(First Published on 02/22/07)
The American Interprise Institute (http://www.aei.org/) is a Conservative Think Tank operating out of our nation's capital. A secular organization it is, however, it does study religious life in the U.S. Its website states that it has 280 articles on religion that than be accessed from the site. Last May much of their magazine was devoted to the subject. One article, "Small Town Religion" by Bart Hinkle ( http://www.taemag.com/issues/articleid.19113/article_detail.asp ) caught my attention.
Mr. Hinkle seems to be of the mind that the mega-church is the church of the future because it replicates the Church in the book of Acts that converted the Roman Empire. Mega-churches from across the country are profiled by Mr. Hinkle. These churches have outreach programs that cover any possible human need and interest. Programs for all age groups, from the womb to the tomb. Counseling for addictions, groups for those in the same profession. Coffee shops (Java Jireh), bookstores, How to "Anything" classes (How to Balance Your Budget, How To Eat Like a King or Queen on a Shoestring Budget) Then there is the worship that de-emphasizes the wrath of God. (I think you might see my bias against mega-churches creeping into the tone of this post.) Not only do mega-churches seek to minister to those within its walls, they have many programs, such as homeless shelters, that minister to those who have been forgotten by the rest of society. To their great credit, they were in the forefront of meeting the needs of those displaced by hurricane Katrina. The success in feeding and housing those most affected embarrassed both state and Federal relief agencies.
But how do mega-churches hearken back to the days of the early Church? The article quotes experts and pastors who credit their small-group emphasis. It is in these groups where "seekers" first find a sense of community, of being cared for. As the number of such groups grow, their influence on society increases. Over the past few decades, the US has seen its neighborhoods decrease in influence as we become more autonomous, less dependent on one another. This has created a sense of alienation and a longing to belong. The megachurches have tapped into this phenomenon by providing a sense of family and purpose. The last paragraph of Hinkle's article sums up well this turn of events: "And so these big churches, and the many small groups they foster, recapitulate the early church itself. Christianity, after all, began with just one man and twelve disciples, and ended up as a mighty edifice that utterly transformed not only communities but also world history. So touching individual lives, creating community, and shifting the wider society is an old formula, one that still works powerfully in ways big and small and far too numerous to count..."
This leads me to ask, is the transformation Mr. Hinkle and others are seeing line-up with the transformation we are to experience as followers of Jesus Christ? Yes, the early church met in peoples' houses and spread the faith throughout the known world. But that early growth resulted from a gospel preached that did not de-emphasize God's holiness. These early Christians were told to count the cost before they made a decision for Christ. Tranformation did not occur among a group of religious consumers, but those who attended the Apostle's teachings (whether or not they liked the Apostle's delivery) and those who did not forsake fellowship. Some might compare the small groups of today's mega-churches to Wesley's small groups. But the secret of Wesley's success was not in creating an atmosphere where people felt like they "belonged", but in creating a forum where people could be accountable to each other concerning their walk with Christ. Without accountability, there is no transformation as scripture speaks of transformation. I do not judge anyone who attends a mega-church, nor do am I critisizing any specific mega-church pastor in this post. If mega-churches are transforming society and the church for the better, than praise God for that. However, as I survey the landscape, I see no evidence such a transformation is taking place.