There was in the February 12, 2005 edition of The Grand Rapids Press an interesting article on the front page of the Religion section with the title, “Do Mega-churches Bring Thousands To God, Or Let Worshippers Get Lost In A Crowd?” In the article, three Grand Rapid’s area mega- churches were referred to, Calvary Church, which draws 6,000 to Sunday morning services, Resurrection Life which draws nearly 8,000, and Mars Hill with an attendance of 10,000. The article pointed out several characteristics of mega-churches in general and showed how Grand Rapid’s three largest mega-churches exhibited these characteristics to one degree or another. Referred to in the article was a study on mega-churches done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
A look at the study reveals much about the recent explosion in growth of mega-churches across America. In 1970, there were about 10 mega-churches in America. By 1990, there were 250. By 2003, there were approximately 740.1 A mega-church is defined as a “congregation with an average weekly worship attendance of 2000 or more.”2 Some narrow the definition by adding non-Catholic congregations, or more accurately non-Roman Catholic, with weekly attendance of 2000 or more. Notice the definition’s use of the word “attendance” and not “membership.” This distinction is important as we will see later. While many of the mega-church congregations have existed for nearly 50 years, most of the “tremendous growth has taken place in the past 25 years.”3
The study reveals many interesting things about the worship services of those churches that participated in the study. Among the nondenominational churches in the study, “75-80 percent” of them use “electronic keyboards and guitars, and drums” in their worship. “Forty-three percent include recorded music in the service” and “22 percent report they use dance or drama always or quite often” in their worship services. As to the elements of the worship services, the study reports that “worship always or often includes:”
- Sermons (100%)
- Organ and/or piano music (92%)
- String or wind instruments (79%)
- Time for people to greet each other (93%)
- Altar call for salvation (60%)
- Prayers for healing (45%)
- Speaking in tongues (17%)
While 67 percent of the churches in the study belong to a denomination, “only 37 percent thought the statement ‘Our congregation clearly expresses its denominational (or nondenominational stance) heritage’ described them very or quite well.”4 The study also points out that these churches are more likely to participate in joint worship services and social outreach with churches outside of their denomination than they are with churches within their own denomination. More than 10 percent of them report holding joint worship services and conducting social outreach with, as the study terms, “other faith traditions.”
It is important to remember when analyzing mega-churches as a group that we do not apply to individual churches characteristics which belong to the group as a whole. Individual mega-churches vary greatly. While some churches in the group may resemble the group as a whole, others may be quite different and not really fit the pattern for what a mega-church generally looks like. This rule will guide us in the rest of our analysis.
Having looked at some of the facts about mega-churches in general, let us look at some of the traits, which, to one degree or another, characterize mega-churches.
There are seven characteristics of mega-churches as a group which we will notice, some of them overlapping each other. These traits relate to mega-church 1) theology, 2) style of worship, 3) organization, 4) leadership, 5) membership, 6) outreach and evangelism, and 7) vision and purpose. As we look at each one of these items, we will evaluate them in the light of God’s Word and our Reformed Creeds, particularly the Belgic Confession.
The first characteristic of mega-churches is the lack of a clearly defined system of doctrine. Many mega-churches advertise themselves as such. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, founded his church upon what people wanted in a church. In 1975, he, his wife, and others surveyed the neighborhood to see what people would like church to be. The answers he received—“shorter and more practical sermons, upbeat music, use of the contemporary arts and lots of classes on how to live the Christian life.”5 Today, more than 17,000 worshippers a week pack Willow Creek to hear “practical sermons” on how to live the Christian life.
While it may be the case that a church has an official “Statement of Faith,” it is also true that a document like this is meaningless unless its contents are consistently taught to the congregation and violations of it by members disciplined. In his analysis of mega-church members’ beliefs, Dr. Scott Thumma writes,
These congregations and their ministries exhibit considerable pluralism. Although the official theology espoused may be orthodox conservative Christianity, a variety of opinions and practices are tolerated in relation to women’s roles, sexuality, abortion, and political persuasions. In a cultural climate which emphasizes the self-construction of beliefs and spirituality, tolerance of a diversity of possible alternatives, unified under a common vision, is an asset.6
When one takes the time to examine a few mega-church websites, one is struck by the fact that it can be difficult to find exactly what doctrinal stances the churches take. The typical website is often elaborate, flashy, and loaded with information about church leaders, opportunities, programs, activities, events, and music performed during the worship services. If one finds a “Statement of Faith” or description of “beliefs”, it is usually very brief and vague. There is a noticeable effort to push any kind of doctrinal affirmation into the background.
There is a reason for this. Doctrine is not appealing to the natural man. Sound doctrine is offensive. When the goal of a church is numerical growth, which many mega-churches freely admit, then every obstacle to that growth must be removed. The church must become an inviting, non-offensive, and casual place to meet in order to attract as many people as possible from the surrounding neighborhood. There will not be very many repeat visitors if the minister spends a considerable amount of time explaining doctrine, especially if he preaches sound doctrine.
Yet, it is exactly the preaching of the “pure doctrine of the gospel” which is the chief mark and calling of the true church in the world (Article 29, Belgic Confession). It is this kind of preaching which causes the most important kind of growth, spiritual growth among God’s people. It is a manifestation of the spirit of the age when churches, leaders and members (attendees) alike, reject sound doctrine and replace it with whatever the man on the street wants to hear. This is exactly what Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to Timothy in II Timothy 4:3, 4, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
Those who attend and become members of churches where sound doctrine is cast aside show that they do not really know what it is to “join” a church. Article 28 of the Belgic Confession, which sets forth the believer’s duty “to join himself to the true Church,” points out that one of the reasons one joins himself to a church is in order to submit himself to “the doctrine and discipline thereof.” Jesus Christ is pleased to rule His people in this way. To look for or join a church which willingly rejects God’s ordained way of ruling His people is sin.
The second trait of mega-churches which we will examine is their contemporary style of worship. It is a style of worship which flows directly out of their rejection of doctrinal preaching and their emphasis upon being a non-offensive and inviting community. This is where we will begin next time, Lord willing.
1Luisa Kroll. (2003, September 17). Megachurches, Megabusinesses. Forbes.com, Retrieved March 5, 2005, from http://www.forbes.com/2003/09/17/cz_lk_0917megachurch.html.
2Scott Thumma, PhD. (2000). Megachurches Today: Summary of the Faith Communities Today material on Megachurches, Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Retrieved February 28, 2005, from Hartford Seminary website: http://hirr.hartsem.edu/org/faith_megachurches_FACT summary.html.
5Chris Meehan. “Vibrant leader puts old message in new form.” The Grand Rapids Press, (March 5, 2005), Sec. E, pp. 1, 2.
6 Scott Thumma, PhD. (2000). Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: their characteristics and cultural context, Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Retrieved February 28, 2005 from the Hartford Seminary website: http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/thumma_article2.html.