I think the megachurch movement has created a clearly unintentional but serious infection which may lead to the eventual death of Christian connection, AKA the church.
Let me explain.
A varying team accompanies me on these mystery worship visits. Age range: pre-teen to the geriatric, and have differing religious backgrounds. We generally get together to talk after each service, share impressions, and consider the next worship adventure. Our general assessment about this particular day was an unenthusiastic, “Well, it was fine but . . . ”
What was our hesitation? Two reasons I suspect.
One, we are visiting and know no one. We have no sense of local community, of having just been in worship with a larger group connection. Simply, we don’t know anyone else. As friendly as people can be–and this was a particularly friendly place–nothing replaces the depth of a genuine knowing of one another.
Two, and this is the more pernicious issue, we are reaching a point where we want to be wowed by what takes place. We want something unusual, something snappy, something profoundly moving, something spectacularly life-changing. In other words, we are in danger of becoming worship snobs, sniffing our collective noses at anything that doesn’t quite meet our increasingly exact standards.
We want a weekly experience of Pentecost, but not the hard work of the Ordinary Season that follows it. We want the “high” without having to grow deep roots and learning to expend ourselves to produce fruit that will nurture the world.
In a small scale, my mystery worship team is exemplifying the worst of consumer Christianity. We want to skip to the mountaintops and ignore the trained guides and their work on getting us there and the personal discipline necessary to make the journeys.
Almost all of the fastest growing churches I have visited aim for the spectacular in worship. The gatherings feature loud music, light shows, lots of visuals, and big-name preachers, many of whom are former pro athletes. The worshiper tends to have a passive experience at the feet of the experts. Literally “at the feet” because the stages are set up high, ensuring good sight lines in the massive spaces.The children’s areas are lavishly furnished with audio/visual equipment, ensuring little boredom and preparing them for the passive experience of adult worship.
This past Sunday was full of congregational participation. The particularly excellent acoustics in their space meant that the attendees could hear one another well. The collective worship responses gave a healthy sense of being in a large community of like-minded people. As a result, the congregational singing was far more robust than I’ve seen just about anywhere else.
But megachurch auditoriums are set up for professional bands with expensive amplification, not for the unamplified human voice. Few attendees sing, mainly because they sense they are singing alone, an uncomfortable sensation for most. Other voices are lost in the massive spaces. Almost none of those types of worship services expect any unison reading or responses. All comes from the front.
I know that megachurches work hard to create connective small groups and these become the lifeblood of a healthy large church. Nonetheless, these expensive and expansive Sunday “productions” have contributed to the rapidly growing breakdown of people worshiping and working together in community. Few have a holistic church experience–it has become increasingly fragmented from daily life and much more like a weekly Superbowl half-time performance, quickly criticized if it doesn’t meet individual standards.
As I consider the future of my own denomination, The United Methodist Church, I’m aware of the push and need to create more megachurches. Among other things, such entities pay much larger apportionments, and help keep the bureaucracy functioning, the Bishops and their minions paid and the pensions funded. These are our financial realities.
But I think megachurches are essentially, and certainly unintentionally, killing the essence of Christian community. At its core, Christianity is intended to be lived out in deep intimate connection with others who intentionally speak the truth in love to one another, offer to one another comfort and support, bear one another’s burdens, and together manifest the transforming presence of Christ to the world.
Certainly, much admirable mission emanates from larger churches and their extensive resources. I never want to ignore the good they have brought. I simply voice my concern that the kind of vulnerable connection that is needed for healthy personal growth to Christian maturity becomes increasingly difficult as the size of the church grows and worship becomes a professional performance rather than the work of the people.