America is usually regarded as the home of the biggest and the best. Well, the biggest, at any rate. So it should come as no surprise that some of the biggest churches in the world are to be found there. Of course the world’s biggest is actually found in Seoul, South Korea. The Pentecostal Yoido Full Gospel Church, headed by David Yonggi Cho, has nearly a million members.
But outside of a few giants such as that one, most of the megachurches are found in the US. Of interest in this regard is the annual list put out by Outreach Magazine featuring the 100 largest churches in America. The 2007 list has just come out, and it is revealing reading.
Topping the number one spot is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas with 47,000 people attending. At number two is the famous Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, pastored by Bill Hybels. It has an attendance of 23,500. The third largest is also in Houston: the Second Baptist Church, with 23,200 people.
Other familiar names crop up here and there. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is number four, with 22,000 people. T.D. Jakes and the Potter’s House in Dallas is number ten with 17,000. Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, California is number 39 with 9,500, and John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church is number 73 with 7,500.
Number 100 has 6,376 members. So with a very quick bit of arithmetic, these 100 churches have some 100,000 members all together. Of course most American churches are much smaller. In fact the average (Protestant) church has 124 people.
Numbers and the Gospel
One has to be quite careful here not to criticise fellow believers. But at the same time, we are told to test everything, and to make sure all Christian activity lines up with the word of God. Thus I do not mean to be disrespectful or judgmental here, yet I feel compelled to ask at least a few questions.
Consider the number one church, headed by pastor Osteen. Services are held in a former basketball stadium, and televised broadcasts of the services are beamed around the world. His website provides a good idea of what life is like at Lakewood Church.
If you have ever read his books or listened to his sermons, there is an amazing commonality to all them. One sermon pretty much sounds like another sermon. One article or book pretty much seems like something you have read before. And what is that message?
The gist of all that seems to come forth from this church is about how we can succeed, how we can prosper, how we can feel good about ourselves, how we can have better relationships, how we can have inner peace, how we can make it in this world. It is pretty much a me-centred, feel-good message.
With all due respect, the message of Lakewood Church is really not all that much different from a lot of other popular writers and self-help movements. The run-away best-seller, The Secret, is New Age mind-over-matter mumbo-jumbo which entices readers to think happy positive thoughts to achieve whatever they want. Do not settle for second best. You can have those mansions, those luxury cars, those dream vacations, that weight loss, that new boyfriend. It is yours for the taking.
But the message of many prosperity and name-it-and-claim-it churches today is not all that different. Sure Jesus is mentioned, and biblical passages are sprinkled around, but the basic core message is the same: you can have whatever you want, you can be the best, do the best, live the best and think the best.
Now is it possible that there is a connection between a church with 47,000 people, and a message which in many ways seems to be largely self-centred and self-focused? Is it surprising to find a church which directs its energies at getting its members to be excited about success, prosperity and self-fulfilment is drawing in such vast numbers?
I am not arguing that God is not in all this. I trust that this megachurch is filled with eager believers who want to follow Jesus, and I trust that this is true of the pastors there as well. God certainly works in all sort of different ways.
But I just wonder sometimes… If there were a bit more attention paid to sin, judgment, radical discipleship, denying oneself and cross-bearing, and a bit less paid to me, me, me, would the congregation still be as large? Or would the popularity of this church begin to wane a bit?
It seems the real message of Jesus is being drowned out by calls for successful, healthy and wealthy lives. But that is not what Jesus promised. He promised us persecution, tribulation and rejection. He never promised a Mercedes in every driveway. The truth is, most people in the world don’t even have a driveway, let alone a car to drive on it.
The early church was about making genuine disciples, who denied themselves and gave everything for their Lord who gave everything for them. There was no concern about which church was biggest. As one commentator put it, “Can you imagine any of the inspired writers of the New Testament ranking the church at Ephesus above the church at Philippi, and Philippi above the church at Thessalonica based solely on how many people were showing up each week? It is clear what the Apostles found most noteworthy in the New Testament churches: the level of faith, hope and love at work in each of these assemblies (see, for example, Col. 1: 3-6).”
Sure, we read about church growth and number crunching in Acts 2, and there is nothing wrong with trying to win more to the faith. But much of American church growth is transfer growth – that is, it is not so much about winning new converts, but sheep stealing. And if America’s largest church is growing because people are hearing what they want to hear, perhaps instead of what they need to hear, then maybe we need to reconsider.
Is church growth automatically wrong then? No. Is it automatically right? No. The truth is, numerical growth in and of itself is no measure of spirituality, or of God’s favour. Indeed, often God tells his people to reduce numbers, not expand them. Consider Gideon for example in Judges 7.
But in an age obsessed with numerical growth, with success, and with material measurements of wellbeing, we may be missing out big time on what God really has in mind for his church. Perhaps all the emphasis on marketing techniques and seeker-sensitive services, and so on, needs to be re-evaluated.
As a counterweight to some of the megachurch mania, can I suggest an excellent 1992 volume edited by Os Guinness and John Seel? Called No God But God, it contains a dozen essays by a number of authors, all examining the evangelical movement in America, and the condition of the churches. The essay by Guinness, “Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth” is alone worth the price of the book.
Their concerns, like mine, are not meant to suggest that no good can come out of the church growth movement and the megachurches. Much can, and much is. But there are dangers as well, and we need to think prayerfully and carefully about how we go about “doing church”. There is no higher calling, so we must always be on our knees, carefully reflecting on what it is the Lord asks of us.
Lest it sound like I am being overly critical of Joel Osteen, I am willing to do something I am loath to do: shell out my hard-earned money and buy his new book, Become a Better You, which is due for release in a week’s time. I will give it a careful read and review, and see if I am on target here or not.