The Christian Standard recently published its annual "Mega-church" issue. Christian Church and Church of Christ mega-churches now number 107. Attendances in these congregations range on the average from 1,009 to 18, 757. Wow!
According to statistics accompanying the list, nearly 20% of all who attend Christian Churches and Churches of Christ attend a mega-church. It is fun to look through the list and see congregations served by friends or former students. It thrills me to know God is blessing their work and they are serving Christ so effectively.
At the same time, the "ABCs" we usually use to measure success really don't tell the whole story. You know what I'm talking about. We're talking about A-ttendance, B-uildings, and C-ash. It is quite interesting to see how others evaluate your success by these things. If you are leading a growing congregation, building a new worship facility, and your offerings are on the rise you are successful. We falsely assume that such statistics mean lives are changing.
Such is not always the case. I remember a friend of mine, a staff member at a large expanding mega-church, who said, "It would be nice to have someone come forward to make Christ Lord than just to 'join an exciting church.'" In all too many cases, new people climb on board the train because the train is moving even if they have no knowledge of its destination.
While I once pooh-pooh-ed the whole "church growth" thing, I am now a strong proponent. I do believe it is God's will for the church to grow. Furthermore, I think Rick Warren is right when he says that a healthy church will grow. I was never as excited about the gimmicks of church growth as I was the theology of church growth. Dr. Joe Ellis made me read 8 books on church growth as my "internship" when I was working on my graduate degree. I wasn't too pleased! The books I read didn't stir me much until I read a book on the theology of church growth. That book converted me. Growing healthy churches "turn me on."
At the same time, in ain't all about numbers, buildings, and cash! Most of our mega-churches express their purpose as "building people," "making disciples," or "leading people to become fully devoted followers of Christ." Sadly, however, most mega-churches have little comprehension of what that means.
Jesus told his disciples to "teach them to obey everything I commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). Paul told Timothy, "The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim. 2:2). A lot more is contained in those two commandments than building relationships. The early church held a body of teaching (the apostle's doctrine) they conveyed to others with the intent they would convey it to others. I call that biblical content. There are some things so important that they need to be taught and taught effectively. These things are so important than a church must not water them down or relegate them to the uimportant.
I believe in small groups. Small groups, as they are now being used, do not effectively teach biblical content. I have yet to see any small group curricula that effectively teaches biblical content or biblical doctrine effectively. Small groups are designed for interaction and relationship-building. Small groups effectively teach biblical application after establishing the content. Trying to teach biblical content in the typical small group ends up in a "pooling of ignorance" and "I think-ism." Small group proponents pride themselves on the supposed fact that each group does not need a teacher, they only need a facilitator. This highlights a major difference. A teacher must know the content and be able to convey it effectively. A facilitator only needs to know what questions to ask then sit back to permit the discussion to go wherever it goes. A good facilitator can also be a good teacher, but in most cases facilitators aren't prepared to define "sound doctrine."
Our mega-churches are convinced that small groups are the way to go. As a result, those who are part of a mega-church are long on the relational and short on understanding truth and content. Some would object that today's culture avoids truth claims. Others object that today's culture is relational and demands a relational context. Yet Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the light...." Paul said Timothy was to teach "sound doctrine."
It doesn't have to be this way! Mega-churches must come to realize that Sunday School Classes or Adult Bible Fellowships are small groups too. It is hard work to prepare qualified teachers who can teach others, but it must happen! Investment needs to be made in facilities in which to teach just as the make investment in theater seating, high-tech lighting and computer generated graphics. There ought to be investment in what is needed to effectively teach truth as is made in providing electronic sound boards, musical instruments, and spotlights. As much attention needs to be made to the teaching as to "the show!"
Until that happens, our mega-churches will remain a "mile wide and an inch deep" spiritually. They will continue to wrestle with the commercialism of the day and advertising will continue to be their bread and butter rather than the changed lives of their members.
It is no accident that many younger people are looking for smaller churches. Part of the reason for that is relational, they want the intimacy and closeness of a small church. But that's not all. They are looking for spiritual mentors (even those with white hair) who can teach them what they need to know and how to apply it!
I'm happy for the growth seen in our mega-churches, but I'd also like to see a depth of conviction and an understanding of biblical truth that I don't often see!