Every major city has a bevy of churches drawing between 5k-25k people. To get a body to grow that big leaders have to use some sort of performance enhancer. These things—typically models, strategies, and techniques gleaned not from the gospel or the Christian narrative, but from the world of business and the narrative of consumer capitalism—serve as performance enhancers that help create enormous congregations with huge facilities and hundreds of programs.
The impact of these practices is akin to using performance-enhancing drugs. They actually alter the form and function of the body, causing real and serious long-term consequences for the church universal.
Ever watch a bodybuilding competition on ESPN? You look at these massive men and women with huge, well-defined muscles and not an ounce of body fat, and think, That’s not how a body is supposed to look. Something is wrong with this picture. Have you ever compared pictures of Mark McGuire or Barry Bonds as a rookie with a photo taken in their last season and thought, How did that skinny little kid turn into Andre the Giant?
This is how I see the megachurch these days. The body is so big it looks like something is off. This didn’t happen by accident. Our most celebrated church leaders have been feeding the church the equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs for decades. The rest of us immediately asked them how they were doing it so we could try it too. If anyone felt a hint of concern in those early years of the church growth movement, we easily shrugged it off because the results were so amazing. But sometimes we tend to forget the downsides.
For every megachurch that starts up, scores of smaller churches are swallowed whole. The gift set it takes in order to be a megachurch pastor is exceedingly rare, so churches become too dependent on personalities. The typical megachurch’s size provides so much anonymity that people begin to think it’s possible to follow Jesus and escape the challenges of relationship. Megachurches have helped create a religious marketplace, where smaller churches are expected to try and compete for market share — like the mom and pop shop going up against Walmart. The megachurch has changed the way the church is viewed in America.
There can be no doubt that the megachurch has been an amazing laboratory in which we have tested the limits of size on the body of Christ. Maybe it is time for our megachurch leaders to teach us the most important lesson yet: there is such a thing as too big.
“Maybe it is time for our megachurch leaders to teach us the most important lesson yet: there is such a thing as too big.”
Of course, in the popular imagination the opposite is true. The megachurch has become the gold standard, the ultimate objective for all pastors. Growth has become nearly synonymous with God’s blessing. I want us to think carefully about this assumption. If you want to read a pretty comprehensive vision of what it would be like to imagine a church in a completely different narrative, that’s exactly why I wrote the book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture.
It is interesting to note that nearly all of the megachurches to which I have been exposed are beginning to use the language of “getting small.” That is, finding a way to provide members with more connection, more friendships, more ways to feel like they are not just a cog in a huge wheel. So they form strategies, create structures, and design programs meant to create the sensation of smallness without actually having to get small. Why not just get small? Why not shrink? At least part of the reason is that shrinking brings with it a whole truckload of vulnerabilities.
I don’t mean to turn back the clock, and I don’t mean to tear down all the megachurches. I just want us to think carefully about the ways in which the megachurch leadership techniques have radically transformed the body of Christ. We may have been able to produce big crowds, amazing programs, public popularity, and huge facilities, but I wonder if we have failed the church in important ways. The megachurch mentality is like taking steroids in order to alter the body permanently, so that our churches can grow without limits.