Though my husband and I are still attending a congregation in our former neck of the woods, a good 40-45 minutes away, we do wonder if it makes sense to continue to do so. Our move last summer placed us in an area home to the main campuses of two well-known megachurches (Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel), satellite campuses of these churches as well as least two other franchise-generating multi-site churches. There are a handful of smaller churches in the area, but the landscape here is dominated by Big Box churches.
There are a number of smaller congregations sprinkled throughout the area, but the growth of megachurches and multi-site congregations has redefined the way people worship in this region. My conservative guesstimate is that the paintball splotches on the map above describe the Sunday morning church attendance of at least forty-five thousand people. There are a few doctrinal variations between the four churches highlighted above, but the differences between three of them are so small that a fine tooth comb wouldn’t catch a single theological tangle. There has been a drive during the last three decades to consolidate/gather into megachurches, then franchise those mega-churches into multisites, effectively forming what appears to be a series of look-alike Evangelical micro-denominations.
I know from my work with the former Christ Together Chicago that the leaders of many of these congregations talk and occasionally pray together. They insist (!) they’re not competing with each other, that there are plenty of unchurched fish in the sea…er, suburbs….and that they’re each doing what they believe God is calling their respective institutions to do in order to “catch” said fish. I can’t make sense of the fact that the nets each organization casts looks like a copycat versions of the ones the others are using. (And so many of the other churches in the area, the small and mid-sized independent or old school denominational congregations, end up aping what the Big Box Boyz are doing, only those doing the aping are using smaller nets.)
I wonder if all of the resources expended on building these branded church chains is modernity’s last gasp; the equivalent of faddish 3-D movie technology that came of age during the 1950’s as a way to save movie theaters from TV-based extinction. The building and sustaining of these contemporary franchised cathedrals (with far uglier architecture, but far more impressive org charts and extra-clever strategic plans) is an always-hungry hippo that demands much in terms of time, energy and finances but gives little in return. The truth of the matter is that they are not the church. No organization ever is.
At Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog yesterday. Amy Simpson wrote a wonderful piece entitled “Churches: Take A Lesson From The Postal Service”. In it, she paints a picture of church as organism:
The compelling churches are the ones who know who they are: a collection of people created and redeemed by God, even though they don’t deserve it. They are not concerned only with meeting people’s needs on Sunday mornings, or only within the confines of a church building. They meet in coffee shops, houses, bars, on street corners, and online. They serve as much as they preach, and they recognize there is no difference in their calling when they’re “at church” and when they’re not. They have decided simply to be the church, regardless of the day of the week. And of course they welcome people who walk through their doors, but they realized a long time ago that we now live in a world where buildings themselves hold limited relevance, that a loving community should never be defined by its walls, and that people who want to follow Jesus had better be willing to go where he goes.
This has always been the case for the “called out ones” who want to follow Jesus everywhere he goes. But perhaps today, when so much effort is being expended to build organizational monuments to the big personality preachers helming these big boxes, or when a good church is hard to find, it is good to remember
I am the church. And so are you, if you want to follow Jesus.