Monday, March 10, 2008

The Numbers Driven Church

What is a megachurch? Saddleback Church, Willow Creek and especially Joel Osteen's mothership, Lakewood, are some that are brought to mind as obvious examples. According to Forbes.com, Saddleback, the smallest of these listed, had a 2003 attendance estimate of 15,030. These and churches like them easily fit the label of "megachurch".

But what about smaller churches? The same article in Forbes defines a megachurch as any church with an attendance of 2,000 or more. What about a church with 1500 people? 1000 people? Is there more to the definition than the hard line of 2000 attendees? Even a church with 1000 people can grow to the 2000, so is "megachurch" a philosophy that this church may have always possessed, or does the church automatically become a megachurch once it hits 2000 attendees?

I submit that "megachurch" is a label which does not only belong affixed to churches that are overflowing with masses of attendees, but that it also applies to any church whose leadership becomes governed by the idea that the numbers of attendees are what determine its success. Therefore, perhaps a rather long, but practical definition of "megachurch" is: "Any church in which the leadership orient their goals towards accommodation of the masses in order to bring in more people. Expansion is key, and in the eyes of the leadership, the numbers are the direct and predominant meter of success. This can be seen in churches which display either a monolithic leap in the direction of wishful growth, forfeiting attention to other areas within a healthy church, or in churches that still pay attention to these other areas (i.e. rich, challenging sermons, long time member and spiritual development programs, etc.), but the quality of said areas is beginning to wane due to time, energy, and funds being hyper-focused on outreach and growth."

A vital question arises: is being a "numbers driven" megachurch a good thing? Philosophies (in this case philosophies of ministry) have consequences, and the implementation of any idea will produce winners and losers. What is gained in a megachurch orientation is namely outreach; what can be easily lost is discipleship. The great commission was: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Mat 28:19, NET, emphasis mine). Many insert evangelize for make disciples, even though the former term is better placed in the second imperative of the commission. These are two very different concepts. Evangelism deals with spreading the Gospel and the act of conversion, and beyond that, the entire spiritual person must be brought up in the faith through study and discipleship. Too often Christians live out the tragic mentality of "just bring them in and leave them to go get more". True; we must evangelize in order to have any potential disciples, and for that reason evangelism is of massive importance, but the former should not stand without great attention to the latter. Without helping believers to mature through discipleship of the entire spiritual person, what "church" are we bringing new believers into? We must be wary that we are not building a house of cards which may tower above other things and be rapidly growing, but when any wind comes at all it will be blown apart.

If a goal of the church is to raise up and mature the whole Christian within a community of like minded people, then a common manifestation of the megachurch, the "seeker sensitive" church, may not be doing its job. While evangelistic outreach and nurturing of the present flock are not mutually exclusive and should both be present, a church which mimics many (much needed) parachurch ministries every Sunday because of its "seeker sensitive" nature is almost certainly neglecting its body. Pastor Jeff Miller said that while parachurch ministries have the luxury of selecting and catering to a specific, target group, it is not a luxury churches share.

When we gear our churches towards seekers and growth, who are we losing? Further, what are we losing? Do we believe that we are evangelizing but in reality are merely entertaining the masses? As Spurgeon's sermon was so wisely titled, are we "Feeding the Sheep or Amusing the Goats?" These are questions many might be wise to ponder. Jeff Miller has said that we should pursue "faithfulness over effectiveness". In other words, the question should be not "are we growing", but "are we remaining faithful to God's Word". Numbers can truly become an idol.

2 comments:

Daniel said...

I agree, churches should not be ranked by the number of parishioners. But the sad thing is, is that whether a church has 15,000 people, 2,000 people or 100 people--- people still do not get involved in fellowship or programs.

And I admit, I fall into that camp of people too right now. But I intend on getting more involved with my church post-graduation when I have more time.

Sarah Scott said...
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