CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Thoughts About Megachurches

Oct 9, 2007

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.

Conclusion

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.

Postscript

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.

www.townhall.com/columnists/PaulEdwards/2007/10/08/who_makes_christians

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41 Responses to Thoughts About Megachurches

  • I just took a look at the list and was interested to see that Times Square Church came in at number 60. I have listened or watched a number of sermons made by the founding pastor of that church, David Wilkerson. I would recommend this preacher. I don’t know about the other churches on the list but I feel that the pastors of TSC believe in preaching the whole word of God. I just thought that I’d give an example of a church on the list like that.

    Also of interest is, in one of his sermons David Wilkerson mentioned that he met a preacher who he believes is much, very much more holy than him. Who is this man? The preacher at a huge megachurch? No. This man is the preacher, janitor, gardener, cleaner… for a small congregation. I don’t think I’ll ever forget hearing that.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  • A well balanced treatment of the topic of the megachurch movement. As you say, numerical growth in a church is not automatically a sign of God’s blessing, since the cults and false religions are also growing.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Thanks Matthew

    I certainly did not mean to imply that I had problems with all the 100 churches listed there. Most are great churches faithfully preaching the biblical gospel. My concerns were mostly about the message often coming out of the number one church, based on what I had heard and seen of the pastor. And even there, I am not meaning to condemn or judge the man. I was just sharing some of my concerns about parts of the gospel message that often seem to be neglected or minimised at this church.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • T.D. Jakes seems to be another controversial figure with many claiming he is a Modalist.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • I recently read in a small mission organisation newsletter about church and church growth – are we depending and trusting in God to supply all we need to grow our churches (in the NT church growth means new converts), or do we trust in lotteries grants, building funds etc to supply all we need?

    I also read of a predominantly white congregation in the south of USA many years ago, where the minister preached openly and constantly about Christ’s love for all (a message that was targetting acceptance of the black community as fellow heirs in Christ). He preached that message until he only had about 3 members left. He then knew that he had Christ centred, God fearing believers in his midst, and the church grew from there.

    God will grow His church, through the prayers of the faithful, not by gimmick or whimsy – but by the power of the Holy Spirit as He convicts us all of sin, and leads us to repentance.

    Gaye Fisher

  • Jesus was the Son of God and yet He chose 12 apostles that He could train. These 12 apostles “turned the world upside down”. Jesus the Son of God thought it a success to have only 12 yet many of today’s pastors would consider such numbers as a failure. Jesus, the Son of God, was prepared to put 3 years of His life into these men, Jesus chose uneducated men, converts from Judaism and it was on these men that He “built His church.”
    No, I am not saying that mega churches are not vital, but I do wonder as to how modern churches rate success.
    I have started to attend “home churches” and have been amazed as to how many people are attending and the increasing popularity world wide.
    Jim Sturla

  • Hi Bill,

    I picked up Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Church ” once and skimmed through it. In one chapter he says he no longer allows guest speakers to man the pulpit because one such guest preached a “prosperity gospel” that Warren considers heretical. Whatever one thinks of Warren, there does seem to be a lot of “prosperity gospel” being preached in America. I know a number of Christian fiction writers who would enjoy some of that prosperity, if it were true. I also know of a friend of a friend who has been fighting various cancers for years and probably has a higher rate of turning people on to The Truth through sharing her faith in adversity than many mega-church pastors could boast.

    Btw, should you take a tour of the American “Godblog” sites, you’ll find a growing number of Christians whom (for various reasons) have lost faith in the church, although they haven’t turned their back on Christ. Some of them are now involved with house church communities, but many are struggling to hold onto their faith through whatever means are available, including the internet. I know others who were invited to leave the church when they came into conflict with the pastorate or the leader of the music ministry. The America Episcopal Church is in schism (thanks in part to heretical Bishop Spong) and there are serious rumblings coming from other denominations as well. Some blame it on the church going “emergent”, others blame it on any number of things. I’ve read that only 2% of Canadians go to church now, some even calling Canada “post-Christian”. Will America be far behind? “Remnant” may well be far closer to the truth than we’re willing to admit………..sigh.

    M.E. Huffmaster

  • All I have to say on the subject is that people need to get informed and not be intimidated against speaking up about the wrongness of the whole megachurch concept and the heresies that most of them preach.

    I know of one crowd that does regular investigations into those who prostitute the word of God for their own gain and these investigations can be found here:

    www.wittenburgdoor.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=SFNT

    And their free weekly newsletter here:
    www.wittenburgdoor.com/newsletter/index.html

    Lets face it, the non Churched can see what’s going on, why can’t we?

    John Wilson

  • To Ewan, Jim, John, M.E. Huffmaster,

    I always find it difficult when I see people and especially Christians bicker about other churches. Especially when I always see so much attack on our own Hillsong Church here in Australia. I do not attend there but they are my brothers and sisters in Christ and whenever someone attacks them I take it as a personal attack because they’re having a go at my fellow believers. We need to have a Spirit of Unity always.

    I understand that sometimes we may not agree with certain matters that other people preach or whatever it is but what remains is the Gospel. That is ultimately what we are united in and hold close to our hearts and are bonded in through Jesus Christ. There should be no disagreements or conflict on what the Gospel says. If they’re preaching the Gospel as well then that is what ultimately matters and we should look past petty, non pivotal issues that you may or may not agree upon.

    Jim you said, “Jesus the Son of God thought it a success to have only 12 yet many of today’s pastors would consider such numbers as a failure.” It wouldn’t be looked at as a failure but would be considered not fulfilling the Great Commission to see as many possible lost, found if that group remained the same for a period of time. That would not be a healthy church. Not that we base results on numbers but we do base results and growth on seeing transformation in people’s lives whether that be seeing people begin a relationship with Christ or seeing people grow closer to Jesus and display Him in their life.

    I’m not having a go at anyone here and have no problems with people analysing other churches as long as it does not lead to personal attacks and pulls them into the dirt..

    We need to be always encouraging and speaking life, hope and love to others.

    Nick Foord.

  • Thanks Nick

    Of course I mostly agree. I too in my own way was defending Hillsong, although stating that there are still some problems I have with it. The media likes to beat up on Hillsong – some of it might be deserved, but much of it is either due to anti-Christian bigotry or the tall poppy syndrome: attacking anyone or anything that is successful in Australia.

    As to the discussion about the 12, and numbers: I said elsewhere that church growth can take place from two sources: new converts, or recycled believers shifting from one church to another. No doubt Hillsong has the largest numbers in Australia, but the question remains, are these mainly new conversions, or simply believers leaving other churches (sometimes known as sheep stealing!).

    But yes, unity is important, and where possible we need to build each other up and try to work together. That does not mean we minimise all doctrinal and other disagreements of course. But your point is well taken. Thanks again.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Nick. Yes, we are supposed to be unified, but true unity is only to be found in Christ, not the visible Church in any of it’s iterations. The Bible is also quite clear that we are to divide truth from error, to rebuke each other as well as encourage. My only loyalty is to Christ and the truth of the scriptures insofar as I understand them and any given point in time. If Hillsong, TBN, the guy next door or the Pope teaches in public anything that is contrary to that truth then they should receive a public response. Unity cannot be faked, as I said in my last post , the unChurched can see our problems, why cant’ we? Consider how Jesus treated and spoke to/about the ‘Church’ people of his day.
    John Wilson

  • Hi Nick
    Well my comments were certainly not a beatup on Hillsong.
    My wife and I were saved at Hillsong in 1991 and we went through Bible College there. We have many close friends there and I certainly would not question their beliefs. No I was addressing comments to say that many churches (not all) tend to perceive success based on numbers. These numbers are basically transfer growth and not new converts. In business to be successful we need to examine the requirements of the end users and in many ways I feel that this is being overlooked.
    Jim Sturla

  • What strikes me about the big churches in this list is how different they are to each other! It shows that no one particular kind of preaching or practice guarantees success.
    However, it is one thing to question the reasons for a church’s success and another to actually research it. Big churches inevitably arouse jealousy in pastors of smaller ones and accusations of sheep stealing and the like and all sorts of rationalisations about how and why the big churches grew to that size.
    Having been a pastor of a medium size church that lost quite a few to a big church in our city, I discovered that Christians want to be part of something effective and progressive, a church that is going somewhere and making an impact. After a while, if their church is going nowhere and the leadership can’t work out what to do, they quite naturally find another church that deserves their loyalty better. And I don’t blame them. Most churches that are stuck in tradition or small thinking or division will inevitably shrink.
    What we need is not so much big churches as active, healthy and effective churches, which almost inevitably will become larger.
    Jon Newton

  • HI Bill,

    I understand your concerns over some large churches that preach self-centred and self-focused messages. It is true that we need to hear more teaching on bieng a radical disciple of Jesus.
    My fear though is that people that have responded positively to your article sound like they are skeptical of most contemporary large churches in favour of a more traditional small church. This alarms me very much becuase it seems that these sort of comments negate the great commision. I wonder if a lot of these churches are large becuase they have taken the great commision seriously and decided to make disciples at all costs. In fact the Apostle Paul teaches that he was willing to do whatever it took so that some may be saved.

    I have a question though…..Who decides what a large church is??? I mean, does having 47,000 people in a church REALLY make you a big church?? two years ago the Superbowl had an attendance of nearly 80,000 people. If they had recieved an attendance of 47,000 im sure it would have been called a disaster. It seems to me that by the worlds standards Lakewood is not that big.

    To bring it closer to home…. Our largest church in Australia has perhaps arond 20,000 attenders…The last time i looked there were approx 90,000 or so people at the AFL grand final. IF the Grand Final would have recieved an attendance of 20,000 then it would have been called a small crowd.

    My point is that maybe we are looking at it from the wrong perspective. If we see the amount of non-christians in Australia maybe we will come to the conclusion that we need MORE larger churches???? Just a thought……

    Mauricio Hernandez

  • Yes Jon, spot on.
    My wife and I pastored a small church for the Taiwanese coomunity. Over a period of two years we saw over 50 people accept Jesus and we saw many of our converts actually evangelising to other Taiwanese. Unfortunately these people were not allowed in many instances to remain in Australia, (Visa requirements were very preventative) and so returned to Taiwan. We still receive e-mails from these people informing us that their belief in Jesus has not waned. This meant that our congregation remained quite small and we were told that we should close down and become members of a thriving church.
    We did so and joined a rather large church near our home.
    I was quite surprised, although the congregation was quite large, the evangelisation was severely lacking and the number of people accepting Jesus on an annual basis was quite small.
    Some people might feel that I am expressing bitterness, this is not so.
    I would like to see the WORLD evangelised for Christ but I now feel that large mega churches tend to be localised.
    A good friend of mine pastors a largish church here in Brisbane, he has told his congregation that it is not just his responsibility solely to see evangelisation, it is the responsibility of all of the congregation. People bring people to Christ not just to church.
    Jim Sturla

  • Thanks Mauricio

    Yes it is true that big churches are not necessarily bad. Indeed, little churches can be problematic as well. It is not the numbers so much as what is being preached, whether real discipleship is taking place, whether the Spirit of God is indeed present, and so on.

    As to size, you are mixing apples and oranges. 20,000 may well be a small crowd at a footy match, but it is a huge crowd in an Australian church. That is because there are not that many Christians in Australia, but there seem to be many more football lovers.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • To Bill,

    It seems to me that most large churches receive alot of criticism from people. Just look at our own Hillsong. Even making headlines when it comes to Australian Idol, headlines that may I add are completely foolish. It is easy to look the big churches and pick at things and make it seem that they cant possible have the favour of God on them and that they cant possible be acting according to the will of God. Maybe its because it appeases the consience of people whose churches arent actually growing and of people arent actually doing anything to get their churches to grow. I look at a church like Lakewood and and I admire and respect them. They must be doing something right. God never called the church to be small. He has called the church to be powerful and influencial and Lakewood along with other big churches are powerful and influencial. I think that Chrisitans stopped looking at one another and critising one another and turned their focused on reaching out to the lost we would acutally change this world.

    Tracey Corea

  • Thanks Tracey

    Yes, where possible we should strive for unity and not unnecessarily criticise. And yes, there is nothing necessarily wrong with a large church. I certainly did not intend to suggest that big churches are bad. Many are doing a great job of faithfully representing our Lord.

    Yet let me respond to a few points you raise. You say Lakewood “must be doing something right”. But the fact that a lot of people go there tells us nothing about whether they are in fact doing something right. If numbers alone determine God’s favour, then the New Age Movement must be doing something right, the cults must be doing something right, rock stars must be doing something right, and soccer teams must be doing something right – after all they all draw large crowds.

    And you say, “God never called the church to be small.” Can you provide chapter and verse on that one please? God does sometimes ask for smallness, as in the case of Gideon. And why “powerful and influencial”? This can be said of all the groups I listed above. The marks of a true bible believing church have little to do with numbers or power. And it depends on what kind of influence they are having.

    But thanks for your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Individual congregations may be small or large, but healthy churches tend to grow in some way or other (sometimes by multiplying congregations).

    The Gideon case doesn’t prove God chooses permanent smallness: there was a particular reason for pruning the army (which certainly can apply to churches- being big certainly doesn’t mean effective; this army needed to be pruned of the uncommitted so that it could be effective).

    There are many verses that show that the church as a whole is meant to grow and be large: a few that spring to mind: Is.54:1-3; Matt.28:19; Col.1:6; Rev.7:9 (MUCH bigger than Lakewood).

    Jon Newton

  • Thanks Jon

    It has not been my intention to keep belabouring this point. I certainly have no problems with churches seeking to grow, if done in the right way.

    I did not claim that the case of Gideon proved my point; it was merely an example that bigger is not always better in God’s economy. (And the reduction in numbers was not about fighting efficiency. The text clearly tells us it was so that Yahweh would get the glory and that Israel would not boast in her strength – Judges 7:2.) And yes, growth is a sign of a healthy church, just as it is a sign of a healthy life. But of course growth does not just mean only numerical growth. It involves many aspects.

    And my point all along has not been to say that large churches are wrong. It was simply that numbers in and of themselves are no clear indication of God’s favour or blessing. Indeed, none of the passages you cite in fact deal specifically with this actual point, nor do they in fact make your specific point. The Isaiah passage speaks of Israel’s return from exile; Matthew speaks about the extent of making disciples (all nations); Colossians speaks of the growth of the gospel (not the church); and Revelation simply describes the throngs who one day will stand before their Lord.

    The fact that many people will be saved and/or should be saved is not the issue here. By all means, let us evangelise and seek to win as many converts as we can (or more correctly, seek to make as many disciples as we can, as Matthew commands). What I simply have been trying to say all along is that the mere size of a congregation is of itself no clear indication that God is present or pleased with what is happening. That is all I have been seeking to convey here. Really!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Whilst it is true that a large church doesn’t equate to Godliness, the point should not be whether a church is large or small but whether a church is growing…Just like a healthy human is continually growing, physically, emotionally and mentally, so to should a church be growing. According to A. Schwarz, author of “Natural Church Development” a healthy church normally has some similar characteristics….Empowering leadership, Gift Oriented Ministry, Passionate Spirituality, Functional Structures, Inspiring Worship Services, Holistic Small Groups, Need Oriented Evangelism and loving relationships….So generally speaking, if a church, be it large or small is working towards these areas, it will be a healthy church. However over time if the church works well in these areas it will inevitably grow in numbers.

    Jon, those passages you mentioned are right on the money. But probably my biggest reason for thinking God desires our churches to not be content with the amount of members we have (regardless of the current size) is based on Luke 14:23 and 2nd Peter 3:9…God wants us to pack out heaven and he even holds out coming back so soon because he desires that all might come to know him…..Its hard to imagine how we can try to fill Gods house when we are content with the amount of people already in there.

    Bill, I realize that 20, 000 people is a large number in todays church context, but when we think of the population of Australia and the amount of people that are unsaved, surely 20,000 is not large enough from Gods point of view.

    Maybe its time to shift our perspective….

    Mauricio Hernandez

  • Thanks Mauricio

    I of course believe we should evangelise and seek to see zillions of people come to the Lord. But again that has really nothing to do with my initial point, that large congregations may or may not mean God is involved. Now that I have stated this at least a dozen times now, I better shut up! Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Well Bill, I must start by thanking you for bringing the forum back to it’s originally intended point of discussion. Although this exchange of opinion is fascinating to say the least, the tangents do get a little confusing for one as simple minded as myself.

    There is no real new point that I would like to bring up at this stage, I think that most people participating in this forum have covered the arguments for and against mega church’s fair extensively.

    The point I would like to make however, is this:
    It is extremely bold to assume that everyone attending church, whether it be ‘mega’ or ‘mini’, is attending with the exultation God, or His call to evangelize in mind . I am young, a little disillusioned and still somewhat naive, but I like to believe that I can recognize impure motives for anything when they are blatantly obvious enough (insert examples).

    So the implication that mega churches are indeed ‘mega’ because of the ‘prosperous’ messages that are preached so eloquently from their pulpit is in my eyes quite valid.

    Before anyone begins to rant and rave about how judgmental I’m being please allow me the opportunity to justify that statement.

    Keeping in mind that the American dream has for the most part always been what it is, can we really expect anything less than a mega church when we start preaching ‘great suits and fancy phones’ rather than ‘hell-fire and brimstone’? It’s simply what people want to hear.

    Here’s a tiny lesson in homiletics; when you start telling people what they want to hear, guess what? They’re going to listen!

    I don’t know why we are all so shocked by this flock mentality. Didn’t this exact same thing happen to Jesus Christ of Nazareth? As long as He was going around healing the sick, raising the dead, as long as everyone following Him believed that He was going to save them from their Roman captors, they loved Him! They followed Him around, crowded around Him, tried to get near Him. Jesus Christ started the first ever mega church! Except it wasn’t in a basketball stadium, or a nice big hall, it was a mobile, traveling mega church! So he was efficient about it too. Not needing to pay rent or raise a building fund.

    The only problem with that was, people two thousand years ago were about as intelligent as their counterparts two thousand years later.
    They followed Christ as long as He told them what they wanted to hear. As soon as He deviated from what they believed they were hearing, well to cut a long story short they crucified Him.

    Does that story sound familiar to anyone? If you didn’t catch the original version back then, you can always watch the modern day version now!
    Tell people what they want to hear, and you’ll attract them like flies to… whatever flies are attracted to.

    Now before I lose anyone else, I should probably add that I don’t actually blame the preachers of mega church’s for this phenomenon. They are merely good preachers and great pastors. I’m sure that most of them are preaching responsibly. Yes prosperity is spoken of in the bible as an abundance of life, but so is sacrifice and dieing to ones’ self each day. Unfortunately for most pastors today, the majority of the congregation hear ‘prosperity’ and are screaming and carrying on so much, that they fail to hear the sacrifice part of the message.

    Just as the Jews spent so much time ranting and raving at the word ‘deliverance’ and got so caught up about being delivered from the Romans that they entirely missed the whole ‘sacrifice’, ‘cross’ part of the equation.

    And boy are they paying for it now.

    My point is, in case you missed it; that you can’t blame pastors and preachers for mega church’s. They’re just doing their job, getting up there each week preaching Gods message.
    So that leaves one of two parties to blame, people or the devil…
    I’m pretty sure the devil didn’t start the mega church.

    Darius Khor

  • I am sceptical of the mega-churches because of the ME concept. What sticks in my brain is to beware of wolves in sheeps clothing.
    Sheril Raymond, Wisconsin

  • Hi Tracy
    I have a problem with the word “powerful”. I believe that as Christians we are called to “influence” as is the case of the ACC in the nation.
    I remember that this is the vision of Pastor Brian Houston of Hillsong.
    A problem facing Mega Churches is not the fact of large numbers attending it is the fact that many of the congregation tend to view their responsibilities as strictly church attendance and that every thing else is up to the pastors.
    The Greek word for church is “ekklesia” and it denotes a called out people, a community of believers, a people set aside to do the work of God, not a building which many unbelievers perceive it as.
    Jim Sturla

  • Big church, small church? That is not the real issue. What matters is that the Gospel (ie “Christ and Him crucified”) is the centrepiece. It is only when this message is compromised or becomes peripheral that we ought to be concerned. Otherwise, what’s the matter?
    Luke Beattie

  • Yeah I agree Luke. You can use many examples in the world of using size to determine whether something is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as irrelevant (corporations, governments, churches, etc.). And we should indeed be concerned with the modern Western Christian philosophies being espoused in many quarters – big and small churches alike.

    The core thing is whether they are teaching about the resurrected Christ. And that’s why doctrine is important, and why it is absolutely necessary to critique whether a message and church is centred as such. Do not forget that the apostle Paul wrote in Galations about ‘doctrines of demons’ being those that mix law and grace to control and misguide the sheep. Let us not be complacent on this matter.

    I question just how much discipleship is happening in big and small churches alike. Ongoing repentance and discipleship leads to sanctification ie. a transformation – no transformation and one must question the relevance of our Christian activity and ‘programmes’ in churches. Lots of business, lots of building programmes, but where’s the emphasis on holiness and sanctification. I don’t think Paul was referring to the transformation of our bank balance, social/church position and title or house from one storey to three as being what Christians were supposed to be focused on – and in my experience this is largely what is used as a barometer for whether people are ‘cutting it’ as Christians.

    If it takes people like Bill to bring this topic up so that it is discussed then, well… more power to him.

    Garth Penglase

  • Hi, Bill, thanks for the write-up. Just a few comments.

    Sheep stealing is a term commonly used by churches that are not growing against bigger and growing churches. It will be good if ministers of the small flock were to ask themselves whether their flock will go to neighbouring pastures had they been well fed. Have they neglected the teaching of certain truth of the Bible? Or do they teach something not warranted by the Scripture? For example, does it portray God as an angry God who inflicted sickness on us? Does it emphasise on Biblical knowledge and not the practical aspect? Matthew Henry says that knowledge is vain and fruitless which is not reduced to practice.

    With regard to the teaching of prosperity, I quote from what John the Apostle says in 3 John 2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” – King James version. John saw the importance of prospering and good health, and he emphasised with the words ‘above all things’. I am not sure how many Christians are languishing under the teaching that being a Christian one should be poor. Such concept has become so ingrained in the minds of so many mis-leds that the church has become stigmatised by the questionable idiom ‘as poor as a church mouse’. I once had the problem of convincing a poor Christian brother that God wanted him to prosper so that he could not only take good care of himself and his family but also be able to bless others. When he finally saw the folly of his belief and began to believe that God wanted him to prosper he saw opportunities for business and God’s blessings. He is now not only able to feed his family well but also have surplus to bless other Christian brothers in need.

    It is lamentable that some preachers are leading people to the ‘me, my, mine’ way of living. The Scripture tells us we need to love our neighbours as ourselves. In other words, loving others start with loving self. It is not the narcissistic type of love that is self focussed that we should cultivate, but the agape type of love, with Christ-like characteristics. It is only when we know who we are in Christ and when we experience the love of Christ that we can love our neighbours in a meaningful way.

    SK Leong

  • Thanks SK. You raise some important issues, some of which I deal with here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/1998/09/08/silver-and-gold-have-i-none/
    Thanks
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi SK. I feel that there are some very important issues you’ve raised here.

    Regarding 3 John 2 do you believe that when he says ‘prosper’ he means purely to gain financially? I think nowadays we see ourselves rich when we have much financial wealth whereas the concept of wealth was regarded differently in other times – indeed I would suggest that the bible has often referred to ‘riches’ or ‘wealth’ in terms of the size of family and quality of relationships, and most often in terms of our intimacy with God and the fruits thereof. I think a lot of church teaching overestimates the importance of financial wealth in regards to biblical prosperity and this has led to a very serious divergence of focus from what is truly important as Christians in regards to how we should be seeking to live our lives and in what we should be spending out time.

    www.billmuehlenberg.com/1998/09/08/silver-and-gold-have-i-none/

    At a particular mission I was involved in the leader, a young man, asked us all whether we had had ‘a good year’. Then he went on to make the point that irregardless of our financial state, our work, etc. a good year was one that resulted in us being drawn closer into intimacy with God – as such maybe a tough and seemingly disastrous year was in fact a good year, because God has got our attention and drawn us closer to him, enabling us to have more love and be in more of a position to share that love.

    When Job suffered loss he lamented the seeming distance between him and God, the loss of of his wife and children and least of all the loss of all he owned. His blessings he counted in in a similar way – the restoration of relationship with God, his family and then his chattels. I am not so sure that in practicality our focus is the same today in ‘modern’ churches.

    Your last point is an excellent point. I would say that much of what is preached today is self-actualisation – a focus on ourselves and using God’s laws to our own advantage. It is only through coming to an understanding of God’s love and his forgiveness for us that we can truly come to love ourselves and in so doing learn to love others in like manner. No amount of working on becoming a better, smarter, happier, healthier, richer person will cause us to love ourselves or others. It truly is cart before the horse.

    Garth Penglase

  • Hi, Garth, you certainly have made very good points. I do not think that the word prospertiy refers to financial gain only. It includes all aspects of being a new creation in Christ.
    I merely wanted to say that the people of God should not forget the financial blessings that God wants us to have when we become His children.

    SK Leong

  • I have no problem with the megachurch. I disagree with your statement that the message of prosperity, inner peace, and better relationships is a self-centered message. The bible did say to us that we would face persecution, tribulation, and rejection. But Jesus did say however that he came that to give us life and have it more abundantly.(I am paraphrasing) In other words he came so that we can have righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost when those rough times come. How can we as the Body of Christ spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ when our own personal lives are just as or worse like people who are sinners. They need to see how God has blessed us through our trials. Being blessed in finances, our love walk with people, peace and joy in our hearts is a big part of discipleship. Sin does need to be preached because with the blessings of God comes responsibility. We have to obey God’s word and live a life that is pleasing to him. But sin should not be preached every sermon. There needs to be a balance to that. I also believe that we as Christians need to go beyond the four walls of the church and silly denominations. Most people are not accustomed to going to church. So we need to find other ways to minister to this world. I ask you this question, would you still feel the same about mega churches if they were under a denomination? You need to stay focused on what God has called you to do and stop judging the megachurch. If they are doing things that are wrong then God will deal with them. You can believe that!
    Vanessa Exum

  • I believe that size does not matter to God. He wants all people to come to know and love Him by being cured of sin in their lives through the death and resurrection of Jesus – God’s love extends to each one of us so that we can be loved by Him and then show that love to the world.
    In the last year I have had significant contact with believers all over the world who have moved out of traditionally-structured churches to seek a more effective and authentic body life. Many meet in homes, building the life of the body around Jesus-centered relationships and daily discovering what it means to pursue God and care for each other. Their meetings are rarely slick and attractive. They are designed to equip and encourage through active participation, honest examination and simple love. They say they have stopped just going to church and are now learning to be the church. Family Room Media (familyroommedia.com) in one of their videos quote the Barna group “about 13 million born again Christians in America had not attended a Christian church service … in the last six months.” These figures are incredible and many churches, including Willow Creek, have admitted that they have lost their most committed members. (revealnow.com/story.asp?storyid=48) Quoting Andrew Strom about the loss of church membership “The surprising thing is that they are most often the most committed Christians – praying, insightful, deep thinking. Most have not given up on Christianity, but on today’s church system.”
    I cannot say what is happening in Australia but even though there are mega churches in the USA, there is also a growing movement of Christians who are outside the “church movement”. The main reason for this growth is that people see the lack of Christ in the church especially mega churches where true relationship is lacking and “I” is the central message.
    I realize that this is a different thread but I feel that figures alone do not tell the whole story of what God is doing today because He is moving mightily outside the tradition church in the US as well. See also www.lifestream.org/
    Ian Thompson, Canada

  • Shocking “Confession” from Willow Creek Community Church
    Bob Burney
    Tuesday, October 30, 2007
    …..
    Bob Burney is Salem Communications’ award-winning host of Bob Burney Live, heard weekday afternoons on WRFD-AM 880 in Columbus, Ohio.

    John Seel

  • Thanks John

    Yes that was an important piece indeed, and a few weeks after I wrote this article, I wrote up another article dealing with the Willow Creek report.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • You seem petrified when looking at a false prophet and worrying if you will judge him. We are the judges of those who call themselves christians. The false prophests have convinced us not to judge them so they can go on unabated. We are to avoid believers who are idolators or immoral, so I guess you have to judge them. I know the clergy doesn’t like those “hard verses” because their money supply and pew potatos would shrink.
    Mark Walker

  • Hey Bill,
    Have you finished reading Osteen’s book? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it when you get the chance.
    Cheers,
    Amanda Fairweather

  • Thanks Amanda

    Actually I have not yet bought it. I am waiting for the $35 price to go down a bit. But I still intend to get it, read it, and review it. Stay tuned a bit longer!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    Thank you for this fair-minded and valid article.

    Since the mega-church phenomenon is relatively new, since the 50’s, I think it is worth discussing and indeed watching.

    Regards,
    Belinda Horne

  • Thanks guys

    For what it is worth, I recently bought Osteen’s newest book, and did a review of it, along with another volume: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/05/18/will-the-real-gospel-please-stand-up/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hello Bill. Folks.
    I like your article. Well written and a lot of truth in it.
    On another plane of thinking, I would suggest that perhaps the ‘megachurch’ movement is in some ways an effort by men to reproduce what I believe belongs solely to the realm of God. What I am trying to say is that the one universal church or body of Christ is the domain of God. He sees the entire thing (people saved from every nation, tribe, culture, etc) and only he can regulate the hearts of each individual. The local church I think belongs more the the domain of man, whereby there can be accountability one to another, character formation and a raising up of disciples for the work of Christ in evangelizing the nations. We, when we are saved are automatically saved into the universal body of Christ. However, on a practical level I think we are also saved into a local body where we can learn to love and to function in the lane God has called us to run in. I think the best time for any of us to belong to a megachurch is when we are in the true megachurch (the tabernacle not made by human hands) in heaven. Don’t mean to spiritualize things, but just my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

    Milan Pavkovic

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