Easter Sunday in the megachurch

Alan Jamieson (Arotahi General Director)
It was Easter Sunday. I was up early with my morning coffee; an update of the churches in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and the Philippines to read, and a moment to reflect and pray. The Sri Lankan church update spoke of fear. The kind of fear that reminds us we are not in control, highlighting our vulnerabilities and drawing us into deeper connection with each other as the body of Christ. The kind of fear that draws us toward God because there is simply nowhere else to turn.

Before I started to pray, I made a silly mistake: I looked at the Stuff news­feed. The fourth head­line down depicted the demise of another megachurch, specif­i­cally the res­ig­na­tion of New Zealand’s Arise church found­ing pastor.  The accom­pa­ny­ing photo was the name ‘Jesus’ in bright lights and the sil­hou­ettes of a large crowd in worship.

It was Easter Sunday. And nowhere was an article about the glo­ri­ous res­ur­rec­tion, the true meaning of Easter, or the growth of the fol­low­ers of Jesus worldwide.

Sadly, this is just one more megachurch run aground on the rocks of post-moder­nity. Some of the most widely pub­li­cised in recent years have been Mark Driscol and Mars Hill, John Ortberg and Menlo church, and Bill Hybels and Willow Creek in the United States; more recently Sydney’s Brian Houston and Hill­song church.

I remem­ber when Bill Hybels resigned amidst swirling alle­ga­tions. Someone in the church I was part of asked if we should take Hybels’ books out of the church library in a bid to join a can­celling culture, as if what he had written was no longer as true or helpful after his res­ig­na­tion as it was before. True, he had made some big mis­takes- and now the Willow Creek churches, and the church in the West more gen­er­ally, were impli­cated. However, the prob­lems run deeper and settle far closer to home than can be solved by an igno­rant attempt to blame one leader or church franchise.

The issue with megachurches is their values. Jesus called his fol­low­ers to a life expressed by taking up their cross to follow him, loving the poor, and going out to make dis­ci­ples of all nations. This is a costly counter-cul­tural call: Today, and in Jesus’ day. Megachurch values are not counter-cul­tural but straight from modernity’s con­sumer culture play­book. Rather than sac­ri­fice, they rein­force comfort. Rather than dis­ci­ple­ship, they encour­age Chris­t­ian con­sumerism. Rather than pouring giving into Missio Dei, they pay large sums for big venues, engag­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tors, and only the most tal­ented musi­cians. Rather than serve the poor, they serve their charis­matic leaders with large salaries, expen­sive hotel rooms, and a jet­set­ter lifestyle.

If it wasn’t so dam­ag­ing it could simply be laughed off as stupidity.

Why do I feel com­pelled to put my feel­ings into words on this topic? I had the priv­i­lege of leading a large church. One that some­times flirted with megachurch ways, and that others some­times saw as a smaller New Zealand example of a megachurch. While Spreydon/SWBC was rel­a­tively big on an Aotearoa scale, it was never a megachurch. I can say that con­fi­dently, because I know that the values of the church were dif­fer­ent and deeply embedded.

For nearly fifty years, the church has been giving around 25% of its annual income to global mission. For thirty years, we have met in a gym that is mostly used for com­mu­nity fitness, youth group bas­ket­ball and children’s games. The worship expe­ri­ence is always com­pro­mised because we have less than com­fort­able stacker seats and acoustics that are, at best, very poor because of the primary purpose of the build­ing as a gym. Added to this are a sound system, stage, pro­jec­tor, and some screens that are both cheap and need to be wheeled in and out each Sunday (many of you reading this will know a very similar Sunday reality). Our church is on a bi-cul­tural journey that ensures Māori values have a voice. Bib­li­cal teach­ing takes prece­dence over biblio-enter­tain­ment. Jesus’ pri­or­ity to reach the poor and dis­ad­van­taged is reg­u­larly taught and expressed through the action of the church. For over thirty years the church has invested in, employed staff for, a weekly service for people with sig­nif­i­cant intel­lec­tual disabilities.

This is a mission-focussed church that has slowly grown because of a heart for mission and a com­mit­ment to dis­ci­ple­ship. This is not a megachurch.

The regret­ful part is, the leaders of the megachurches that have fallen (and there will be more falls yet) didn’t set out to deceive. They were all com­mit­ted to Jesus, had a heart for the gospel, and wanted the best for the church. But an addic­tive cycle can begin that is very hard to break. I get that! Many Sunday nights, espe­cially after special events, I’d go home on a high. Large numbers of people had turned up, a big team of staff and vol­un­teers had worked hard and given their best. People had been effu­sive in their praise; many were encour­aged or inspired, some had clearly been sig­nif­i­cantly and pos­i­tively impacted. Some had even made, what could become, life-alter­ing commitments.

And I was the senior pastor of it all. That affects you.

You want to do it all again- only bigger and better. So, you work towards the next big event and encour­age more people to be part of it. You tell them to bring friends and give gen­er­ously, so it can achieve even more than last week or last year. Without strong coun­ter­weights of com­mit­ments to global mission, the poor, bib­li­cal teach­ing and counter-cul­tural dis­ci­ple­ship, you can be pulled into pouring every­thing into the next event and living for the next high. Round it goes. Pride up, sac­ri­fice down. The con­sumer desire for bigger and better is insa­tiable and the cost to provide it just keeps on rising. The charis­matic leader is no longer judged by their char­ac­ter and for­ma­tion in Christ, they are fol­lowed for their com­mu­ni­ca­tion prowess and like-ability.

And those just aren’t Jesus values. That is hyper-modern con­sumerism infect­ing the church.

It was Easter Sunday and I wasn’t sur­prised to read of another megachurch left floun­der­ing. Yet, I was dis­ap­pointed that a cynical media outlet had made that the day’s lead story. When I’d cooled down and started to pray, I prayed about the Sri Lankan church and the wisdom they had found through their fear. I prayed for the masses in seats of megachurches who may feel hurt or dis­ori­ented. I realised again my own ego vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and my need to be inter­con­nected in grass-roots, down to earth, counter-cul­tural Jesus discipleship.

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