Megachurch “Pastor”

Megachurch “Pastor” July 2, 2012

A Singapore pastor has been arrested for swiping to the tune of 23 million dollars. Others are implicated. This set off a round of internet comment, including one that made the uncharitably audacious and (sadly) outrageous claim that all megachurch pastors are manipulative and deceptive. A friend of mine then posted a comment worth examining. Here is his comment:

Here is where I find some agreement with Jim,  “Such Pastors (Mega-Church Pastors) aren’t truly pastors – they are merely functionaries, public speakers.  Pastors know their flock just as shepherds know their sheep.  It is no accident at all that the early Church seized on the analogy of the Pastor as shepherd. For that reason a church which is so big that the Pastor can’t or doesn’t know those who come is no longer a Church as such but a group, an ‘audience’, nothing more.” Although I would not word it so strongly, and I certainly wouldn’t say all Mega-Church pastors aren’t truly pastors, I do have problems with the term “Mega-Church pastor.”  In my mind a minister cannot pastor more people than those he knows personally.

Being a pastor is a personal profession. When someone uses the term mega-church pastor for me my vocation and calling is cheapened. It is kind of like saying a person who prepares McDonald’s burgers is a chef. Don’t we think that a real Chef who has spent years studying and training for their vocation might be a little miffed at being compared to someone who slaps sauce and a patty on a bun? If we are going to call ourselves pastors then we must take seriously Scripture’s call for us to be Shepherds. True Shepherds know their sheep. True Shepherds are involved and actively participate in the lives of all of those in their congregation. In my opinion the sheer size of a large church hampers the vation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it can’t be done, I just think it is far more difficult in a Mega-Church (We mus’t become dogmatic about these things). But hey, maybe I am simply jealous!?!?

I happen to attend a megachurch. So the original blogger in the original post has also accused me of not knowing any biblical theology (hey, he was on a roll of accusation) … but I do have an observation to make that might calm the waters a bit.

First, the model being used by both of these bloggers is the one church, one pastor model. If knowing everyone in the church is required, then a church can only get so big. I would have a hard time disagreeing that you can’t pastor those whom you don’t know.

But, second, who says there is only one pastor for every church? Why can’t churches have multiple pastors? In fact, I know of some megachurches that have hundreds of “pastors” or “under pastors” or folks who genuinely do pastor those in their small groups. While those pastors don’t preach on Sundays (another assumption worth reconsidering) they do shepherd their flock.

So we get to this question: What is a pastor? Someone who spiritual overlooks/guides and mentors or someone who preaches on Sunday, who “runs” the place, who is paid, who is ordained?

I wonder if either of these bloggers would consider the multiple pastor model as speaking into this situation.

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  • I think that when we take a look at megachurches in places like China, we see even bigger numbers (80k, etc). But the way these massive communities are worked out, in their particular context of persecution, it seems quite different than what we might have in America. Having said that, large churches in America are not inherently bad. But we must make every effort to see shepherding and discipleship outworked. Then the size does not have to be problematic.

  • So if a megachurch pastor leads a team of pastors who do the actual shepherding, would it be more appropriate to call that person a bishop?

  • Paul

    This multi pastor model is probably a helpful way to approach this subject. Possibly a megachurch pastor is a shepherd to other pastors in the church, not a pastor to everyone. Their sermon in this way is part of the corporate worship of the community, but not the primary pastoral role.

  • Maybe a more gracious term would be bi-functional minister. They pastor/mentor the senior leadership team(s) and then do all the other management strategy, speaking with a second hat? Just a thought

  • Michael Teston

    I would only suggest that the recent “sale” of the crystal cathedral, err church, should be a warning to the mega-buildings, mega-sites, errrrrr mega-church and certainly the mega-church-pastors. It appears we fail to “see” because we continue to be blind to the realities that our understanding of “church” is indeed mega-wrong. We can point to a few positives about the mega types but in the end the amount of resources needed to sustain will lead it down the same road the the crystal cathedral has gone. Built around a mega personality, mega presence, and mega entertainment, it all becomes boringly mega. The mega-mall model may not be a long term model worthy of the attention so often given.

  • The Church in the book of Acts was a “mega-church” one day one. Let’s loose all the labels and be the church.

    Certain leaders are gifted with certain abilities; some are called and gifted to lead large congregations like Bill Hybels. Some are called to lead smaller house churches and everything in between.

    No leader is perfect. No congregation is perfect. No ministry model is perfect.

    But King Jesus is (I figured you like the King Jesus Scott).

    Let’s discover and be true who God has called and gifted us be and be on mission for His glory.

    Pastor Derwin

  • Rick

    Michael #5-

    But how does one stop it? If a large number of people are drawn to a certain person/style, how can they be turned away?

  • RJS


    If the claim was that no one who attends a mega church knows biblical theology the accusation was clearly wrong.

    If the claim was that few if any who receive their theological education at a mega church know biblical theology – well then the accusation may have legs. Many Christians don’t attend Christian colleges, most don’t read much of any theological depth, most don’t read the bible save favorite bite-sized bits of blessings, promises, and famous stories (which exists to offer moral lessons for 21st century life it appears). Will most of these people gain a biblical theology from their Sunday-go-to-worship mega church? Is it even in the small group curriculum?

    Rick (#7),

    Growth is an intentional business decision. It requires facilities and institutional structure. It is always tainted by pride and ambition – even good Godly men and women have to fight this tendency as was true in the first century as today. Personally I think the charismatic pastor should intentionally self-limit and grow up separate churches with others as central figures and preachers. This isn’t failure to use God’s gifts – it is a responsible use of God’s gifts.

  • Rick

    RJS #8-

    I don’t disagree with your goal, but getting there is a different story.

    “Growth is an intentional business decision.” But it is not only that. The response of people is also a factor.

    “…I think the charismatic pastor should intentionally self-limit and grow up separate churches with others as central figures and preachers.”

    And many churches do that, but still find that the mother church/central church still draw the most attendees.

    The issue is not just the church culture, it is also the personality-driven culture at large.

  • Scott, your observation is so obvious that one wonders why it even needs to be made. Can we add that one ought not press the NT “shepherd” metaphor beyond its contextual boundaries?

    Michael, is the sale of the Crystal Cathedral indicative of what happens only to churches of enormous size? Are we not familiar with a number of smaller congregations that have closed?

  • A megachurch lead pastor really is more of a bishop than a pastor.

  • “Will most of these people gain a biblical theology from their Sunday-go-to-worship mega church?”

    Will most people gain a biblical theology from their Sunday-go-to-worship church of any size? I think the trouble with mega-churches, in part, is that they push reformation ecclesiology to its extremes. The trouble with these churches is not a trouble unique to these churches but a trouble inherent in any church where “church” is equivalent to singing some songs and listening to someone lecture for 20 minutes to an hour.

  • Mega churches can offer opportunities that smaller churches can’t. They also have a greater challenge in pastoring and discipleship for the very reason that even with a great number of pastors, it is easy for someone to walk in, sit through the service, and walk out without anybody ever learning their name. And many attend a mega church because that is all they want from the church.
    However, for those who want to be pastored, many mega-churches offer pastoring– though it is usually not through the preacher that they see in front of the masses. It would be helpful if we differentiated between bishops, administrators, preachers, pastors, shepherds, mentors, etc. However, it will take a long time for the change to permeate society, so for now there will continue to be confusion and discussion.

  • Richard

    Bishop Warren, Bishop Hybels, Bishop Driscoll, etc.

    Might give them pause before they take it on and recognize that their function has shifted as the organization grows. I like it. Of course they’d probably request a Bishop’s Bonus to boot…

  • Zach S

    Rather than make assumptions, why not interview the pastor and staff of a much larger church? I would love to hear and see this debate through the ears and eyes of someone in the trenches.

  • Having been a pastor at a mega (actually “giga”) church, and having consulted with literally hundreds of such churches and their leaders, I can affirm both their strengths and their flaws. The issues in the original, rambling post/rant include the definition of Shepherd, the scope/scale of personal ministry, the definition of pastor, the size of a congregation, the size of buildings and physical structure, the theology of shepherding, how equipping takes place, the role of preaching, and probably a few others. Too much to comment on. So a few thoughts.

    Yes, a number of these pastors are more teaching bishops and Denominational Leaders. Some “shepherd” their senior staffs, who in turn shepherd others, and some do not (like denominational leaders). Some function more like a Seminary President who can communicate effectively. Time is spent raising money, administrating the complexity of a large organization, hiring “faculty” and honing the vision and mission.

    The larger the congregation (or multi-site congregations in the case of many) requires more organizational skill and leadership acumen than a pastor of 150. But BOTH can be VERY effective. Larger churches (like denominations) can pool resources, create niche ministries (the disabled, targeted recovery groups, food pantries, etc.), support outreach on a grand scale (like targeting a town in Zimbabwe and sending a “staff” to live there and hundreds of volunteers regularly).

    The challenges, however, cannot be overlooked. “Pastors” in larger churches can be removed from the grass roots unless they personally lead a discipleship group or engage with non-believers. The layers of bureaucracy, potential for fragmentation, encouragement of “consumer” mindsets, proliferation of meetings & events, constant turnover of staff who see it as a training ground, difficulty empowering volunteers who think “they don’t need me — everything is so professional!” and the decision-making of a relative few who impact so many, is mind boggling. Don’t be jealous — I have served in a church of 120 and 24,000 – BOTH have great challenges and flaws…and BOTH can see great fruit and beauty.

    The key is a clear vision, rooted in a Holy Spirit led TEAM — not a “Senior” Pastor who sits atop the pyramid (appoint “elders” – plural – I recall Paul said). Sound teaching connected to real practice in a communal setting (group life of some form), and a radical call to selfless servanthood. As it “grows” the decision is to either go Mega at one site, go multi-site, plant churches, and so on. Each of these has theological and practical challenges, and each TEAM must, as God leads, pursue his call.

    But one thing is clear (and biblical) – the time for “one pastor over all, indivisible, with authority and decision-making for all” must come to an end.

  • Remove religious financial incentives and find The Community outside the building.

  • John W Frye

    I have been fortunate to serve as “teaching pastor” of a large church and now to be serving as the sole (no pun intended) pastor of a small church. Caveat: this is my story and I do not offer it as a template for anyone else. There are energetic kingdom affinities attached to Jesus’ description of his Shepherd role: “I know my sheep ‘by name'”, i.e., I know their stories, their characters, etc. and “my sheep know me.” These affinities are deeply and relationally transformative when the person who preaches/teaches the Word of God to a congregation is the one who visits them in their homes, in the hospitals, in the nursing home facilities; when the person who faithfully broadcasts the King Jesus Gospel Story also holds the baby in baptism, who prays and weeps at the grave side, who pronounces the husband and wife union; who walks in the shadow of death with the weary and confused. I wouldn’t trade being a pastor for being the mega-church communicator who by all measurements doesn’t know but a small percentage of the stories and characters that huge church’s attendees. When pastoring is reduced to primarily preaching which is what happens to “lead” pastors by necessity in mega-churches, IMO something very significant is lost. Yes, I could be wrong, but I still think there are subterranean relational trade-offs in the mega-church pastor model.

  • John W Frye

    In view of Bill’s comment (# 14), I must tell inform you that I am surrounded by a team of gifted, perceptive women and men who help formulate and implement our church’s vision/mission.

  • Tim

    I’ve often found that this is a topic that has been dealt a fatal blow through the brute, clubbish force of the term ‘biblical’. Thus, a ‘biblical’ pastor is one who knows his sheep, is personally involved in the discipleship of everyone in the church, etc. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the term ‘biblical’ is subjective, and is often used to hide ignorance and mask and bias.

    In this case a lot of noise is made about how ‘pastoral’ the leader(s) of a church should be. What is strikingly missing from the conversation is that the primary term used by NT authors in describing church leadership wasn’t ‘pastor’, but ‘elder’.

    None of this diminishes the absolute necessity of discipleship–we understand that any church, and any church leader, is called to the ministry of Christian discipleship rather than large weekend services. But, the amazingly low level of prescriptive instructions in the NT allow different churches to utilize their elders in different ways.

    Lastly, here’s a great article by Tim Keller talking about some of the shifts in a church as it grows in size. Not inherently good or evil shifts, just shifts:

  • Jonathan Middlebrooks

    Is it a coincidence that the Church in America has been in significant decline while the mega-church has been on a significant climb? The biggest problem I have with the mega-church is the lack of care for their brothers as they mow down the competition and suck the life and gifts from the smaller churches until they close their doors. This is leaving entire neighborhoods lifeless and without a community connection to the body of Christ. This is one of the reasons we are having to plant so many churches right now. I don’t think it’s a question of is it wrong or right, but whether it is wise. Ultimately, I think we will all see the mega-church model as a massive failure in a missiological method.

  • Deets

    Scot, I love much of what you write. However, this is one place where you an I don’t see eye to eye. Of course, I don’t want to challenge your biblical position, but, having been a pastor (family pastor) in a growing church, I am disillusioned by the mentality that is prevalent in the mega-church mindset. It is propagated in almost every leadership conference and church leadership book that I can find. That is the idea that is lost in the mentality that the pastor is a leader. Now a shepherd would be a leader. In that, pastors should lead people in a way that I would say resembles a parent leading a family.

    I’ve heard way too much talk about the pastor leading the organization. It is this talk that prevails in mega-churches. It comes from the idea that leadership is influence and if a church grows it has more influence. When I church becomes so big that the pastor is more CEO that spiritual guide of the individuals, calling the leader of the church “the pastor” does harm to the ideas of scripture. I’m not saying that it is impossible to truly pastor in a megachurch. I am saying that I don’t think that is the norm. A pastor cares when even one of his sheep is lost. Too many megachurch leaders have a philosophy that low producers must be lost for the good of the organization. When that is the mentality, the title pastor is forfeit.

  • Jean

    #16 John W Frye, I’m looking for a “like” button! That’s the description of a Pastor.

  • I think we are overusing the word and role of pastor. I like what Alan Hirsch gets at in “The Permanent Revolution” when he emphasizes the importance of Ephesians 4 and the Five Fold ministry of Appstle, Prophet, Evangelist, shepherd/pastor, teacher. We need to stop calling leaders of mega churches (one) or movements (many churches) pastors. Many leaders of movements who are visionary and entrepreneurial and pushing the church forward to reach more people are really functioning in the apostolic gifting or possibly evangelistic. The many leaders under them that shepherd the internal flock and know the 120 people or less under their care are pastors and shepherds. We need both roles. I think the problem is an overuse of the term pastor and we call everything in western church leadership pastor today! Why????? Paul didn’t.

  • AndieP

    Scot, I am curious how we are defining ‘the pastor’ here. I always understood the term “The Pastor” to be the person who heads a particular church. His office may be called the Minister in some churches, the Preacher in some churches, and yet others may call him/her the Lead pastor or whatever. Nevertheless, I don’t consider that the same as someone who the Spirit has gifted with the gift of pastor. Many more than just the single person are gifted and use their gift in the church.
    Are we talking semantics here?

  • scotmcknight

    Hey Andie…

    Some use the word “pastor” for the office, which you are doing here; others for the gift, which I would do.

  • #18 John Frye rocks.

  • Hello all, thanks for your thoughts and comments. I have appreciated each and every one of them; especially those of RJS and John Frye. I am working on a response/clarification of my own view for those who might be interested. Hopefully it will be ready in a short while. 🙂

  • Ana Mullan

    As a total outsider living in Ireland, where we don’t have problems with mega churches or mega pastors of our own, I would say that the dangerous bit for me is, when those mega churches think that they can reproduce what they have done over there in countries like Ireland or in Europe without contextualizing it. Or when formulas, books, etc. are written as the final authority on how to grow a church, and then of course, because of the difference in culture it doesn’t happen. Mega churches, mega pastors, that might suit the States, it is a country that does things in a big way, in here the discussions are more: how can communicate the gospel to a generation that does not believe in any type of “religious leaders”? or on the idea of church?

  • John W Frye

    Right on, Ana (#29)! We see mega-churches become “obvious successes” by USAmerican cultural values. Then these churches create a marketable template and then, OMG, “sell” the church to whoever wants to buy it. I think Jesus said “I will build my church”, not “Successful mega-churches will sell my church.” Local churches are fiercely particular and no two churches are or will ever be alike…it is undeniably impossible. I don’t know when this glaringly obvious reality will “dawn” on USAmerican evangelicalism.

  • Wyatt

    “Being a pastor is a personal profession.” I don’t think so if someone else is cutting your paycheck. What about gift as Scot says above?

    “When someone uses the term mega-church pastor for me my vocation and calling is cheapened.” You must study yourself in the mirror a lot and see that mega-church pastor. Don’t you think you are taking this a little too personal?

    “It is kind of like saying a person who prepares McDonald’s burgers is a chef. Don’t we think that a real Chef who has spent years studying and training for their vocation might be a little miffed at being compared to someone who slaps sauce and a patty on a bun?” No it’s not. And yet this is what the seminary cranks out and we consume it in the church all too willingly. You must be a pastor if you did all that work and you have initials to prove it. You can slap sauce on a burger in a very artful way if you want and a real chef knows how to do that. Just watch the Food Network.

    But here is what I like. “…who says there is only one pastor for every church? Why can’t churches have multiple pastors?” Whoa! Are you kidding? What kind of mushrooms were on that pizza?

  • A pastor is one who is ordained/licensed to preach/teach the Word, administer the sacraments, and order the life of the church for mission/ministry. Certainly there can more than one pastor at a location (or satelitte locations). But to call every person that shepherds a small group a pastor cheapens the vocation in the same way that calling someone that makes burgers a Chef. If there are going to be more than one pastor, then those other pastors should be ordained/licensed, that is, officially vetted and recognized. By the way, I am speaking out of the United Methodist tradition.

    I have no problem with calling the leader of a mega-church a pastor. They may not be able to function as pastor in the same way as a pastor of a smaller congregation. But the title is legitamate.

  • Dottie

    The mega congregation that I am a part of has 36 shepherds (a few of whom work as an administrative team on a rotating basis), 34 ministers, and bunches and bunches of small groups, who also care for each other, i.e., someone is ill, there is a funeral, someone is getting married or having a baby, etc., the needs are taken care of by the small group. there is always a ‘minister of the day’ on duty to receive calls, render help and along with the pastors, there is a ‘minister for hospital duty’ that is rotated among the 34. Seriously ill, bereaved, people in grave difficulty are cared for by teams made up of different shepherds – so that in crisis they can call their pastoral team for help. Our pastors work hard for no remuneration. The majority work full time and they are chosen by the congregation. based on the fact that they meet the qualifications found in I Timothy 3:2ff and Titus 1:7ff. In addition we have around 200+ deacons and deaconesses who, without remuneration, tend to various functions or needs in the church – e.g., divorce recovery, grief recovery, reconciliation, prayer ministry, financial counseling, counseling, preparation for marriage, homeless ministry, jail ministry, missions, missionary care, apartment ministries, neighborhood connections, etc., etc. I have no complaints. I feel loved, but as a deaconess, I also do my part to love others through my gifts. Our Shepherds fast and pray and study together – when big decisions are being made, they ask the congregation to fast and pray with them – to ask God for wisdom. I think things are going pretty well at my mega congregation that meets on three campuses. I would invite anyone to be a part of this church – it’s a great place to heal and a great place to serve and I believe the group is pretty unified, considering the mulitplicity of possible conflicts that can occur when two or three gather. The best part – I think Jesus is part of us every time we meet together and goes with us as we leave to be the church out there. oh and our Minister of the Word – the one who preaches the most – who stands before the congregation the most – never has a bad sermon. His gift is prophesy and teaching. The Shepherds want him to use his gift and use it well – they will do the shepherding.

  • John W Frye

    In their fine book *The Pastor: Readings from the Patristic Period* (Fortress: 1990), Philip L. Culbertson and Arthur Bradford Shippee (eds) make this observation, “In the course of our research into the early church we found not a single system of pastoral thought and action but instead an odd jumble of duties and ideologies variously interrelated, with different emphases in different times and places. It looks quite modern in its undisciplined plurality” (p 2).

    In view of the above finding, I get a little irritated when someone pontificates about what pastoral ministry is supposed to look like today. There has *never* been a time when pastoral ministry was gotten “right.” We can’t excavate and put on display the historical pure template of pastoral ministry. I think pastoral ministry is so context specific that we’d be fools to think there is the one and only right way. You can talk about giftedness versus official position until Jesus comes back, but you’re only talking about what they talked and debated from the beginning.

  • Wyatt


    “But to call every person that shepherds a small group a pastor cheapens the vocation in the same way that calling someone that makes burgers a Chef.” No it doesn’t and I don’t think anybody here said that. But what it does diminish is our definition and expectations (fabricated as they can be) of who a pastor is.

    Unfortunately we are still slaves to some extent to what our seminaries and churches and even respective denominations tell us what a pastor is. I am bit of an iconoclast and I am weary of the defining we tend to do or want to do to promote some idea of who a pastor is mega-church or not. So if you don’t have a pulpit and a microphone in your face and several initials after your name, or carry a card saying your are a pastor (my favorite is someone carrying a card calling themselves “apostle”) you can’t be called or should not be a pastor whether or not that person is in a mega-church. I am missing the logic. I understand the logic of gift not entitlement when it comes to church leadership.

  • Leslie

    Interesting discussion. None of this debate seems to take into account the fact that there are just more people on the planet than ever before. We are booming! shouldn’t the church boom as well? I think the mega church model is an effective model, so is the rural community church. Lets not toss out the Amish. I think they have something important as well to add to the body of Christ. Dallas Willard said (and I’m paraphasing and it is has been awhile so forgive me if it is a bad paraphrase) that we don’t live the way we lived even 100 years ago. In most of our cities everyone could fit in the local churches. That simply isn’t the case anymore. Mega churches are one answer, but they aren’t the entire. I am thankful for the resources provided by mega churches. They are much better than denominational materials because they are often written by people who are using them in churches (I wonder about some of the stuff we get.) If I were in the U.S. (currently we are overseas) and we lived in a suburban area, I would consider a mega church if our kids went to public schools. It is among the best way for them to have a peer group of Christians in the school. Small churches in urban or suburban environments often have a difficult time providing a peer group of Christian friends and parents for kids outside of the few hours a child is at church.

    Let me just turn the table a bit (just a bit), a 250 member church might feel warm and fuzzy to the staff with good healthy vertical relationships, but it might not be the same kind of warm and fuzzy experience for its outer members if they don’t feel compelled to invite others.

    Our churches should be as big as God wants them to be. I have a hard time believeing some of these churches in downtown mega cities should be so small. Especially when they are only half full.