittle smaller forms of church gatherings. I believe smaller churches are more naturally built for pastoral dynamics. Everyone of us was made for relationship with God and for relationship with God’s people. Deep and meaningful relationships are not developed through Facebook anymore than they are through a mega-gathering. Real relationship and real church occurs when God’s people personally know each other and are known. In mega-churches, this might occur in cell groups. But the logical question then is, if real church is occurring in the cell group, does that not make the seventy-five minute weekly presentation superfluous? Should we be calling the cell group the real church and weekly church service the optional extra?
The future of the mega-church
Despite Mr Murrow’s thoughts, there are other who are forecasting the decline of the mega-church. Lillian Kwon’s research suggests that the mega-church come and see movement is fizzling. Just as the rise of Wal-Mart and Westfield threatened the small corner store, so the rise of internet shopping will threaten the mega-store. Similarly, there is the real possibility that church consumers will soon tire of the boxed packaging and seek meaning and substance in being known by others. Mega-churches would do well to note this and elevate cell-groups to primacy over the church service.
Rediscovering real church
Church gets real when we learn about Jesus and put that learning into action. At the end of the day, all those buildings and church structures will be burned up. What we have sown into the lives of people through Jesus’ name will last for eternity. Discipleship and mentoring cannot be mass produced. There is no way to manufacture or mass-produce evangelism. The Holy Spirit works through people, not programmes. Structures are helpful only in as much as they facilitate one-to-one people ministry. As we move the mega-church structure to the background, let’s pray that we will see more true discipleship. As we try to make the mega-church structure more invisible, let’s pray that we will see God’s church as both two to three people as well as two to three thousand people.