What We Can Learn…

Confession time: for all that i am willing to proclaim what is wrong with mega-church culture, I have never actually spent much time in one.

I went to a really big church, once. I was in college, and went with some friends to what was quickly becoming one of the largest churches in the state. This was way before my sense of calling to ministry, and before i had any kind of awareness of the culture wars that were emerging within and between churches. But I remember 3 distinct impressions I took away from that experience: 1) the music was really, really different from anything I’d ever heard in church before, and therefore it was wrong and bad; 2) there were no visible women in leadership. Praying, preaching, passing the communion plate…it was all conspicuously male activity; and 3) i had the distinct impression that i could come back the next week–and the next, and the next–and nobody would remember my name.

I was wrong on at least one of those counts. Just because the music was a shock to my small town, mainline church system, doesn’t mean it was bad. In that much, I have experienced conversion.  While I still struggle with some of the imagery used in contemporary Christian music, I’ve found how valuable it can be in bringing energy and a new level of engagement to the worship experience.

Having been wrong on at least one count, (go figure) I finally allowed that maybe I’d been wrong about the others, as well.

One of the gifts of my time off this summer was the opportunity to worship in other places, learn from other pastors and congregations, and just be present in the space. I figured, it having been about 15 years since my encounter with MegaJesus (mask and cape included), it was time to venture back and see what else I might be able to learn.  After all, much critique of big church culture is rooted in–or appears to be rooted in–envy.  Wanting to check myself on all counts (envy not being ‘of the Spirit,’ you know), I headed out of my comfort zone and into a very, very large pond.

Here’s what I learned, and/or will readily admit that these folks are doing right:

  • The sheer volume of people flocking to these places affirm that the message is timely and relevant. Preacher preached a great sermon.
  • Volunteers–EVERYWHERE. Genuinely happy to see you, ecstatic to be serving their church and their neighbors.
  • Children’s ministry: runs like a top, and kids/youth genuinely excited to be there.
  • Music/production value–stellar.
  • Not as exclusive of unmarried people as i’d always assumed.
  • Sense of discipleship–from promoting volunteerism to intentional, missional models of living one’s faith outside of church. On this note, i was impressed.
  • The facilities are gorgeous and inviting. Instantly relaxes you and makes you feel like you’re on vacay.
  • Women are serving in many areas of ministry. The place could not run without them.

Here’s what else i learned–or was confirmed in already knowing–that i continue to find problematic…

  • The timely and relevant message affirms the life and person of the Christian as superior to they who are outside of the faith.
  • Homophobia, Islamaphobia, etc…not all in my head.
  • Volunteers–everywhere, and geuninely happy to see me. But none asked my name. I’m guessing because, in crowds of that size, you are not likely to run into the same greeter twice.
  • Children’s ministry: they put a bar code on my baby. Not even joking.
  • Music/production value: stellar. But not conducive to congregational singing. And so loud the old couple next to me (yes! I saw an old couple!) literally covered their ears the whole time. Either that, or they were shielding their eyes from the lazers…
  • Facilities are so gorgeous and inviting…i struggle with the stewardship element. Though, to be fair, these congregations are typically generous with what they have.
  • Women are active in many areas of ministry. In fact, the place could not run without them. However, they are still not called “ministers” or “pastors,” nor are they empowered to preach the gospel.

For the life of me, that will always, no matter how much we have in common, be the deal breaker.

And here’s what else i know…Not from my visit there, or from my own assumptions, but from knowing and talking to folks who love and serve these churches: many of them 1) have honestly never realized that women are limited in their leadership roles; or 2) and this is much more common…many are truly bothered by the exclusion of women, the condemning of homosexuals, and even, at times, the feeling of being corralled in worship–but they are willing to overlook their concerns because the kids are having a such good time next door. Or because they’ve connected with a neighborhood group that they find to be truly life-giving.

And really, there’s not much that smaller churches can do about that.  Just like there isn’t much you can do about folks who shop at Wal-Mart and Target (guilty) in spite of all concern for small businesses and fair trade policies. They just make it too daggone cheap and easy for us to walk away.

I will say this for the mega-worship places. Living next door to one of the largest in the country, I can say that my neighbors who participate there are truly good neighbors, willing to serve others and share their faith; I can say that their youth ministry keeps kids engaged and out of trouble; and I give them full credit for reaching out to the community in a way that is truly rooted in the love of Christ.

We all serve the same God, and even the same community.  It is not a competition, and there is so much that we could do together–large churches and small–to transform the world.  But I can’t help but wish that those folks who had genuine questions or concerns about their church’s culture or theology, would start asking those questions out loud.  Challenging the system, and maybe–in some cases–visiting the little church down the street. Just to see what God might be doing in a place without a coffee shop or a water slide…

There’s a great deal we can learn from each other, and the body of Christ needs every member it can get. Even the girls and the gays. Even the old people covering their ears. Even you, and even me.

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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • Cristen

    I have a lot lot of experience in large churches, some open to women, some not, some conservative, some not conservative, and many struggling in between with older and younger populations in conflict. I agree with you on your points… especially in the Baptist church… growing up, we aren’t taught what the doctrine of the denomination actually says… I had never heard of the Baptist Faith and Message until I took Baptist Heritage in college. While I’m a lot more liberal in my thinking now than I was in high school and early adulthood, I still appreciate the loving, caring people who supported me in rough times as an adolescent; even if their beliefs are different from mine today, they still made a huge difference in my life. We are all in a journey on our relationship with God, and each of us makes our own way. Kindness and compassion to others no matter their background always wins out for me… but then again that is the counselor in me! I always enjoy your blog… did you know I wanted to be a religion professor in college? lol… once I found out I had to take German during the PhD process, God called me in a new direction! ;)
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Cristen