Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Mega Church Syndrome

I was talking to a friend today who lives in the ATL (Atlanta, GA).  She attends a well known mega church there.  As we caught each other up on the latest news in each others' lives, I decided to ask her about her church and how she ended up there.  Before I write about our conversation let me say this.

At one time in my life I left the AME church where I grew up and became COGIC (Church of God In Christ).  I've always considered myself a mixed breed of sorts, denominationally, not racially.  My great-grandfather was a Pentecostal bishop and he built his own church.  As a child, in the mornings my family would attend the AME church (she was raised AME) and in the evenings, right down the street, we would go to granddaddy's church.  In the mornings, Order of Worship and in the afternoons and evenings watching my cousin be "slain" in the spirit once again. So when I was about 30 years old I started visiting a COGIC church whose pastor I had known since I was a child. His church would be considered a mega church as he had 2000 plus members.  I stayed there two years before I returned to the AME church. I will explain why later.

Now back to my friend. My friend grew up with me in church.  She moved to Atlanta four years ago.  In searching for a church, she indicated that she wanted to go to a church that was progressive, financially secure and large.  In her mind, she equated size with success. To her, the larger the more secure financially: no building funds, no ill repaired buildings, no struggling to pay the monthly utilities, wah wah wah, wah wah wah.  However, in all that she was saying, it dawned on me that she never mentioned any ministries that she was a part of.  So I asked her was she at least singing in the choir because I know that she likes to sing.  She told me no.  Her church holds auditions and she didn't make the cut.  WOW! I knew that she had surgery for her back while in Atlanta so I asked her if the "supervising pastor" come to the hospital to pray for her before surgery.  Another no.  She had to fill out a visitation request form and submit it to whatever committee.  The committee sent the asisstant minister to the ASSISTANT minister of the sub-committee of visitation of the senior committee of visitation. By this time, I am shaking my head.  When her sister died, who also lived in Atlanta and attended the same church, I asked who performed the eulogy.  Again, forms had to be filled out and this time she got the minister in training because the Bereavement minister was out of town, but little boy needed training, so they sent him! Any time that she needed the church to perform a service for her, she filled out forms, they sent her ministers that didn't really know her name and the "supervising" pastor never came.  One time, she got the "Daycare" minister! What shocked me the most was that she loves going to this church! She is oblivious to the impersonal treatment that she was receiving. My friend has what I call, "The Mega Church Syndrome." 

Everybody wants to go to The Potter's House, The New Births (maybe not so much now) and the Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Baptists' (Bishop Paul Morton).  However, recently there have been some well known "mega churches" that have been in trouble.  New Birth is still trying to recover from the scandal of Long and young men and that stupid farce of being declared "king" of the jews by some psuedo rabbi that couldn't read the Torah if he tried.  Financial troubles forced Rick Warren to send a desperate plea for money to his Saddleback congregation two years ago. A Kansas City mega-church just lost their 20 million dollar campus to the bank. One of the country's first mega-churches, the Crystal Cathedral, recently filed for bankruptcy, and these stories are becoming more and more common. Yet, could it be that financial problems are just the symptom of a much deeper issue?

Tim Suttle; a pastor, writer, mucisian and blogger for the Huff Post had this to say:

If the church is the body of Christ, then the mega-church is a body on steroids. The latest and greatest example is Andy Stanley's Northpoint Community Church, who recently raised five million dollars to build their own three-lane overpass so that they could keep parking-lot-exit-times under thirty minutes. Stanley's congregation numbers over fifteen-thousand people. For a church to become that abnormally large it has to make use of such artificial means that it actually ceases to be a healthy church model. Here are three reasons why:
  • Mega-church size insulates the body from the natural pains and tensions which keep it healthy. Pain is good, even in the church. Pain forces a community and its leaders to grow deeper and more mature. For instance, if two families leave a small church it cannot be ignored. The small church will have to face underlying issues and learn how to heal and grow. Small church leaders are constantly confronted with their own shortcomings and thus experience true accountability. However, if those same two families left a mega-church, no one would even notice. By virtue of its size the mega-church is insulated from the naturally occurring tensions which make for a healthy body, and dysfunction is allowed to build up over time. Eventually the mega-church will become symptomatic, but by then it's usually too late. And even if it does begin to feel the pain, this pain is derived from a threat to the institution itself and not from any inherent relational dynamic which gives dignity and importance to every single member and family.
  • Mega-church size inhibits diversity. Pastors flock to mega-church conferences attempting to copy the latest leadership techniques and strategies. I have been part of an entire generation of pastors who have attended conferences at Saddleback, Willow Creek and Northpoint Churches in order to become the next Rick Warren, Bill Hybels or Andy Stanley instead of simply being ourselves. Leadership must grow from within the neighborhood. It cannot be imported from another context because no two contexts are alike. Author Tim Keel often says copying another leader's strategy is like gluing fruit from one tree onto another tree and saying, "Look what I grew!" It is not reality. The strategy of a church and its efforts toward mission must always grow out of the context of the community in which the church exists.
  • Mega-church size exploits the mega-church pastor. The mega-church pastor becomes like the liver of an alcoholic body. The anxiety, pressure, and stress generated by the mega-church is not shared by the typical member but is focused primarily upon the pastor. This pressure molds the pastor into something more akin to a CEO of a large corporation than a wise rabbi. Even pastors who attempt to stay healthy will end up flaming-out and suffering because the systemic issue cannot be mitigated by sound personal practices. All of the artificial means used to grow something so large become focused on the pastor and the pastor has to somehow try and cleanse the system. This is, as it turns out, an impossible task. So the church resorts to dialysis. They give the pastor a year off to try and get healthy again. Or they do a transplant and replace the pastor altogether, only to have the problem recur some years later.
I left the COGIC mega church that I was attending because of the same impersonal fellowship that my friend is now receiving.  I went home to the same people that known me since I was a child.  In the AME denomination (to which I belong and am now an ordained preacher), we have the itineracy, which means we move our pastors around, but even with that, it is easy to get to know your pastor on a personal level.  Trust me, if I have surgery, I won't have to fill out no durned for just for the "Hospitality" minister to come and pray over me.  My senior pastor comes.  I get to sing in the choir without having to audition.  I know everyone in my church and everyone knows me.  When I hurt, they hurt and vice versa.  When I hit a milestone in the ministry they celebrate with me as a family.  I love my not so large church of about 100 members. We're close and personal. 

I love my friend and if she likes her church, then I love it.  For me, I've got enough aches and pains due to nature.  As I get older, sometimes I forget things that I was just thinking of.  I've been accused of having OCD because I'm constantly cleaning.  With all that I have going on I don't need to have the Mega Church Syndrome!


  1. "..Copying another leader's strategy is like gluing fruit from one tree onto another tree and saying, 'Look what I grew!'" GREAT statement!
    "the body of steriods"
    We just had a conversation about mega churches on Friday. I too prefer my small, personal church and I enjoy pastoring the small member congregation. Today I went to one of our youth's 8th grade graduation. She sent me a text to invite me. I never want to be too big to get a text, to know people, or to be a part of their lives.
    Great writing Rev!

  2. Thank you. You couldn't do that if your congregational was 10,000+ members. I love the personal attention that we give. Fellowship is much more family like and not cliquish, which I find a lot of in mega churches.