Hi and welcome back! It didn’t take long after Hillsong’s troubles became public for Christians to engage in one of their favorite pastimes: criticizing megachurches. Non-megachurch-attending Christians hate megachurches for all kinds of reasons. Today, I want to show you some of those reasons — and what the megachurch model means in the age of Christianity’s decline.
(Spoiler alert: It is not actually a sign of the Endtimes.)
Everyone, Meet the Megachurch.
A megachurch is simply an extremely large church, usually an evangelical one. Like we see in almost everything about Christianity, there’s not a hard-and-fast definition of the term. Often, those defining it set a megachurch’s membership at 2000+ people attending Sunday services weekly. But some of these churches enjoy attendance in the tens of thousands. Often, megachurches split their membership into multiple churches across many cities, or set up satellite churches that may be their own separate church or considered a church group.
Megachurches have existed for a long time. They’ve been around at least since the end of World War II. Some sources even put them as existing even further back. For example, here’s a good 2015 journal article by David Eagle about the topic. He notes that Christians have been working to build what amount to megachurches since the 16th century. But the modern incarnation of the megachurch has evolved rapidly over the past 30 years or so.
For my own part, I was surprised to discover a few years ago that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church I briefly joined in my teens qualified as a megachurch. It certainly was the hugest church I’d ever attended, both in size and in membership. Even coming from a Catholic background, I felt just overwhelmed by that place. I don’t think I ever even met the pastor of that SBC church, though that wasn’t a big deal to me at the time.
That SBC church didn’t feel like something like, say, Saddleback Church or the Crystal Cathedral at its height. But it didn’t need to be. Even by megachurch standards, those massive churches are outliers.
And in these breathtaking days of Christianity’s decline, megachurches are about the only churches that are growing. Sure, they grow mostly by poaching members from smaller churches, but they do indeed grow.
An Overview of the Megachurch Model.
When we talk about the megachurch model, we mean a church business model that laser-focuses on growth and retention. Churches using this model give evangelicals exactly what they want, asking little of them that they don’t want to give.
I’ve never encountered any successful megachurch that does anything different.
A 2020 paper from Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that there are about 1750 churches here that qualify for the label of megachurch. Though almost all of their pastors are white, their flocks are often somewhat racially diverse. On average, about 4000 people attend services (though individual attendees tend to attend less often). And 74% of these churches claim to be growing — and growing very quickly. (Of course, these figures are likely to change dramatically once we get figures from the pandemic. Hartford didn’t have those numbers yet.)
Hartford also noticed that these churches are extremely market-driven. They use the word “intentional” a lot in this paper, but not as the trendy buzzword that evangelicals devised a few years ago. No, megachurch leaders use it as a marketing term. For example, megachurch leaders discourage discussion of politics because they know that these discussions can cause very serious conflict in a congregation. (They’re right!) However, 93% of megachurches define themselves as conservative with words like evangelical, charismatic, “seeker-friendly,” or the like.
As well, megachurch leaders market heavily to the demographics they want to recruit. They tailor their amenities and accommodations to suit. Whether megachurches want to recruit families, special-needs folks, people of color (POC), or college students, they go after them very specifically and offer amenities that those groups will objectively value.
Last and most importantly, megachurches are extremely dependent on the charisma and management skills of their lead pastor (who also tends to be the church’s founder). A megachurch is a huge weekly blowout production. Accordingly, its leader needs to be a showrunner.
The Sheer Importance of the Megachurch Model.
Evangelical Christians, in particular, do like their megachurches. They’ve patronized these churches aplenty since the model gained prominence decades ago. One 2012 survey tells us that megachurches represent just half of one percent of all Protestant churches in America — but at the time, they claimed 10% of Protestant churchgoers. That is dramatic.
David Eagle’s paper, linked above (and relinked here), includes an interesting quote by a prominent evangelical leader, Lyle Schaller. In 1990, Schaller wrote:
“The emergence of the ‘megachurch’ is the most important development of modern Christian history. You can be sentimental about the small congregation, like the small corner grocery store or small drugstore, but they simply can’t meet the expectations that people carry with them today.”
I’d agree. Megachurches are hugely important to Christianity. They’ve changed the game in a lot of ways for all Christians.
With that kind of impact, we can expect to encounter a lot of polarized views about the megachurch model.
And that is exactly what we get.
Mainly, Christians either love love love the megachurch model’s explicit emphasis on market-friendliness, think this model does a ton of good, and are certain that its success indicates Jesus’ approval…
… Or else they hate the entire model, think megachurches only offer a diluted spirituality that only appeals to fakey-fake Christians, and consider megachurches’ dominance of the Christian landscape to be a sign of the Endtimes.
Blaming Megachurches for Everything.
Way back in 2009, Christianity Today was declaring its antipathy for the megachurch model. They saw it as antithetical to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™:
Unfortunately, the latest Leadership Network study shows that the language of business and consumerism persistently frames the megachurch worldview. [. . .]
It’s no secret that too many evangelical leaders are captivated more by business culture than biblical culture, spending more time absorbed in strategies and effectiveness and relatively little time in prayer. No, it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, but let’s face it, it often is.
Don’t worry: they ended up punting to sin nature:
Maybe we should stop either cheerleading for the megachurch, as if it’s the answer, or pointing fingers at it, as if it’s the problem. Each American church in its own way has been co-opted and fallen short of the glory of God. Once we all admit that, the Spirit can start working with us to create a gospel culture in our churches.
Oh, okay. Well, the important part is that they’ve found a way to look down on everybody.
Despite these writers’ valiant attempt to speak out of both sides of their mouths, “the Spirit” seems unwilling or unable to do anything at all in Christianity. Since 2009, megachurches have only risen in popularity.
“Megachurches are sprawling wastelands of Christianity. They breed heresy, they have abandoned the truth of the Bible and they care more about numbers and budgets than they do souls and eternity.” You’ve probably heard that characterization before. I have.
— LifeWay Research [strawmanning]
Over the past decade, I’ve seen countless criticisms of the megachurch model. Almost all of them run along exactly the same lines as that 2009 Christianity Today opinion post. Church growth indicates divine favor, especially to evangelicals. But if a church grows too much or too quickly, or it caters too much to its market, then that’s bad.
It’s a hilarious push-and-pull line, an ever-shifting goal post. To hear Christians talk, churches shouldn’t care about appealing to the people living in their area. But they must, because those are the people who will be subsidizing the entire enterprise. But they can’t do it too much, or they’ll risk being called consumeristic. And if they do it too little, they’ll remain a tiny little church that can’t afford a full-time pastor, or they’ll just close. Either way, they’ll be accused of not Jesus-ing correctly.
As they do with the concept of modesty, Christians maintain a subjective line in their own heads of just how much marketing and consumer-friendliness is correct and appropriate — and no two Christians ever seem to agree on this amount.
Reading Christians’ numerous criticisms, one gets the sense that megachurch critics are upset and infuriated that their brand of self-professed TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ just doesn’t sell nearly as well as what megachurches offer. These critics despise knowing that in a purely market-driven religious marketplace, whatever they’re doing isn’t bringing in the crowds like whatever megachurches are doing.
How Megachurches Give Away the Game.
The many critics of the megachurch model can sniff down their noses at megachurches all they want. At the end of the day, megachurches say something very, very important about the natural market value of their religion. They give away the entire Christian game, so to speak.
First, they reveal that Christianity, at its heart, isn’t actually popular or much-desired. In previous centuries, those humongous megachurches were the result of Christian coercion and dominance. Without a lot of savvy marketing and a host of slick amenities and accommodations, churches don’t get that big naturally. (So much for that so-called “god-shaped hole” evangelicals insist everyone has!)
Second, megachurches reveal that the vast majority of Christians are, in fact, driven by consumeristic needs and wants. Sure, that says some bad things about Christianity and refutes a lot of its claims. But it’s the truth all the same.
Megachurches Reveal the Pattern.
In response to one of my usual novel-length comments on religious sites, someone plaintively asked me:
I get what you saying but do we want “Christian consumers” who need amenities, or we want people to have an actual relationship with God?
What is this thing we call christianity turned into?
“Turned into?” It’s sad — but funny too in its way — that Christians even think their religion has “turned into” this weird new and unlikeable thing that doesn’t feel Jesus-y at all to them.
But in fact, this is what Christianity always was. There was never a time when some vast percentage of Christians were TRUE CHRISTIANS™ hungering and thirsting after TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
Churches were always a business — a very lucrative one at that, one that got a lot of government subsidization and grudging consumer support for many centuries. It receives way smaller subsidies now and can no longer force that support from unwilling consumers. So now churches must operate on their own merits. And except for megachurches, churches struggle hard to survive these days. Religious consumers vote with their wallets and their feet, rewarding churches that meet their needs by parking their butts in pews (BIPs) and donating money from their shrinking disposable incomes.
Free choice in the religious marketplace only revealed the pattern in the Magic Eye poster. That pattern was always there. It was simply obscured by the sheer amount of coercion the religion’s leaders could exert.
The Market Speaks.
Ultimately, megachurches succeed because they do a better job of coexisting with the new normal of religious freedom than small churches can, that’s all.
There’ll always be Christians drawn to the weirdest, most ascetic flavors of any religion, sure, but most believers are just people. They want the same things people have always wanted from their groups: meaningful social contact, nurturing, and a group that they can be proud to call their own. They want a group that offers them tangible benefits they need in their lives and can feel good about supporting.
If megachurches could give members those benefits without being predatory and abusive, I wouldn’t have a problem with them. But even knowing what I do about how easily megachurch leaders slip into hypocrisy, I know that it isn’t the megachurch model itself that’s the problem here. It’s something much deeper, and it’s found in churches of all sizes.
And we’ll dive into that topic tomorrow.
NEXT UP: Part 2 of the megachurch blowout spectacular, as we see why the megachurch model is not the source of Hillsong Church’s various scandals (or any other megachurch’s scandals, for that matter). See you tomorrow! <3
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