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Mega-churches: A Manifestation of the Spirit of the Age (3)

So far in our examination of mega-churches we have noticed that in general they manifest the spirit of the age in their lack of clearly defined doctrine and their contemporary, seeker sensitive worship. Their doctrine and worship are calculated to attract as many as possible through the doors so that they continue to grow in numbers. As a result of this emphasis on growth in attendance, mega-churches are rarely organized and governed according to the pattern set forth in God’s Word concerning the governing of the church. Neither do those who attend or become members of these massive churches understand what it is to join a church and belong to the body of Christ.

Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky is an example of the structure of a typical mega-church. One paragraph in the Owensboro, Kentucky, Messenger-Inquirer describes Southland Christian Church as follows:

But Southland isn’t just a place for singing and preaching on Sunday mornings. It’s a teeming, nonstop center of community life in suburban Lexington, an enormous business enterprise, an engine for volunteerism and a potent social and spiritual force with a multimedia message.1

The phrase “an enormous business enterprise” accurately describes many mega-churches. Many of these churches operate music studios, publish books, magazines and other religious materials. Some churches have their own record labels, while others produce television and radio talk shows.2 Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, has a media strategy which it analyzes every quarter.3 In 1999, the typical income of mega-churches averaged 4.8 million dollars, with average expenditures of 4.4 million dollars.4

The manpower needed to keep these enterprises operating is also enormous. The study performed by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (referred to in the 1st article) indicated that the typical mega-church “averaged 13 full time paid ministerial staff persons, and 25 full time paid program staff persons. The average number of volunteer workers (giving 5 or more hours a week to the church) was 297.”5

It is not unusual for these churches to resemble a shopping mall more than a church in their appearance and layout. Take, for example, the 140 acre campus of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. “Prestonwood has sports fields, an arcade, small Bible-study groups and a bookstore on what is called Main Street. There is even a food court… complete with a Starbucks.”6 Before a Sunday morning service at Southland Christian Church, one can sip on Starbucks coffee at the café, or browse the CD selection in the bookstore.7

Because mega-churches are large operations, they need many volunteers in order to function smoothly. Volunteers are needed to maintain church grounds, organize and staff various church programs, lead Bible studies, direct traffic and usher at worship services, and contribute to the worship service itself. Leading this army of volunteers are scores of paid, full and part time staff members who typically report to a board of directors, often made up of church elders and ministers.

Consider the number of volunteers it takes just to conduct the service at Southland Christian Church.

“It takes hundreds of people to pull off a service,” Weece [senior minister of Southland, AJC] said. “People can’t even begin to fathom how this place operates. I don’t even know all the detail.”

Five camera operators caught the action onstage from every angle.

Upstairs, in what looks like a tiny television station, five people controlled the shots that appeared on the worship center’s four big screens and taped the service for broadcast on cable television later. A producer, stage manager and assistant stage manager were stationed downstairs.

“We all have different roles,” said Dave Welch, who was working as director.

The service was timed to the minute.

The first 14 minutes were spent in worship and the welcome. One minute for a prayer before communion, five minutes for communion itself, four minutes for baptisms.

As the band played “Sing to the King”—allotted four minutes—for the last time that day, “decision ministry” volunteers waited at the side of the room to meet with people who came forward in response to the sermon.

Those who came forward are taken to one of five small decision rooms equipped with a box of tissues, a Bible and a few wing-backed chairs.

“We always try to make people feel as welcome as possible,” said Katie Bodager, the decision ministry team leader that day.

The volunteers determine what the person’s needs are and direct them to the part of the church that can help. If they wish to be baptized, it can be done immediately or scheduled for a later time.8

That the worship service is flawlessly executed according to a set schedule is no accident. Just as most entertainers practice their routines before their performance, so the staff at Southland carefully plans and practices for all worship services. The Messenger-Inquirer reports,

An hour before the children arrived on Saturday evening, Jason Byerly, the children’s minister, and his wife, Christy, practiced teaching the concept of salvation—“God’s Big Gift,” illustrated by a large gift-wrapped box positioned on a small stage.

“God loves you more than anyone in the whole world,” Christy Byerly said. “God loves you so much that he wants to be your forever friend. He wants you to live with him in heaven.”

The lesson incorporated props, such as a large cross, and a video clip from “The Parent Trap.”

Out in the main worship center, which can seat as many as 3,000, Weece, only the third senior pastor in Southland’s 49-year history, and Jim Burgen, the church’s executive director of ministry, were onstage practicing the sermon they were about to preach together.

It was the third week in the month long sermon series “The Gospel According to Bass Pro,” which focused on Jesus’ instruction to the disciples on becoming “fishers of men.”

The stage—which gets a new look for each sermon series—was decked out with wooden boat docks, a fishing boat and fishing gear. Boats were parked in the concourse and on the sidewalks outside.

Weece and Burgen lounged on stools made of boat seats, with a big green cooler between them.

“At the end of the invitation, I’ll pray,” Weece said.

On cue, soft piano notes began to play.

“If you need to talk with someone, Jim and I’ll be down front,” Weece said, as the overhead lights dimmed and lights projecting onto the back wall of the stage changed from blue to red.

Although it’s scripted, Southland’s worship style is fluid, casual and ever-changing. It’s all part of the church’s effort to attract and keep worshippers. Greg Corona, who is in charge of worship, said “the element of surprise” is a key in keeping people engaged in services.9

With all of this attention to detail, massive budgets, scores of employees, throngs of volunteers, large campuses, and various business endeavors, it is no wonder that many mega-churches are managed more like a business than a church. And just as businesses are profitable by producing and marketing a product which the consumer desires, so do these churches seek to lure potential customer-worshippers by producing and marketing carefully developed products, such as their entertaining worship services, religious music and literature, and various family activities.

Articles 27–35 of the Belgic Confession show us not only how the true church in this world is known from the false, but also how the true church is governed. We have already noticed how mega-churches in general reject sound doctrinal preaching, which is the first mark of the true church. Because of their large attendance and casual attitude toward membership, they also fail to manifest the third mark of the true church, the exercise of church discipline in the punishing of sin (Art. 29). Southland Christian Church, for example, averages 8,000 worshippers on a weekend. Of those, only 2,500 to 3,000 “attend worship regularly.”10 Even if these churches have a council, composed of many ministers, elders, and deacons, how are they to properly take oversight of thousands of individuals, many of whom are only casual attendees? Christian discipline becomes nearly impossible in a situation like this. Further, because of this lack of supervision, the proper administration of the sacraments, the second mark of the true church, becomes impossible. Yet, because these churches reject sound doctrinal preaching, which is where discipline begins, and because their goal is to attract as many attendees as possible, they show that they are not interested in church discipline and even reject it. For this reason, just about anybody feels comfortable coming to one of these churches.

This comfortable feeling along with the anonymity of being one among thousands attracts people to mega-churches. This question was posed recently in a Grand Rapids Press religion article with the title, “Do mega-churches bring thousands to God, or let worshippers get lost in a crowd?”11 The article, which summarized a study done by Calvin College students on three Grand Rapid’s area mega-churches, noted that the “students said it is easy to slip in and out of Sunday morning services without getting noticed, and that anonymity may be part of the mega-church attraction.”

One who is an anonymous attendee of a church, and who refuses to become a member and join himself to a true church, goes to church for the wrong reasons. One is living in the sin of refusing to submit to the “doctrine and discipline” of the church and is refusing to bow his neck “under the yoke of Jesus Christ” (Belgic Confession, Art. 28). Further, he shows that he does not want to use his gifts for the edification of the members of the body of Christ (Art. 28). Yes, one can say that he is “going to church” and come away with an emotional boost from the entertaining service, but all of this is in disobedience to God’s command to believers to join a local congregation which manifests the marks of the true church.

Another attraction and characteristic of mega-churches is that frequently they are lead by dynamic pastors. Kevin Dougherty, a Calvin College sociology professor, notes that often pastors are the main attraction at mega-churches. The Grand Rapids Press reports:

A survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research shows 70 percent of churches with at least 2,000 participants boomed into a mega-church during the tenure of their current pastor. That’s because those pastors “have their fingers on the pulse of the culture and are able to put together a product that people understand,” Dougherty said.

While only two-thirds of senior pastors have seminary training, Dougherty suggests all of them “are highly entrepreneurial individuals.”

As a result, mega-churches resemble “complex corporations” in the way they operate. And their growth attracts more growth, to a point where “their reach is comparable to small denominations,” Dougherty said.

“People want to associate with a winner, “he said. “These churches are winners.”

But are there too many people riding the bench in championship churches? Students wondered if those players will stay on the team when a coaching change occurs.12

While it is sometimes the case that God raises up energetic and gifted men to positions of leadership is His church, these men do not have their “fingers on the pulse of culture,” nor are they interested in creating a culturally relevant product which the masses will flock to. No, God uses them to preach the truth and deliver His church from error and departure. Quite often it is the case that many are offended by the doctrinal truths they preach and leave. Only a remnant is left to follow their leadership. Those who follow today’s “dynamic” pastors remind us of the multitude that followed Jesus when He gave them “to eat of the loaves, and they were filled” (John 6:26). As soon as they discovered that His kingdom was not of this world, with earthly health, wealth, and dominion, they left Him. Only those who desired the “true bread from heaven” (John 6:32) and a spiritual kingdom remained His disciples.

Next article, Lord willing, we will continue with this idea as it relates to the vision and purpose of mega-churches. We will also take a look at mega-church evangelism and outreach.

           Footnotes

1Karla Ward and Lu-Ann Farrar. (2005, April 16). Megachurch Connection, Thousands worship at centers for community life. Messenger-inquirer.com, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Retrieved April 22, 2005, from http://www. Messenger-inquirer.com/features/religionvalues/8330085.htm.

2Luisa Kroll. (2003, September 17). Megachurches, Megabusinesses. Forbes.com, Retrieved March 5, 2005, from http://www.forbes.com/2003/09/17/cz_lk_0917megachurch.html.

3Luisa Kroll. Megachurches, Megabusinesses.

4Scott 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 Web site: http://www.hartsem.edu/org/faith_megachurches_FACTsummary.html.

5Scott Thumma, Hartford Study.

6ABC News. (2005, March 27). Mega-Churches Offer Prayer, Play, and Shopping. Retrieved April 22, 2005, from http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/print?id=617341.

7Karla Ward and Lu-Ann Farrar, Messenger-inquirer.com.

8Karla Ward and Lu-Ann Farrar, Messenger-inquirer.com.

9Karla Ward and Lu-Ann Farrar  Messenger-inquirer.com.

10Karla Ward and Lu-Ann Farrar, Messenger-inquirer.com.

11Matt Vandebunte. Do Mega-churches Bring Thousands To God, Or Let Worshippers Get Lost In A Crowd?, The Grand Rapids Press, (February 12, 2005), Sec. D, pp. 1, 3.

12Matt Vandebunte, p. 3.