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The Mega Church and the Mini Gospel

My nephew first alerted me to the cover story of the May 23, 2005, issue of Business Week. When I got to Barnes & Noble, it wasn’t hard to locate. “Evangelical America: Big Business. Explosive Politics” was plastered across the cover with a picture of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. There were actually two other ways in which the article was named: “Marketing Masters: How evangelical churches employ a panoply of business techniques to pull in new members,” and “Earthly Empires: How evangelical churches are borrowing from the business playbook.”

The story line is one with which I’m sure you are already familiar. The churches highlighted are the ones we’ve come to expect, although it would be a mistake to think they concur in either theology or practice: Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church of Houston, Texas, now the largest in the country; Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, pastored by Bill Hybels; Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, California, whose pastor Rick Warren is the author of the fastest-selling nonfiction book in history (“The Purpose-Driven Life”); Life Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, launched in 1996 and led by Craig Groeschel; together with brief references to Creflo Dollar, pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park, Georgia; and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, whose pastor is Jack Graham.

As I said, don’t make the mistake of thinking all these churches are of one mind. The biblical gospel proclaimed by Jack Graham at Prestonwood, for example, is significantly different from the prosperity “gospel” of health and wealth one hears from Creflo Dollar!

The statistics are still staggering, no matter how many times you hear them. Lakewood Church is now up to 30,000 members, which they anticipate growing to 100,000 once they’ve moved into the Compaq Center in downtown Houston, former home of the Houston Rocket’s NBA team. Each week 7 million people, at a cost to the church of $15 million annually, watch Osteen on cable TV. Willow Creek (with its 427 employees), which attracts 21,000 people each week to its services, has a $48 million annual budget and $143 million in net assets. Thousands take part each year in Prestonwood Baptist’s sports programs on eight playing fields and six gyms on its $100 million, 140-acre campus.

Other churches could have been cited, as there are now close to 900 so-called “mega-churches” in the U.S. compared with about 50 in 1980. A mega church is considered to be one that has a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more.

Let’s be clear about one thing. I have no objection to large churches per se. In and of itself, the idea of a church with 30,000, or even 300,000, members is nowhere condemned in the New Testament. It may simply be a tremendous blessing from God. Some may want to argue that basic ministries essential to the people of God cannot effectively be fulfilled in a church of that size and that smaller congregations are more practical and spiritually functional. That’s a debate for another day. But size itself, whether big or small, is not a sin.

Let me go even further and say that if you are a pastor or member of a mega church that faithfully proclaims the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone, I pray that your congregation would expand to even greater heights. If you unashamedly affirm the reality of divine wrath (without redefining it as simply the inevitable moral consequences of sin), the pervasive depravity of the human heart, the necessity of the new birth and repentance, and the centrality of God’s glory in all things, I’m thrilled that your church is mega! You have my permission to ignore the rest of this article. My complaint isn’t with you. In other words, as long as your gospel is as big as your membership roll, I praise God with you for such an outpouring of divine favor.

My concern is with the tactics and strategies employed by some, not all, mega church pastors to gather the multitudes, as well as what they’re fed once they join up. I’m not talking about what Business Week refers to as “Sunday Schools that look like Disney World and church cafés with the appeal of Starbucks” (80). To make visitors feel at home, “some [mega churches] do away with standard religious symbolism – even basics like crosses and pews – and design churches to look more like modern entertainment halls than traditional places of worship” (84). Again, I’m all for coffee and a chair at church rather than going thirsty while sitting uneasily on a wooden pew. There’s nothing wrong with making people feel physically comfortable during a Sunday service, although I do wonder about the wisdom of investing such massive amounts of money on what are, ultimately, dispensable western conveniences while so many of our brothers and sisters around the globe are living and ministering at or below the poverty level.

What bothers me is the consistent and somewhat humanistic message of human potential, personal fulfillment, and hope for prosperity, together with an obsession for self-esteem, that is proclaimed from pulpits that rarely hear the echo of solid exegesis or communication of the content of Holy Scripture. This soul-shrinking “gospel” serves only to distract people from what makes the biblical gospel good news: the majestic, mind-blowing beauty of a transcendently holy God who graciously condescends in the person of his Son to absorb in himself the punishment we all so richly and eternally deserved.

One of the pastors interviewed for the article is said to have started out “doing market research with non-churchgoers in the area – and got an earful. ‘They said churches were full of hypocrites and were boring,’ he recalls. So he designed [his church] to counter those preconceptions, with lively, multimedia-filled services in a setting that’s something between a rock concert and a coffee shop” (87).

I certainly hope this pastor was misunderstood, and if he was, my apologies will be quick in coming. In the meantime, I’ll proceed on the assumption that Business Week cited him accurately. Forgive me for being so cynical, but I don’t think “multimedia-filled services” in any setting are going to help much with the hypocrisy in today’s churches. And if I know human nature at all, people will soon enough find elaborate services with high tech productions as tiresome and predictable as the traditional approach. Nor do I think such flash and sound will do much to sustain the human soul when tragedy or trial or bankruptcy or cancer or teenage rebellion strikes home.

So what’s the solution? May I be so bold to suggest that “boredom” is best overcome by a passionate and biblically accurate portrayal of the supremacy of God and the prospect of unending intimacy in his presence. Boredom is shattered by the breathtaking splendor and heart-thumping glory of the revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

And what of hypocrisy? Yes, there’s hypocrisy in the church, and in the office, and on the athletic field, and in our schools, and on Wall Street and in Hollywood. People often are not what they profess. But dare I say that the solution is found, not in creating a religious facsimile of MTV, but in challenging with the gospel those who “profess” to be Christians but lack the internal reality and then providing them with a thoroughly biblical portrait of the sweetness, joy, delight, and satisfaction that comes with the pursuit of true holiness. Hypocrisy derives its power from the lie that authentic obedience and heartfelt holiness are less satisfying than the pleasures of the world, flesh, and the devil. The solution to hypocrisy is trust in the powerfully appealing counter promise that only “in God’s presence is fullness of joy” and only “at God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

According to the article, you won’t find stained glass windows or the cross in the auditoriums of many seeker-sensitive mega churches. The reason? “Market research suggested that such traditional symbols would scare away non-churchgoers” (87). This calls for careful reflection. I don’t want to overreact, so let’s proceed cautiously.

On the one hand, let’s not forget that the preaching of the cross scared, scandalized, and offended virtually everyone in the first century, both Jews and Gentiles. The market research conducted by these churches is right on target. But they could have saved themselves a lot of money by simply reading 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. The apostle Paul already discovered that the cross is folly to unsaved people, that it appears as foolish to the wise of this world, but that it is precisely and only what will bring them the salvation they so desperately need. Nowhere in Paul’s ministry or in that of any other NT figure do I see an evangelistic strategy that calls for disguising the identity, beliefs, and devotion of the church for the sake of maximizing its appeal.

The image of a cross was far and away more offensive in the first century than it ever has been or will be in ours. Crucifixion was more than a means of capital punishment. It was the embodiment and expression of the worst of human obscenities, a form of execution considered so aesthetically repugnant that Roman citizens were exempt from it and those who did suffer its horrid pains were forbidden formal burial. Yet Paul loudly and unashamedly and boldly proclaimed the gospel of a crucified Messiah! Indeed, when in Corinth he resolved not to know “anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). That message did more than scare people away, it led to persecution and stoning and imprisonment for those who dared preach it.

But some would argue that people in our day are not frightened or offended by the cross for the same reason they were in the first century. Rather, their “fear” is that they will encounter a stodgy and lifeless band of believers who have nothing relevant to say about the problems they face nor meaningful answers to the questions they’re asking. There’s a measure of truth in this, but perhaps modern folk aren’t offended by the cross because so few dare preach it with biblical clarity. The cross entails far more than the painful death of a first-century carpenter. At its core are the righteous wrath and “amazing grace” of a holy God and the dreadful plight of the human race that made it necessary. I could be wrong, but I doubt that many mega churches have grown to their current size because of their repeated and unqualified emphasis on the necessity of blood atonement.

What this generation needs most isn’t candles and couches and soul-soothing conversation but the inviolable truth of God incarnate, dying and rising for lost sinners. The cry for “authenticity” and “self-actualization” is most readily met in the power of the Holy Spirit and the heart-ravishing beauty of a heavenly Father who sings over those who exult in him as their all-consuming treasure (Zeph. 3:17).

This isn’t to deny the importance of contextualizing the gospel where needed. Neither am I recommending that we be relationally insensitive or culturally naive. When possible we should always communicate the gospel via the most relevant and intelligible media available to us, so long as the integrity of the truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ is not redefined, diluted, or in any way compromised for the sake of “success”.

Honestly, I often wonder if it is really the case that non-Christians who otherwise want to attend church and hear the gospel take one look at stained glass windows and crosses and pews and say, “It just looks all too religious. I think I’ll stay home.” O.K., yes, perhaps there are some who use that as an excuse to sleep in or play golf on Sunday morning. But people who think this way are typically not in a frame of mind or spirit to pay heed to anything remotely Christian, whether in the form of traditional symbols or the Bible or the message of the gospel.

Finally, I’m not convinced that “scaring away” “non-churchgoers” is the worst thing that could happen. If people, for whatever reason, are not inclined to visit our churches it might just force believers into the revolutionary strategy of actually engaging an unsaved neighbor in conversation about the issues of life and death. Imagine that! Walking across the driveway to speak to the person next door about Jesus Christ! Stunning. Taking an unsaved co-worker to lunch and sharing your story of life and forgiveness and joy with Jesus. My, my, what will Christianity come to next? Yes, I’m being sarcastic. But if getting people to come to your building requires eliminating any potentially offensive images or symbolism or other “religious paraphernalia” associated with authentic Christian worship, I say, let them stay home! Perhaps then the church will come out from behind its four walls and finally embrace its missional identity.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies muting the sharp sound of the gospel of a crucified and risen Savior who endured the righteous wrath of God in himself so that hell-deserving sinners might have life. I’ll say it again: Nothing! Not increased attendance, not more money, not bigger buildings, nothing justifies softening the offense of the cross or the soul-threatening reality of sin, yes S-I-N, or the life-giving power of repentance. Nothing. Not even the threat of death, although we in the West hardly know what that means.

Permit me to say it again: if your mega church is faithfully preaching this gospel and the Lord has blessed you with thousands of congregants and a $40 million annual budget, this article isn’t for you. Keep up the good work and go read something else.

Returning to the Business Week article for a moment, two of the churches are described as packaging "self-help programs with a positive message intended to make people feel good about themselves." If this is a false and inaccurate portrait of these congregations, Business Week should apologize. But I fear it isn’t.

This may sound extreme, and even insensitive, but here goes: Should we really be all that concerned whether or not people leave church feeling good about themselves? I honestly don’t think God is.

What? Isn’t God concerned with the welfare of our souls? Of course he is. In fact, he cares so much he lovingly and voluntarily incurred on Calvary the most horrific and unimaginable anguish that is possible for God in human flesh to experience. But God’s prescription for what ails the human heart is, I fear, far and away different from, even at odds with, what we see being offered up in a lot of churches, whether mega or mini.

So, here is God, so generous and gracious and kind, talking to himself:

“Let’s see now. What could I do for those rebellious hell-deserving folk that exceeds what anyone or anything else can do? [No, of course God doesn’t talk to himself or reason that way. Well, at least I don’t think he does, but grant me a bit of literary license as I make my point.] There are a lot of things I could give them. Fred could certainly use a new car. I’ve preserved that rusty piece of junk long enough. Sally thinks she’s ugly and unlovable. Perhaps I can tell her pastor to preach a bit more on human worth and shy away from those ‘sin sermons.’ The problem is, if I give Fred a new car, it’ll be another rusty piece of junk in ten years just like the one he’s driving now. Fact is, Sally isn’t very pretty, at least according to the standards by which that sort of thing is judged in the twenty-first century. I think she’s gorgeous, but then my perspective is in short supply in today’s world.

Surely there’s something that trumps cars and good looks and a healthy self-image, something better and more beautiful and more durable and effective at elevating their spirits than autos and attractiveness. Now, let me think. Hhmm. There’s gotta’ be something that will still be there no matter how many cars Fred crashes or how unattractive Sally gets. So what could I possibly give them, and others like them, that will satisfy and fulfill their hearts unceasingly? Oh yeah, I know: Me! I’ll give them Me! Makes sense. After all, I am incomparable, infinite beauty. I am unfathomable, incalculable greatness. I am endless, ineffable joy. So, if I really love them and want their very best, I’ve got to break their bondage to self. Obsession with the state of their own souls can never do for them what they think it can. If they only knew that in the long run, it’s lethal.”

So, no, I’m not overly concerned that you leave church feeling good about yourself (although that doesn’t mean we entirely ignore the problem of low self-esteem). I would rather know how you feel about God. Are you fascinated and enthralled with him, or with the state of your own psyche? Are you captivated and consumed with his beauty, or yours? Don’t for a moment think this means you should neglect yourself or ignore your needs or treat your own soul or anyone else as if a human being were trash. Precisely the opposite! Do yourself a favor. Do what is absolutely and infinitely and incomparably the greatest, most loving, most fulfilling thing you can do for your soul: fixate and rivet your heart on the all-satisfying splendor and glory of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.

Herein is the love of God for sinners, John Piper once said, not that he labors to make much of us, but that he graciously enables us to enjoy making much of him forever. Now that’s a gospel that will preach!

Should we hope to draw people to our churches and strategize to implement the most effective (and biblical) means for doing so? Certainly. Should we strive to create an atmosphere that is exciting and appealing and as free from religious boredom as possible? Yes, and again, yes. How? By holding forth in Scripture and song and sacrament, in prayer and praise and performance, the majesty of a sovereign God and his saving work in Jesus Christ. If, on top of that, you can provide a good cup of coffee in an air-conditioned café before showing them to their cushioned chair along with a map containing directions to the church gymnasium, do so.

But first, give them God!