The MegaChurch is Like An Athlete On Steroids

The MegaChurch is Like An Athlete On Steroids September 17, 2015

Shrink001If the church is the body of Christ, then the megachurch is like an athlete on steroids.

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.

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  • John Powell

    I agree wholeheartedly, but how to get the mega church, or rather it proponents and congregants, to understand the compromise? This is built on a history of American culture, industrial revolution principles, marketing, efficiency, etc. It’s engrained in us to the core. And the cost of the vulnerability may prove to be too high, I fear. Except for those who have eyes to see and who are willing to make the hard decisions, this trend will not abate. How do you see the house church movement being a counter to this and what do you think of its present and future?

  • Jp Stearns

    Certainly, some large churches are “cults of personality”, Joel Osteen’s organization comes to mind. However, the vast majority of large churches, in my experience, are large because they are doing Christ’s work, and the Lord is blessing them. People are being fed, disciples are being made, and evangelism is happening. Certainly, the logistics and performance part of the service are more professional in larger churches, the scale demands better logistics, and there is a larger talent pool from which to pull from for music, and such (along with a greater budget in most cases).

    If we’re complaining about warts in the church, all the same issues apply equally to small churches. Too often, people revel in mediocrity of worship. People’s spiritual needs go unfed because there is not a critical mass of interest (apologetics just isn’t important in “real life” Christianity). The family/social/fellowship aspect of church is raised to the point of possible idolatry.

    None of us is perfect this side of heaven. Since churches are comprised of fallen people, no church will be perfect. There are a LOT of great “mega-churches” where amazing ministry is happening. There are a LOT of small, and midsized, churches doing exceptional ministry. Conversely, there are plenty of churches not living up to their potential, or their God-given calling. To the article, a church is not “bad”, or out-of-line with God because it exercises professionalism in how it promotes its activities, or because organizes its worship service in a professional manner. If you are more fed, and find God is calling you to be a part of a smaller congregation, great! Just remember, there are many parts to the body, and they all have a purpose, and all have value.

  • steveb9124

    I like the theory, but wonder whether it should be explored in a specific direction. One reason megachurches are becoming more and more established is that many of them are diluting the gospel with some combination of the American Dream, positivity, success, and other “sugars” that can be seen as a reflection of a part of Jesus’s ministry, but certainly not the whole of it.

    Challenge: find a megachurch out there that actively and regularly explores some of the hard issues with the gospel. The stuff people don’t want to hear. The problem of pain. Or a megachurch that takes a very loud and unapologetic stand for traditional marriage. I bet it’s a distinct minority. I wonder if someone could organize a study (perhaps looking at the sermon topics over the past 12 months and categorizing them).

  • scott stone

    I think when we discuss the megachurch we need to define it down to the leadership team. It needs to be made more personal. The failings of the mega church aren’t the failings of the entity itself, its the leadership team that needs to be held accountable. It’s like talking about how an SUV caused an accident. No, it’s not the fault of the SUV, it’s the fault of the driver.
    I’d love to see what a DISC assessment reveals on core leaders in a megachurch. To tweak your metaphor, I’d say the mega church is the result of a Pastor on steroids.

  • Jeff Y

    Late to the game here. Just stumbled across this. Would be nice to see some more hard data on this count. I have come across some on this (and have similar anecdotal experiences). Much of the “growth” appears to be more shifting than reaching unbelievers. And, can the mega church really raise serious questions and speak to serious issues in the present age? Can the southern, Bible-belt mega church read Genesis in its historical setting and open the door to belief in evolutionary creationism as Biologos and others done, without undermining it’s model? Can it speak of the Scriptures as inspired but not perfectly inerrant? Can the mega-church become truly incarnate into the culture and function among the poor? Or is it compelled to stay “safe” and basically hold to the standard fundamentalist-lite model to continue its existence?

    That said, some level of size or at least financial backing becomes necessary to maintain (many have closed shop without this). This is a continual concern in our ‘city’ church – with a lot of youth (20-30) and poor.