By now, almost everyone has heard the term, “Megachurch” (church of over 2,000 in attendance) but few have understood the actual change in the church landscape that has happened in the past 30-40 years, literally one generation. While there are those that applaud and many that disapprove of the megachurch, their impact is profound, particularly if you are a regular attendee or pastor of a church in the shadows of one of these mega or even gigachurches.
First, let’s talk briefly about the growth of the megachurch. In 1970, there were less than a dozen churches in the country with more than 2,000 in average weekly attendance. By the year 2000, just 30 years later, there were approximately 1,000 of these megachurches, an annual growth rate of nearly 20%. By 2015, there were an estimated 1,900 megachurches and not unusual to see churches in America with average weekly attendance of twenty, thirty and even forty thousand -- what many are now calling ‘gigachurches.’
We also know that these megachurches are primarily very evangelical. They are passionate about ministering and reaching their communities, largely charismatic at least in their worship and give an appearance of being nondenominational.
Because of their size, their worship, choirs, facilities, children’s ministries, auditoriums, and even grounds are spectacular. These churches can afford to hire the best and the average lead pastor at a megachurch is paid nearly 4 times more than the average salary of other paid pastors (and note that more than half of the churches in America are pastored by bi-vocational pastors).
So what is a ‘Church in the Shadows’ supposed to do? Not every small church in the country is destined to become a megachurch nor should they. Nearly 90% of all churchgoers attend much smaller churches and obviously enjoy the size, fellowship and ministry.
Here are some of the things that we can learn from the megachurches and likely will contribute to continued health and vitality, if not attendance growth.
1) Traditions Change
In “Fiddler on the Roof” Tevye the milkman tries to maintain his family's religious and cultural traditions against strong and sometimes overpowering outside influences. Similarly, as pastors, we need to continually take a look at the traditions that are not contributing to the Biblical heritage of the church and may in fact be contrary to the very purpose of the ministry of the local church. Traditions regarding music, dress, ritual and even preaching style change. Pastors and churches that are resistant to these changes often will find themselves in decline.
2) Decisions determine destination
Often, we find ourselves at a particular place and wonder “how did we get here?” While not often noticed as being consequential at the time, decisions that were made will impact our destination. Years ago, my wife and I were involved in a growing denominational church with a thriving school and ministry. In a period of just a few years, a number of decisions were made to reemphasize traditional worship and catechism in the Sunday services. These decisions not only slowed the overall growth of this church but quickly aged the congregation and significantly and adversely impacted the churches outreach and ministry to the local community
3) Culture Conditions the Church
I am one that appreciates some of the old hymns, the traditions and reverence that seemed to be so typical in our churches. However, society has changed. The megachurches have tapped into the changes in society to their advantage and have attracted younger families and typically reflect diverse educational and economic demographics that enable new people to feel comfortable. People that are at ease and comfortable in church are much more likely to not only return but also learn and embrace the teachings and values that are important.
Note that I earlier mentioned not just the size of the megachurches but that they tended to be “very evangelical. They are passionate about ministering and reaching their communities, largely charismatic at least in their worship and give an appearance of being nondenominational.” The cultural conditions in these megachuches are the very same conditions that contributed to the growth of their ministry without diminishing their Biblical standards.
While some may disagree with the results, few can disagree with the trends.
Churches in the shadows can and should be looking at their traditions, decisions and culture to ensure they are all contributing to their advancement of the Great Commission and the general ministry of the local church.