The Dangers of Mega-church, Mini-church, and Everything In-between

“Did you hear about what’s happening at Willow Creek?”

Sure. Yep. I did.

And a wise friend suggested that armchair theologians such myself allow the smoke to clear before making Willow Creek this week’s object lesson.

Is the smoke clear yet?

Truthfully though, this post isn’t really about Willow Creek Community Church. And that’s a good thing because some of you who read my blog a) have no idea what I’m talking about and b) have no interest in church-y things in the first place.

And I want to be clear that if you’re my friend and you are a part of Willow or have been a part of Willow or are really into some other Willow-like mega-church somewhere else, this post isn’t written to shame you or poke fun at you or your church.

I remember attending a concert sometime around middle school and, afterwards, the Willow youth worship team got on stage and performed “Not An Addict” by K’s Choice and then preached the Gospel to a crowd of a couple thousand church kids and their friends. That was my first exposure to Willow Creek Community Church and I thought it was super, super cool.

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in the Chicago area when Willow Creek was rewriting the church life and evangelism rule book. Looking back, I can see how my childhood church and the other in-the-know churches in the Chicago region caught on and adopted some of the same seeker-sensitive methods of church growth. I remember studying Willow and their church model in college when studying the Christian theology of worship. And now, more than 20 years after my first Willow experience, I still see the ripples all over the American church, here in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

Let me tell you what I love about mega-churches.

I love that they said “screw it” to the sacred/secular divide in pop culture and welcomed all sorts of people and art and music and expressions into their worship. (K’s Choice, what!?)

I love that they design church buildings to be used around the clock for community events, meetings, support groups, etc.

I love that they have so many people and so many resources that they can accomplish big, crazy, audacious things in their communities and around the world.

I love that they take chances and dream big.

I love that they made it okay to bring coffee into the sanctuary. (Thank you from the bottom of my heart.)

But it will come as no surprise to people who know me that I, fundamentally, have a real big problem with mega-churches. And as this Willow Creek thing (and the Windsor Village thing and the Yoido Full Gospel Church thing and the Mars Hill thing and the New Life Church thing before it…) comes into focus, my problem with mega-churches only gets bigger.

See, every time a Once-Adored Famous Christian Leader-Guy gets himself wrapped up in a scandal, everyone wants to make it about this guy or that guy and their super-personal sin problem. “He was a creep,” they say. “That church failed.” Yet, an honest assessment of (what seems like) the high rate of serious moral failure among mega-church pastors should beg some deeper questions about the systems (i.e. churches) that give these men their platform and support their careers and whether there might be some problems lurking therein.

Is it possible that the mega-church model spells trouble for pastors and, thereby, trouble for the Church?

“Hey! That’s not fair!” you might say. “I’ve seen plenty of sex/money/power scandals among small church pastors, too!”

Yes! Absolutely! Churches of every size and system have their own blindspots and vulnerabilities and so they will all lend themselves to different, common problems. That’s why this blog is about “mega-churches, mini-churches, and everything in-between.” I could write about problems common in house churches, in urban churches, in suburban churches, in liberal churches, in third-wave Pentecostal churches…. (you get the point). Trust me, I’m really good at pointing out the problems in church! (It’s something I’m trying to use for good…)

For the sake of this post, the “dangers” I’m addressing are common to churches that employ the mega-church model of church growth. But not all mega-churches are the same and the Willow Creek church model is used in varying degrees, in churches of all sizes. So your church might fit the bill and it might not.

My suggestion here–the reason I’m writing–is that there are questions to ask when considering what makes a church vulnerable to a large-scale moral failure or the abuse of power among its leader(s). Asking these questions could expose the weak places that, together, create the Titanic-sized disaster of a super-famous pastor with lots of power and influence over thousands of people, with little accountability from trusted advisors.

  • Is it built on a consumer model of church membership and worship? Is the focus always to attract, attract, attract, rather than retain and engage active members? Is there a high turnover of attendees that only come for the parts they like and the programs they enjoy? Do people show up, regularly, only to see or hear the famous pastor or worship leader? Are there “members” who never actually step foot in the church building for worship but regularly consume the music or messages on TV yet still call it “their church?”
  • How faithfully is the Gospel preached, on a regular basis, to all in attendance? Does the church often “hide the lead” behind a bunch of worldly, feel-good, generally spiritual messaging? Is the name of Jesus proclaimed as primary or does it take a while to hear the real message? Is the Bible opened and read from the pulpit?
  • Is there an imbalance of giving/taking? How many of the congregants are actively serving in or giving to the church? How many long-time attendees have become covenanted members? What is the volunteer rate?
  • What is the in-group/out-group ratio? How deep must someone dig into the church to feel like they’re really a part of the community, in fellowship and discipleship with one another? Do many regular attendees still feel anonymous? How many names do the elders/pastors know on any given Sunday?
  • How well distributed is the power/influence? Is there one leader with a small, exclusive group of consultants calling all the shots, or is there a larger, diverse governing body?
  • How many “adequate” men and women are serving in the church? Is there a competent spiritual leader available to disciple and mentor all active members? Are leaders replicating their leadership to provide deep spiritual care among all members, or is spiritual care only available in a shallow, general sense?
  • Is every congregation at every location led by a team of elders who are equipped to teach and disciple? Is there a complete leadership team present among every worshiping body or are there “satellite campuses” without a resident teaching pastor or no proper, particular spiritual authority? Is every new church campus working toward viability apart from the central leadership?
  • Who can say “no” to the leader(s)? Are there systems of accountability for the men in charge? What happens to peers or members who question their authority? What happens when concerns are raised?
  • Is there a “trademark” culture of the church? Do they cooperate well with other churches and their community or do they insist on doing only their own programs with their own names and in their own way? Are they a good partner or always the leader?
  • Is the church run so much like a business that it relies only on market-driven markers of success and “profit” like membership numbers, new converts, or attendees at large-scale events? If you knew none of the church’s impressive statistics, or if all the markers of success faded away, would you still be proud to be a part of the church?

 

But, wait. Can’t God work through any/every church? I mean, he’s God, right? Why does this even matter?

Besides, you love your church. You have met some amazing people there. You feel like you can really worship and serve your city by being a part of your church.

I get it. I feel that, too.

But, even a basic reading of the Bible should make it clear that a) God takes seriously how we worship Him and b) the Apostles took seriously how the church was to order itself in worship and life.

Plus, let’s get real. The Church is about God’s vision and mission, not yours. So you can do all the awesome stuff you want and, sure, maybe “your heart is in the right place” but God still just sees it “like filthy rags” or hears it like a big old obnoxious banging gong.

So, yes.
How we build our churches and worship our God matters.

To clarify: I don’t think God takes pleasure in the public shame of his people. And he definitely doesn’t want to see his name connected to scandal. So I’m not suggesting that if you don’t serve communion correctly or if your pastor’s got a little too much ego, God’s going to make your communion bread go stale and let your pastor have an extra-marital affair.

But the truth is that every pastor is vulnerable to moral failure. As is every one of his congregants. We are all just a few bad decisions away from being the subject of the next “Church Scandal!” headline.

But maybe God knew this when he designed the Church. And maybe he designed the Church to not only proclaim the Gospel to the world, but also to protect us from falling victim to the sins of others and to the corruption in our own hearts–pastor and congregation alike. If we design our church structure and governance (i.e. our “church polity”) wisely, according to his plan, maybe we can accomplish both the preaching and the protecting.

A big church like Willow Creek can sometimes feel untouchable, like it is too big to fail. But these “unsinkable ships” do, in fact, sink. And when they go down, they bring thousands down with them. And the rest of us, even those who aren’t members, are tired of feeling the ripples.

 

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