Roughly 12,000 people participate of the inauguration ceremony of the Christian Fraternity of Guatemala evangelical church in San Cristobal, municipality of Mixco, south of Guatemala City. (Photo: Orlando Sierra -AFP/Getty Images)
The million dollar question: Should I attend a megachurch? Christians fall on both sides of the debate. Let’s begin with a definition. Most define a megachurch as a congregation with more than 2,000 members. Based on this definition, there are over 1,300 megachurches in America. Megachurch proponents cite the size of the church as a “practice run”, as we are sure to worship with millions of folks in heaven. One cannot overlook the impact of aggregate finances (when used properly) for missions work. On the flip side of the coin, smaller congregations offer intimacy that many believe makes for authentic, real relationships. On top of that, many believe that smaller churches are less political than larger congregations. As a catalyst for reflection, consider the following four reasons that many Christians offer for refusing to step into a megachurch.
Nobody likes a hypocrite. It rubs people the wrong way when someone talks out of both sides of the mouth. Over the past several decades, we’ve seen numerous scandals unfold in the media (including social media). In most instances, the scandals are attributed to pastors of large megachurches. The truth is, media outlets are really not as interested in small-town scandals. When they get wind of a larger, more prominent pastor’s moral failures, they generally prefer these stories (and usually run them into the ground).
Here’s the problem with this approach. We tend to attribute the actions of one person to an entire group. That God entrusted His Church to men and women can be both a blessing and a curse. We are blessed to be vessels of God’s grace, but sometimes those vessels are jacked up, flawed, and fall short of his plan for our lives. Truth be told, for every scandal in a megachurch, there are countless others who operate in integrity and hold themselves accountable. Don’t let the vices of a few cause you to place all others in the same category.
2. Biblically “Un”Sound Teaching
There’s a fine line here. It’s important to affirm revelatory words spoken through God’s Spirit. However, it’s almost always a red flag when passages are out of context. Again, traditional media and social media has (in some instances) caused many to doubt the teachings of many megachurch pastors. I remember clearly a 20/20 story that ran several years back on Fred Price. It purported that one of Price’s sermons bragged about his lavish lifestyle, when in fact it did not. You can see the rebuttal report (which includes the entire sermon) here.
Lamentably, there are pastors who teach wrong doctrine. But it’s unfair to put pastors into a certain category based on a few sermons they preach. If someone preaches on stewardship four weeks a year, does that make him or her a prosperity pastor? Certainly not. One may justly wonder about “Dr.’s” who have not completed required coursework to attain a Doctorate level degree, but it’s a sign of charity to withhold judgment of their preaching/teaching until hearing an entire message or more than one or two sermons.
3. Financial Irresponsibility
Some years ago, the Senate launched an investigation requesting financial information from several prominent televangelists. Last year, the investigation concluded with no definitive findings of wrongdoing and no penalties imposed as a result of the inquiry. It’s not surprising that the results of the investigation didn’t get as much air time as the investigation itself. True enough, financially irresponsibility is reprehensible – especially when it comes to men and women of God. Yet the ultimate question is whether ministers of the Gospel should live lifestyles comparable to Hollywood celebrities? There are at least two sides of the coin here. One side: children have someone other than athletes and musicians to look up to. Other side: Prosperity and ministry are like oil and water. Jesus wasn’t prosperous, so pastors shouldn’t be.
How much is too much in the context of ministry? We reward others based on their talents and abilities. Shouldn’t we compensate men and women of God for faithful work as well? Perhaps we can employ a slightly different approach regarding earning capacity in ministry. Let’s call it the “Paul tentmaker” model. A full discussion of this approach is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that Paul’s occupation (as a tentmaker) sustained him, so he didn’t run into “salary” issues with the various churches he ministered to. Let’s pray that God opens the same door for future leaders in the Church.
4. Sheep herding vs. Shepherding
Numbers matter. Especially when it comes to Church. Some pastors ask each other: “How many you running on Sundays, doc?” The sheep herding mentality. Get ’em in. Get ’em out. This is one of the perceived flaws of the megachurch model. It is not uncommon to hear megachurch members lament about their respective experiences of being “herded in and out to graze”. On the other hand, many megachurches are intentional about shepherding. This might not occur on Sunday mornings, but it does happen in the context of small groups/cell groups. In fact, some of the most enriching relationships in the megachurch context often occur in the small group setting. Every megachurch should remember pastors are called to be shepherds and not sheep herders. There is a difference.
So, to megachurch or not to megachurch? Ultimately the decision is yours. A note of caution: beware of misapplying the aforementioned reasons for refusing to visit a large congregation. Myths and rumors, unfortunately, are pervasive in the body of Christ. Third-party misinformation: “You know _______ has an ATM machine in the lobby for church members.” Sermon titles misapplied: “_______ said you should fall in love with a stripper.” A pastor’s heart misinterpreted: “You know ______ preaches a happy, happy, joy, joy message.” Churches, large and small, are not without flaw. And we are to hold each of them to account for their shortcomings. However, that doesn’t mean we should downright dismiss their effectiveness merely based on size. There’s only one Person who can make that determination. The Chief Cornerstone: Jesus Christ.
Question: Do you attend a megachurch? Why or why not?
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20, KJV
Every week, millions of people all over the world attend some form of church service — whether it be at a historic inner-city building, a sparkling suburban structure, or a secret underground location. For many Christians, Sunday morning marks a time of reflection and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s also a time to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of other believers. Among many African Americans in the inner city, “remembering the sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) is a prerequisite to starting the week off correctly.
It’s true that many of us attend church out of tradition or a sense of obligation. However, anything worth practicing — and anything valued enough to perform repetitively — is worth understanding. Which leads me to a question that may seem unnecessary on the surface but that is fraught with meaning for the living of our faith: Why do we attend church?
For many, the question is superfluous — the Bible commands we go to church, so we do it. Hebrews 10:25 admonishes us to “not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together,” meaning that we should often afford ourselves the opportunity to join with other Christian men and women. Some Christians agree with that notion and some do not; however, it is relatively easy to conclude that many of us attend church because it is a part of our family upbringing or because of what the church represents to our society and our communities.
Our Heritage of Faith
I believe the truth about our theology as churchgoers is deeply rooted in our upbringing. It is apart of our cultural matrix.
We attend church because our parents attended or because our families have been members of a particular church for years. It represents a place where we all come together in fellowship and worship. One could survey any given church and interview countless parishioners capable of testifying about the positive experiences afforded to their families because of their commitment to attending service.
Ultimately we can, throughout history, point to the church as a place that has allowed all of God’s children to be a family. Even during slavery, the church represented the one place where the slave family might be allowed to go together. Slaves attended the church of their masters, and as long as the family worked on the same plantation, they could generally be assured that Sundays represented a small space in time where they could be with their families and be encouraged through the singing of spirituals and the presentation of God’s Word, and particularly what it had to say about true freedom and justice.
Middle-Class Flight and Return
In the book Preaching to the African American Middle Class, pastor and homiletics professor Marvin McMickle writes: “What better way is there to view the ministry of churches in inner-city areas than as agents that both prolong life and help to avoid decay in communities where almost every other business and institution has abandoned the area?”
McMickle goes on to observe how in the wake of middle-class flight from cities, churches survive as some of the few institutions left in blighted communities, often next to barbershops, beauty salons, currency exchange centers, and liquor stores. “Almost everything that inner city residents need in order to have a meaningful life is located outside of their community,” he continues, “ranging from medical care to adequate shopping facilities to employment beyond minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants.”
But, for the most part, the church remains.
In cities like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis the African American church is often the only legacy institution that has not uprooted itself from the inner city. While the quality of life for many of the parishioners has increased — allowing them to relocate to suburban areas — the church has not relocated. I believe many African Americans continue to attend churches in our cities for that reason. The church has always been there as a part of the community, and it is viewed as an entity that will remain. It is a prototype of the nature of Christ in the community; its presence will remain steadfast and unmovable.
As we have changed and grown, so have our churches. The emergence of the African American middle class brought with it the emergence of the African American megachurch. Chicago, for instance, is home to several megachurches located in predominately African American urban neighborhoods. Congregations like Rev. James Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which boasts some 15,000 members, sits in the heart of the Roseland community (largely African American and partially Latino). The Apostolic Church of God, pastored by Dr. Byron Brazier, and the Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Rev. Otis Moss III, are both situated on the Southside and are predominantly African American.
Many scholars committed to the study of church growth and trends would argue that the birth of the American megachurch came as the result of suburban sprawl, social disconnectedness, and a rejection of traditional Protestant denominations and church models. However, I would argue that in the African American community the expansion of the middle-class and its members’ ability to participate as valuable consumers in society (meaning that we could now shop at the megamalls) also gave Black people the resources to support and become a part of larger church ministries.
We continue to attend church because it has managed to adapt to a changing culture, becoming more contemporary in its worship and diverse in its membership to reflect the surrounding society. But we also attend church to be rescued emotionally and spiritually from that very same society.
Jesus Is the Answer
Any number of sociological arguments about the church’s role in society can be made. Certainly the economic incline of the parishioners and the rise of mega-entities have caused the church to change, and we can relate to the fluctuation. But because these arguments are easily debated, they do not carry as much weight as this argument: We attend church because of our love for Jesus Christ.
Countless scholars have harvested mounds of information regarding church membership, trends in church growth, and the theology of churchgoers, but none can easily refute the idea that many Christians simply love the Lord and desire to experience His Spirit in the presence of other faithful and desirous believers.
Church represents the one place in society where we can worship and praise God in our own way and with few inhibitions. While we might acknowledge the role of our families in our relationship with God, and might identify with the consistent and conversely changing roles of the church, it is beyond debate that Jesus is the number one reason that Christians continue to gather on Sunday morning (or Saturday night) to demonstrate our need for spiritual renewal and our commitment to God’s Word as the guidebook for our daily lives.
This article originally appeared in Precepts for Living, UMI’s annual Bible commentary.
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Pastor Zachery Tims' body was found in a NYC hotel in Times Square.
Investigation into the death of megachurch Pastor Zachery Tims, 42, continues as mass online condolences accompany few details of his Aug. 12 passing in a New York City hotel room. Police reportedly found Tims, pastor of the 8,000-member New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Fla., near Orlando, unresponsive on the floor of his room in the W Hotel in Times Square early Friday evening. As of Sunday night following his death, reports said police did not suspect foul play. Even as they awaited autopsy results Monday afternoon, police reportedly had no plans for a criminal investigation.
Many had heard of Tims’ death through Facebook and Twitter postings before mainstream media began reporting additional information Monday morning. By noon, tweets expressing grief over Tims’ death flooded Twitter at about 25 tweets per minute, trending in Orlando. Beyond shock, other posts mentioned the impact Tims had even beyond the walls of his church.
“I know the word, but I am still stunned over the death of Pastor Zachary Tims,” tweeted Rev. Charles Jenkins, pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, Ill. “He texted me encouragement every Sunday.” Other nationally known church and gospel music personalities posting their sentiments included CeCe Winans, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Fred Hammond and Jonathan Nelson. Commentator Roland Martin informed followers of the latest information, even though little was available beyond initial reports. The latest news reports claim a white powdery substance was found on Tims’ body, leading authorities to suspect that his death was drug related.
Originally from Baltimore, Tims earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Towson State University and another in theology from Maranatha Baptist Bible College, both in Maryland. He founded New Destiny in 1996 with six members. As church membership grew, the congregation continually expanded its facilities to ultimately hold its 8,000 members. He is survived by his ex-wife and four children.
One of the big stories making the rounds this week is Time magazine’s major report on Willow Creek and the progress being made in evangelical megachurches to bridge the racial divide. Time religion reporter David Van Biema uses Willow Creek’s journey, and senior pastor Bill Hybel’s personal spiritual awakening on the issue of race in America, as a window to how the larger evangelical church is doing in this arena. Recounting the American church’s long struggle to overcome its complicated racial historyView Post, Van Biema writes:
Since Reconstruction, when African Americans fled or were ejected from white churches, black and white Christianity have developed striking differences of style and substance. The argument can be made that people attend the church they are used to; many minorities have scant desire to attend a white church, seeing their faith as an important vessel of cultural identity. But those many who desire a transracial faith life have found themselves discouraged — subtly, often unintentionally, but remarkably consistently. In an age of mixed-race malls, mixed-race pop-music charts and, yes, a mixed-race President, the church divide seems increasingly peculiar. It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings — and those most safely beyond the law’s reach — remain color-coded.