For the better part of 30 years, I served in the ministry. For 20 of those 30 years, I was a Pastor. Before I became a Pastor, I chose to pursue my college education in Bible and Religion in a Baptist College here in the Bible belt. While I was a student, I noticed several things that gave me pause.
First, every guest speaker that spoke in our Chapel services were pastors of what we call, “Mega-Churches,” that is churches who have a membership of 2,500 or more. I will discuss membership later. To be fair, these men were some of the best preachers I had ever heard. I often wondered why only mega-church pastors were the only ones invited to speak, and why students or pastors of smaller membership churches were never invited to speak in our seminary chapel. The message was clear: small membership churches don’t contribute as much money to the denomination. The other message was also clear: every pastor should aspire to grow their church into a mega-church, because anything less than that was insignificant.
The first church I pastored had a membership of about 115. Average attendance at the time I arrived was about 20. You see, denominations tend to measure their churches’ successes based on the number of members on the books. To become a member of the denomination I was in, all you had to do was walk to the front of the church, pray with the minister, fill out a card, and, if necessary, be baptized. Membership numbers are what denominational bean counters use in their reporting. Actual active membership is usually much, much lower.
In the first year of my pastorate, our active membership had increased from 20 to 105 in Sunday morning services. I operated “by the book,” and we set records for growth and number of baptisms. Despite our “success,” we were still considered a Small Membership Church. During my first pastorate, I attended my first (and last) Pastor’s Conference in Florida. I didn’t know many people at the conference, but I observed and listened as these men of God interacted. The bulk of the conversations consisted of discussions of how large their churches were, or what I have come to call, “Pastoral Penis Measuring.” I introduced myself to various pastors and almost always the first question they asked me was, “How many members does your church have?” In other words, “Is your Pastoral Penis larger or smaller than mine?” Typically, when I answered “less than 200,” they would say something about how nice it was to meet me, God bless you, and enjoy the conference. It was the longest four days of my life, and I never went back to that conference again. At least the music was great.
I came away from that conference with some discouraging observations:
- The church nearly occupied an entire square block in the city. I can’t tell you how many times I got lost just trying to find a men’s room. Their “membership” was over 20,000, but regular attendance seemed to be close to 5,000.
- The Senior Pastor of the church announced that plans were in the works to build a brand new state of the art worship center, and that we were more than welcome to contribute. The conference itself cost over $500, I figured I had already contributed my fair share.
- Why in the world did they need a new state of the art worship center? The one they had was breathtaking, and enormous. There were hundreds of people there, but the place was not even close to being packed.
- “Churchianity” is big business.
Being the inquisitive type, I asked one of the church members (the pastor was too busy to meet me) why they were building a new building when this one was so large and awesome. He replied, and I quote, “Because God told us too.” Well, who can argue with that?
I returned to my small church in our shoebox building feeling like a complete failure as a minister. Why had God not told ME to build a bigger building? We were growing, and I was doing everything just the way I had been taught in seminary. Four years later, my marriage ended, and I was asked to resign. In many ways, I was relieved. I just couldn’t play the game anymore. Trying to keep up with mega-churches was very draining and it nearly destroyed me, physically and emotionally.
Statistically speaking, mega-churches are the exception and not the rule. According to research, for every mega-church, there are 1,000 small churches like mine just trying to keep the doors open.
One day I walked in a retail “Christian” bookstore to see if they had a particular book I was looking for. I had my eleven year old with me. He was looking at the art for sale on the wall and was astonished at the retail prices, ranging from $75 to $450. He asked me, “Why are these pictures so expensive?”
I replied, “Because Churchianity is big business.”
To be continued…