Sunday, 16 July 2017

The issue with megachurches (Part II).

This week, Pastor Eugene Peterson ("EP") was asked in an interview about whether he is "more encouraged or more discouraged by what you’re seeing in the American church?"

His reply will form the three lessons that I will write about concerning the megachurches (and this is a continuation of the other week when I wrote about megachurches based on the talk that Pastor Francis Chan gave to Facebook employees).

To the question above, EP said that he’s not sure whether it is an either/or (that is, more encouraged or discouraged). But he said that he doesn't feel like pastors are doing their job.

"Look at what’s going on in the church," he continued. "It has a consumer mentality. It’s about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church."

Well, I know no intelligent or respected pastor would try to find ethical sanction for either consumerism or capitalism to justify the running of a church. But these days, the megachurches can't get any more pro-consumeristic and pro-capitalistic in the way they are set up. 

If anything, they don't look like they are trying to push the counterculture of the Sermon on the Mount into the world. But they are on the contrary flowing with the culture of the world with particular flourish. 

You see, if the beatitude is about finding absolute dependency in God (that is, the kingdom of God belongs to those who are poor in spirit), you tend to squirm at the mindless acquisition of wealth by the megachurch pastors who are living in sheer opulence.

If the beatitude is about the resiliency and growth that come through our confronting trials (for blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted), you tend to question their pulpit messages that make prosperity one of the preconditions of faith.

If the beatitude is about guarding your heart against the temptations of this world (for the pure in heart shall see God), you tend to wonder whether the megachurch pastors have on the contrary burdened the hearts of the congregation with the worries and cares of this world as material blessings are deemed as a conclusive sign of spiritual maturity.

And I don't think I even need to talk about being persecuted for righteousness' sake, because the only thing that comes closest to "persecution" for a megachurch pastor is the many undivided attention he or she gets, and the blessed dilemma of how to manage them favorably.

So, EP has got a point when he said that megachurches have "a consumer mentality" and "it's about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church."

Second lesson?

In the above interview, EP thinks that what is most disturbing about megachurches is that they are not even churches.

Here's why in his own words:-

"My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that."

At the end of the day, what matters is essentially relational. Although saying that megachurches are not churches is a little harsh, I guess EP's point coincides with Francis Chan's when the latter said that preaching to a congregation of 5000 every Sunday is like doing a performance gig over the pulpit.

There is just no personal touch to it and you are no different from movie stars or celebrities. They saunter in, bedazzle and sashay off. They cast the seed on Sunday, excuse themselves for most of the week, and leave it to their online sermons, published books and subordinate pastors to do the "watering" in the hope that their congregant's faith would bloom in their own season.

Francis admitted: "Some days I think it was a lot easier when I could just preach, go back and drive off in my car and leave all of them like I will today. I don't have to care for your issues, you know? … I'll never see you again (until next Sunday comes of course)."

My third and final lesson here follows at the heels of what EP said:-

"Now there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places." Underscore "entertainment".

This sadly panders to the needs of the emotionally charged congregation. A consumer-driven environment favors a good Sunday service that is premised on a mediagenic show to keep the pious sentiments brimming over.

As such, a performance church has to religiously start on time, play the music right to rev up the emotion (not to mention the right songs), arrange it professionally to make every segment of public presentation seamless, and climax fitfully when the one they come to watch swaggers in to rousing applause to deliver the message they are expecting to hear.

This reminds me of what the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool JC Ryle once said: "There is a morbid craving in the public mind for a more sensuous, ceremonial, sensational, showy worship; men are impatient of inward, invisible heart-work."

This week, I met a friend, and our conversation is relevant here. She told me that she had left her church some time back.

I asked her why and she told that she'd discovered her ex-pastor had allotted to himself all proceeds from the sale of the merchandise he had used the church facilities to produce.

So I asked her what's wrong with earning a little on the side? She chimed in and said it was a lot of money on top of monthly pay.

I left that conversation with this thought in my mind: "Are we selling our own personalized brand of Jesus' teaching, thereby making more than just a tidy profit from it because religion sells really well?"

Don't get me wrong...pastors have to feed their family too. They normally don't stand in the middle of the field and wait for manna to fall from the sky. This is no Old Testament, and they are not escaping from pursuing Egyptians.

But then, one has to ask: How much above what is enough is enough?

Mind you, the last next I checked, a pastor is still a calling while a businessman is not. And while a businessman justifies his existence/purpose with increasing profit, a pastor cannot say the same without at least feeling that something is clearly amiss right?

Surely, Jesus' calling to his disciples to sell all they have and follow him (although that shouldn't be taken too literally in this day and age) cannot be translated to mean sell and keep all you can and then follow him, right?

Of course there are a number of verses that talk about God wanting to prosper us, but it is definitely not a bottomless blessing right? And how much of it refers to the material and how much refers to faith, hope and love is still a pertinent question to explore right? And isn't Jesus' warning about the insidious effects of riches peppered all over the synoptic gospel?

Well, the debate can go on and on in this century of prosperity we are living in, but I would let EP end here with this food for thought.

In his memoir "The Pastor", he wrote: "I knew that I did not want to be a pastor who took on the responsibility of "running this damn church". I didn't want to be a religious professional whose identity was institutionalized. I didn't want to be a pastor whose sense of worth is derived from whether people affirmed or ignored me. In short, I didn't want to be a pastor in the ways that were most in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture." 

Then, he wrote what Karl Barth, quoting Nietzsche, said: "Only where graves are is there resurrection." EP elaborated on that by writing: "there is a long tradition in the church's life that the pastoral vocation consists in preparing people for "a good death"".

Alas, in some megachurches, the pastoral vocation seems to consist of preparing people for a good life. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that.

It however becomes an issue of concern when we start finessing that Karl Barth's quote above by telling ourselves that the good death can wait as we lose ourselves indulging in the good life, which is promised from the pulpits of some celebrity pastors. Cheerz.

Postscript: As I was writing the above post, the Heart of Worship kept invading my mind, my heart.  You'd recall that the lyrics that goes like this: 

"When the music fades 

All is stripped away 
And I simply come
Longing just to bring 
Something that's of worth 
That will bless you heart...

I'm coming back to the heart of worship

And it's all about you 
It's all about you, Jesus."

How true. It's all about you. 

Yet, can we honestly tell ourselves that in a church of tens of thousands, where the attention is unavoidably directed to the one standing before the tens of thousands? 

I know he or she is going to tell you about Jesus, the Cross and the love that bled that day, but that is obviously not the heart of worship. That is the heart of the worshipper. That's what the heart of a worshipper is telling us. Right or wrong, inspiring or otherwise, it is what his or her heart is sharing. But it is not the heart of worship.

Come on, the heart of worship is relational. It is an exclusive relationship of two, and two only - you and Jesus. That's the heart of worship. It is a bond of intimacy between you and the lover of your soul. That is why the song says we are coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about you, Jesus. 

Where have we been then? Where are we coming back from? Why are we coming back to the heart of worship when we have been attending without fail a church with overflowing crowd, stunning in all her ways, and worshipping as one united voice? Haven't we always been in the heart of worship? Didn't the scripture say that "for when two or three are gather in my name"? 

Of course it did say that, the scripture that is. But I don't think it mentioned when 15,000 or 30,000 or 45,000 are gathered in my name, there am I with them. Alas, the numbers do add up, and the heart of worship at some point becomes just a crowd of worshippers. 

The numbers do count, because, as EP says, you can't have a relationship with tens of thousands. Jesus kept it at twelve because that is where the core of his influence would make the greatest impact and difference in the lives of those he touched.   

My point is not to implicate the heart of the megachurch pastor. That's not my place here. I stand judged myself. I am however appealing to the heart of the worshippers. You don't need to sit there and wait to be fed. You don't need to wait for that emotionally charged up music in order to reach a deeper level with the lover of your soul. 

The heart of worship is not a place, however big it is. The success of the kingdom is not the same as the success of this world. Neither is the heart of worship in how appealing the message is. The success of Jesus' message is already in the message of the Cross, and it is not in how glib or charming the tongue of man is.  Don't let anything or anyone get in the way of the heart of worship between you and Jesus.

Then, what about the church then? What do I do with the church of tens of thousands that I am currently worshipping in? 

No, this is not a call to leave the church. Of course not, make a difference wherever you are. It is just an appeal to search our hearts, me included. To take a long walk and leave the noise behind. Leave the floodlights behind. Leave that catchy beat, that alluring tempo and that fancy presentation behind. 

Like the song says, let all be stripped away, and then come back to the heart of worship. It is not about what the heart of the worshipper shares or says every Sunday, but it is about the heart of worship between two, you and Him. Have a blessed time searching, worshipping. Amen.


  1. Hi Michael, I always enjoy reading your posts...I don't like the glitzy style of megachurches any more than you do, but I have an honest question....wasn't the megachurch born on the day of Pentecost when 3000 were saved? With urbanization taking place at a rapid rate, isn't it only natural that we have large groups of people in our churches?

    1. Thanks Rosita for taking the time. You have asked a good question, the same one I too have been asking myself.

      Actually, I've written about it in my previous posts here.

      With regards to the day of Pentecost where thousands congregated, that's a megachurch of sorts. I use the term very loosely.

      When Jesus fed the five thousands, that's another so-called megachurch there.

      But the crucial difference is that there is no permanence to it. More importantly, it is not institutionalized (or localised), which runs the risk of it being idealized and idolized.

      And although Jesus was the only one who can claim the right to start a "megachurch" of some permanence, with hierarchical order and the accumulation of wealth, influence and power (note the Catholic Church since the Edict of Milan), he neither told Pilate that his kingdom is of this world nor left instructions in the Great Commission that reminded his disciples to start "megachurches".

      Mind you, the difference is not just in form, but it is in substance too. The megachurches of today is not just institutionalised. It's also pyramid in structure and infrastructure, where the head of the church is unmistakably the charisma of man. He is also well rewarded for it beyond his wildest dream.

      With rapid urbanisation, I don't think it is only natural that we have large groups of people in our churches; thereby turning it into megachurches under the spell of larger-than-life personalities.

      The evolution of size or scale shouldn't impede or prevent the equally fortified evolution of wisdom and discretion to match, if not overcome.

      I know the worldly logic seems inevitable, but if Francis Chan is any indication (read Part I of this post 2 weeks ago), he started house-Churches of a few hundred all over, with everybody participating, and no one really leading.

      I know it is not a strict number game whereby we ask ourselves, "how many does it take to cross that megachurch threshold?" It is a discerning thingy.

      For if to be human is to be relational, then a church with Christ as the head ought to be relational too.

      And megachurches with the leader at the impersonal top of its pyramid structure cannot honestly claim to be so. If anything, such leadership tends to be impersonal, celebrity-like and attention-concentrating, where following the yellow-brick road usually leads one to the cult of personality. Or at the very least, competing visibility between man and God.

      As a reminder, Jesus' ministry was essentially relational. But the leadership of megachurches are essentially hierarchical, protocol-driven and personal branding.

      As churches grow, as the people throng in, the numbers will no doubt increase. It may even cross that relational threshold to become hierarchical and pyramid like. That is the dilemma of growth - that much I concede.

      But still, that does not make it inevitable or natural for megachurches to emerge. Megachurches are still a creation of men - not God (that is my personal view).

      Francis Chan (and others) I believe set the pace and example here. He left his megachurch of 5k and divested himself of all fame, money and control.

      He turned the attention away from himself, and set his gatherings up in such a way that each member is accountable to his/her own growth.

      In other words, it is not about the "entertainment-like" messages of the one on stage, but it is about a relational community of the right size with each accountable to themselves, one another and to God.

      Sorry to have written more than I need to. Just felt the need to. I hope I have answered your question to some extent. Have a blessed Sunday.