Riding The Merry-Go-Round

Do you remember the merry-go-round? I loved those when I was a kid. Round and round and round. Awesome. Apparently, they were unsafe, and today’s safety Nazi’s determined that we’d had enough broken arms. I think we were tougher back in the 80’s.

Anyway, you remember spinning around faster and faster? There was always that moment you wanted to get off the thing, but it was a risky move. You jump, and you might get hurt. Of course, if you quit playing the game, it slowed down the spin, and everyone else got mad at you for messing up the ride. I always thought the guy doing the pushing seemed to be having the most fun.

After some of what I’ve written the last few days, you may think I’m some guy raging against the spinning machine. To a point, you’re probably right. I am troubled by what I see happening around me in the American church, but this doesn’t mean that I think “contemporary” churches are completely wrong, or that all mega-churches (more than 2,000 in attendance) have sold out to pragmatism. I have friends serving in all kinds of churches, and I know their goals and motives. So no, big churches and big church pastors are not necessarily sell outs to pragmatism.

I love stories…

I once talked with a pastor in a church of 3,000. They hired a consultant who told them that to grow they needed to build. If they did that, they could go as high as 6,000 people. The church built, and within months their attendance climbed to over 5,000.

The church my wife and I attended in Texas had 300-400 people in attendance on the typical Sunday. After completing a new building extension, the church lept to over 700 people almost immediately.

The church I grew up in averaged about 700 people on a Sunday when I was an intern there. Over a ten-year period, the church grew to over 1,500. The first Sunday in a gorgeous new building, attendance rocketed to 2,400. (At least that is what I was told. If someone knows different, I’ll retract it.)

My point should be obvious. These growth numbers have nothing to do with the gospel, but about appealing to the consumerist and narcissistic natures of the audience. There is a reason why church growth strategies can predict that building a new facility will automatically bring in new people.  It’s pretty simple really: people like new stuff.

I know the justification is that once we get the people in the building, we can give them the gospel. I in no way want to impugn the motives of pastors who I count as friends, but I hear the justification, and I no longer believe this is actually what is happening. People are not coming to the new stuff to hear the gospel. Seriously, who is going to most of these new buildings with all the bling? Given that the overall population of Christians is on the decline in the U.S., and most church-goers attend mega-churches, I’d say it’s mostly bored Christians looking for the latest cool thing.

That isn’t to say that these churches aren’t often doing good work, and preaching the gospel, only that I’m not convinced that the mega-church is actually accomplishing what it thinks it is. Given the evidence from studies of the religious beliefs and practices of the average American teen (check out Soul Searching by Christian Smith) do not line up with historic Christian teaching, it isn’t hard to say that the church in America is not handing down the faith.

For that matter, I’m pretty sure that most of our churches are failing to hand down the faith. I’m not picking on the mega-church as much as trying to deflate the misconception that a numerically large church equals a spiritually healthy church. This isn’t a mega-church problem. It’s an American Church problem, and we need to be honest about what is happening.

Diagnosing Heath…

The kind of attractional growth for which the mega-church has become known produces an illusion of success where some churches prosper numerically at the expense of others as congregants transfer to new churches. The overall health of the Church in the U.S. is poor, but the presence of large churches gives the false impression of health.

Even my church has played its part in the food chain. I once had a woman come to me saying that she just didn’t like the Sunday School class at her old church. She was looking for a new teacher. I knew immediately she wasn’t going to last with us. She came to my class, and one of my Bible studies. She lasted about 6 months.

We’ve taken people from smaller churches with fewer resources and programs. We’ve done it for years. We’ve lost people to larger churches with different spending priorities. People have come to our church saying they didn’t like the preaching at their old church. They’ve left us saying they didn’t like our preaching. They’ve come to us because they like our music, and they’ve left us because they found music they liked better somewhere else.

The American church is riding a merry-go-round that has little to nothing to do with following Christ in the context of the Church body, and I would like to jump off, please.


Next post: Some thoughts about “contemporary” versus “traditional.”