(This is Part 2 of the Megachurch Phenomenon.)
In my introduction, I noted that the term megachurch refers to the size of the congregation, not the size of a building, but since large congregations require large buildings, this definition begs a question. Which came first, the large congregation or the large facility to hold the people? In many case, the answer isn’t an easy one, because the size of the building and the size of the congregation share a complex relationship.
If church attendance continues to increase, it first fills and then outgrows its facility, necessitating a move to larger quarters. In fact, a growing church often makes several facility changes over its lifetime, moving first from a home or school to a small rented space and then later to a larger rented or purchased building and finally to a permanent campus.
At some point, a church’s growth plateaus, but in some cases, the growth skyrockets into megachurch territory. Any church on the verge of reaching megachurch size will suddenly find it can’t accommodate the growth easily, so the emerging megachurch will often respond by constructing its own megabuilding, doubling or even tripling its current square footage in one step.
When designing the new space, the first question a megachurch faces is how big is big enough? Most church growth consultants will agree that the worst mistake a growing megachurch can make is to under build. Consequently, mega-churches typically build 50% more space than is immediately necessary in anticipation of continued – or even increased – growth rates in the future. This “bigger is better” philosophy can be summed up by that famous line from the hit Kevin Costner movie, “If you build it, they will come.”
In this way, the relationship between congregation size and building sizes resembles a game of leap frog. First the congregation size surges forward filling the current space, then the building size is increased well beyond the current needs of the fellowship to accommodate future growth. The new building triggers additional growth, which then results in a need for additional new construction, and so on. In a few short years, a successful megachurch may invest millions or even several tens of millions of dollars in new construction, often amassing huge debt obligations and crushing overhead expenses along the way.
Large monthly debt and overhead payments increases pressure on the church leadership to keep the church seats - and tithe boxes - filled each week. The inevitable result is the megachurch must not only hold onto its current congregation, it must also grow attendance rapidly just to make ends meet. The staff becomes laser focused on measuring and tracking weekly attendance, so even a slight drop in in the numbers sets off alarms in church staff meetings. Consequently, packing in the crowds quickly becomes the number one goal of the megachurch ministry.
And this is where the trouble really begins. Since the megachurch must find a way to keep the church seats filled every weekend, there is an unhealthy pressure to make ministry decisions based primarily on what will yield the highest attendance and greatest enthusiasm among the faithful. In extreme cases, a megachurch may rely on a time-proven technique for attracting the crowds: give the people what they want.
Scripture tells us that the mission of the church is to be a witness of the gospel to unbelievers and a source of discipleship for believers in living a life of holiness and service to the Lord. These goals are in opposition to the “If it feels good, do it” culture of today, so megachurches will soften their image and adapt their message to keep the crowds coming back for more. After all, empty theater-style seats won’t pay all those bills, now will they?
Giving our congregations what they want rather than what they need is shameful, and this trend reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy when he wrote, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2Tim 4:3).
In the context of today’s megachurches, tickling ears takes the form of upbeat, jingoistic motivational sermons, Las Vegas-style worship spectacles; and youth “sports parks” and MTV rock concerts. Such techniques are not neutral in their impact; they are the telltale signs of churches shamelessly pandering to the fleshly desires of their spiritually immature congregations. Left unchecked, this numbers-driven philosophy is a cancer within the Body of Christ, ultimately bringing fulfillment to Paul’s prophecy in 2Tim 4.
It’s worth remembering Christ’s words in Matthew 16, when He told the apostles He will build His church. In fact, the entirety of Scripture teaches that Christ will build the church one believer at a time, through His word, and not based on man’s work (Eph 2:8-10). Rather, we are to be like the sower, spreading the seed. As Paul said in 1Cor 3:6, men may plant the field or water it, but it is God – and God alone – who causes true, lasting growth. When men try to produce growth in their own power, using man-made ways, they stand to do little more than attract a church full of unbelievers.