A few weeks ago, I had a prolonged discussion with a friend (who I’ll call Jack) who is about to leave his megachurch home after being there many years (not Willowcreek by the way). My friend went on a soliloquy describing the waste of his church on gadgets, mega tv screens, the latest in technology, only to discard it all with something completely new in six months. He waxed eloquent on the dynamics of a megachurch authoritarian pastor getting egotistical, dictatorial, set above accountability, leading the church into huge debt problems, and then using the pulpit to raise more money and defend his character issues. He described how big churches seem to feed the ego-character issues of powerful leaders. The pastor is removed from accountability, being known by others in the church, and set above the congregation. Jack had experienced all this first hand. He and his wife literally cannot stomach being part of this church any longer. What kind of church is he and his wife visiting in seeking out a new church home? Another megachurch.
Why do mature, faithful American Christians, when looking for a church, look for “big mega” versus just looking local for a local community of Christians that resides closest to where they live?
I suggest three reasons and offer three things small, local, missional communities need to do to overcome these bad cultural habits of Americanized Christians
1) Big is seen as a sign that God is there. To the average American Christian, a big church is a sign that God is doing something. The bigger the crowd, the more God must be working! Conversely, a small community is viewed as dead. The “big is better” understanding goes deep into our culture. It is part of the fabric of Americana. It is the way American business operates: sports, media, television, publishing. Everyone loves a crowd. And this is why American Christians cannot help themselves in looking for “big” when looking for a church.
Of course, missional communities should not try to “compete” with this. Nonetheless, I think our gatherings must be intentional about displaying that God is present in this gathering and He is mightily at work in this body of people. It just looks different and (can I say this?) it is more real (less clouded by celebrity and special effects). Missional leaders should keep the gathering simple and be intentional about leading us into an authentic encounter with the living Christ from which we are sent into the world. This takes leaders who can be present “among” us and be known by us whereby we can join with them in being present to God and submitting to Him. Here we encounter His reality as Lord over our lives and world, from which we can be sent and know that reality in the world. Too often, our small gatherings lack an awareness of His special presence among us. I believe if Jack could understand this, he’d consider going to a small local gathering differently.
2.) A celebrity pastor/teacher is a known quantity. He/she’s got a following, a resume, a book, a radio program, etc. It is therefore unsettling for people who are used to this to enter a small community where they will be taught by someone or a group of people who are unknown. People are most comfortable with a pastor, a teacher, a known quantity, because the sermon is how they view Christianity. Celebrity Christianity drives the American church.