Five Spiritual Formation Lessons from the Megachurch

Very large churches are sometimes accused of being shallow. A mile wide and an inch deep. There is certainly truth to that potential, but I have found that many of the driving characteristics that allowed a church to become 2,000 or more people, or 10,000 or more, include a discipline and depth that brings much integrity to their ministry.

Nonetheless, the risk of shallow is a real one.

Growing a local church always involves risks and trades; there is no perfect plan. But the trades are not an either/or situation. The primary and most common trade is the willingness to risk depth of discipleship (spiritual formation) for reaching more people. These two will live in tension, however they are not mutually exclusive.

To reach more people risks depth and community.

To maintain closeness and intimacy risks reaching more people.

There is no perfect formula. Let’s be candid, there are small churches that are shallow and large churches that have depth. Just as there are large churches that are stuck and no longer reach new people, and many small churches that are growing like crazy by reaching new people. Ah, and when that’s true, the small church becomes larger! Then the risk is simply swapping one trade for another.

Personally, I think generalizations are unwise, but I understand why we make them, and they often provide for provocative and productive conversations.

So for that conversation, let’s focus on the question of depth in spiritual formation within the megachurch.

1) The church will never have more depth than its leaders.

Programs don’t produce depth of spiritual maturity, leaders do. I’m privileged to serve under a leader of great wisdom, depth and discipline. Kevin Myers is the founding and senior pastor 12Stone Church, a megachurch located in the suburbs of Atlanta. Kevin has a strong and vibrant prayer life, chases God with passion, and lives with great integrity. Those qualities are infused into the DNA of the church. The wisdom and insight that God grants him, whether in a board room or teaching on Sunday morning, is truly Holy Spirit driven.

Kevin would tell you, and so would I, that it is certainly more difficult to drive depth in churches that grow larger and larger, but that’s why we keep leaning in and leading! 12Stone Church has its flaws, but being shallow, easy or “all show” is not among them. Guests, including pastors, nearly always include among their first comments, the sense of spiritual intensity. It all starts with the leaders.

2) To stop reaching more people is to become shallow.

In my opinion, we don’t have a choice. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is clear; to make disciples! But we can’t forget that includes evangelism. The Great Commission never instructed us to disciple the same people with the same programs in the same ways over and over again. Discipleship by definition and logic must begin with evangelism. You and I are passionate about the process of spiritual formation in the life of a “disciple” of Christ. A Christ-follower. Spiritual formation begins with conversion!

Candidly, if we have the same people in the same Bible study for years on end and nothing changes (the church or the people), maybe that is shallow. The New Testament is filled with stories of miracles, life change, and reaching people. Yes, the churches from Ephesus to Corinth were filled with flaws, but reaching people was the purpose of the gospel.

3) Speed and pressure create the tension.

The process of spiritual formation is not any easier in a smaller church, people are people. But the smaller church does not face the complexity of speed and pressure in the same way as found in mega-churches.

The forming of someone’s spiritual maturity takes time, nurture and care. These things are not absent, or less in heart and culture in a megachurch. But the finite nature of time has objective limits. The larger a church becomes, the scarcer the precious commodity of time becomes. It is the nature of a megachurch to move fast, carry great weight, and therefore time is compressed. The primary solution is raising up and developing capable volunteer leaders who have a heart for leading others in their spiritual journey.

4) Don’t confuse the depth of spiritual formation with complexity.

In my earlier years I have been included among those who designed and produced a process of spiritual formation (discipleship), that was more complex than plans to launch a space shuttle for weeks of orbit. It took me some time to learn that complexity didn’t equate to depth.

In fact, it is the opposite. Like preaching shorter is more difficult than preaching longer, a simple (not simplistic) process requires massive thought, experimenting and continual innovation. The best processes are seamless and easily communicated. They don’t need a chart. At 12Stone, we focus on two things, small group life and serving. That’s it. Is there more to spiritual formation than that? Of course! But we build all these things into those two large components of Christian community.

In addition, we employ a short front-end process that includes: 1st time Guests / Discover 12Stone/ Salvation / and Baptism. The list is not long and we make it easy for people to find their way. More importantly, the leaders know how to point the way, take a hand, and lead.

5) Maturity is difficult to measure.

We never want to stray from biblical standards, but be cautious of long lists. Well intended commitment to scripture can quickly turn into a pharisaic list of to-dos, then maturity can become works oriented. If you want a list, I recommend that you go with something as simple as prayer and evangelism for evidence of maturity, or perhaps the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5).

Another way to measure spiritual formation is from spoon fed (baby Christians) to self-led. The self-led Christian takes responsibility for their own spiritual formation. The church for them is simply the environment that resources, encourages and inspires their continued growth.

A third way to measure maturity is clean, clear and simple. It is stories of life change. After all these years and practicing all these and more, it is the one I prefer most. Capturing and telling stories of changed lives is compelling; it embodies the vision. I find it to be the most comprehensive, organic and practical approach. There is no list, and yet you have all of Scripture you can apply. Further, the idea of self-led is easily taught and incorporated.

Spiritual formation is not static. None of us ever arrive. However, scripture makes it clear that maturity can be achieved. If you are part of a megachurch or perhaps you lead a smaller church and sense a need to strengthen your spiritual formation, I trust these are helpful to you.

Read more from Dan.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland

Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He and Dr. Maxwell still enjoy partnering on a number of church related projects together. Dan is best known as a leader with a pastor's heart, but is often described as one of the nations most innovative church thinkers. His passion is developing leaders for the local church so that the Great Commission is advanced.

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Recent Comments
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
 
— Laurie
 
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
 
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)
 

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Understanding Megachurches Part 3: Myths

So this week inadvertently turned into Megachurch Week on the blog. In the event you missed it, everything started  with some data on the continued growth of megachurches. Then, I shared a new infographic from Leadership Network on the financial health of megachurches.

Throughout the week, I’ve received blog comments, Facebook messages, tweets, and emails challenging the positive influence of several megachurches– some by name, some not. I get it. Some megachurches are not healthy environments. As I said Tuesday, I think some are quite terrible and fulfill every stereotype out there. Yet, there are also some great ones, and for that I am thankful. I want to understand them more and, when possible, to encourage them on their journey.

And while I encourage them, I’d also encourage those of you not pastoring or attending megachurches to do the same. Yes, there are some terrible megachurches. Just like there are some terrible churches that run 125 every week. But my job, and yours, is not to indiscriminately cast stones at every church that happens to be, or not to be, a certain size.

Wednesday evening I got an email from my friend Scott Thumma, one of the authors of the research I had quoted and one of the top megachurch researchers in the country, and I got an idea. Scott actually authored the book that debunks megachurch myths, appropriately titled Beyond Megachurch Myths. If you routinely deal with, work at, or attend a megachurch, I would encourage you to buy the book. It’s full of research, anecdotes, and stats and is written in a very accessible way.

Without further ado, here are the nine megachurch myths from Scott Thumma and Dave Travis and a little of my commentary about each of them. Keep in mind that these are their myths and I am commenting on them.

1 – All Megachurches Are Alike

Scott and Dave identified (and listed examples of: p. 31-38) at least four different streams of megachurches: Old Line/Program-Based (large FBC’s and other historic churches); Seeker (Saddleback, Willow Creek, etc.); Charismatic/Pastor-Focused (Church without Walls, Lakewood, Potter’s House); and New Wave/Re-Envisioned (NewSpring, Mars Hill Seattle, The Village).

If you are at all familiar with the church names or pastors of those churches, you know they are nothing alike. The same could be said of the church I pastor and any other church plant that meets in a movie theater like we do. Our size and surroundings may be similar, but our churches would likely be very different.

2 – Megachurches Are Just Too Big

“Of the 320,000 Christian churches, 60% of them have fewer than 100 participating adults and children (p. 45). And when surveyed, 64% of megachurch attendees knew as many or more people in the megachurch than they did at smaller churches (p. 46). 80% of attendees felt satisfied with the level of pastoral care they received (p. 47).”

Any church can “be too big.” But as our culture becomes increasingly urbanized and less rural, large churches become less intimidating– just as large cities became less intimidating for farmers in generations past. Simply put, obviously many people do not think they are too big.

3 – Megachurches Are Cults of Personality

Thumma writes “Pastors are often the center of attention whether the church is large or small…It is not surprising that megachurches are often identified by the names of their senior pastors. Any successful enterprise can come to be characterized by its leader. But it is unfortunate that this reality has led critics to suggest that megachurches are more about a pastor’s ego than about God’s kingdom (p. 55-56).”

We are often quick to criticize churches that grow under a certain pastor’s leadership, but good leaders will attract teams to work with them. Those teams will grow and, at times, the churches will become larger and larger– perhaps even a megachurch. That does not make it a cult of personality.

4 – Megachurches Are Only Concerned About Themselves and the Needs of Their Attendees

“72% of megachurches have partnered with other congregations to do international missions (p. 80). Because membership is spread across an expansive region and over multiple communities, megachurch social ministry may also be dispersed over a large area (p. 82).”

I ran an entire series last year on how megachurches can be– and often times are– missional in their practice and theology. From counseling ministries to food banks to substance abuse programs to thrift stores, megachurches can make dramatic impact in both their social and spiritual communities.

5 – Megachurches Water Down the Faith

“It is abundantly clear that some churches preach a prosperity gospel of kingdom theology or the acceptance of lifestyles and political positions with which many critics from different theological positions would find fault. However, the vast majority of megachurches have belief statements on paper and in practice that are clearly in line with orthodox Christian doctrines. Even more important, these churches’ organized programs and the values instilled into committed attendees show that this theology is promoted and lived out. (p. 98-99)”

I know big churches and small churches that water down the faith. However, stats show that large churches tend to have more orthodox beliefs and practices than any other size. When Scott and Dave researched what was emphasized in the religious practices of megachurches they found higher percentages of personal prayer, meditations, or devotions (51-42); personal Scripture study (54-47); and tithing or sacrificial giving (47-39).

6 – These Churches are Bad for Other Local Churches

“Individuals will always have disagreements with the actions and theology of certain megachurches and their pastors, but do smaller churches have reason to fear a megachurch the way a mom-and-pop general store might when rumors of Wal-Mart arise? Some of their concern might be justified, but we suggest that the benefits these congregations bring to other churches can outweigh the challenging situations they create.” (p. 119)

This is THE complaint/criticism that I receive more than any other when I write about megachurches. Several of you wrote in that the only reason they were growing was because they were “swapping sheep” from other local churches. Some even claimed stats that local church transfers accounted for anywhere from 60-95% of new members at megachurches. So I went digging for an accurate stat, and Scott has the only one I can find. In their 2009 report Not Who You Think They Are: A Profile of the People Who Attend America’s Megachurches, Scott, David Travis, and Warren Bird provide this breakdown:

how-people-join-megachurches

Breakdown: 4% Organic; 6% Unchurched; 18% Dechurched; 28% Distant Transfer; 44% Local Transfer

So there it is– about 44% of new members at megachurches are from other local churches– not 60%, not 70%, and definitely not 95%. I hear people saying 90% and I agree that’s a myth. (But it is still way too high… just like so many other churches.)

I wish it were 0%, and every person that joined a megachurch was formerly without Christ, but the fact is that people do transfer between churches. Yet, I don’t know of any research or real evidence (beyond “but I KNOW it is true, Ed”) that megachurches transfer more out of local churches, destroying them while benefiting their own growth.

Actually, my friend (and church expert) George Hunter says that based on his lifelong observation, 80% of church growth (in churches of all sizes) is transfer from other churches. (If you add local and distant transfer, you don’t quite get to 80%, but it is close.) In other words, megachurches transfer like everyone else– but since they are bigger, perhaps we notice it more.

In 2009, our LifeWay Research study of Protestant church pastors revealed “49 percent of new attendees during the last five years have transferred from other congregations, while 32 percent were unchurched and 19 percent were children born to adults attending the church.”

Now these are self-reported numbers from pastors, who I would assume report a higher percentage of unchurched and a lower percentage of church transfers than would be true if we surveyed the actual attendees (as was done in the megachurch study cited above). But the picture here shows us what is true in all churches.

Way too many people transfer from between churches. But it also shows what is not provable– that megachurches are draining and destroying local churches on a widespread basis. Most churches grow by transfer, regardless of size.

There are some differences in how we classified the information and how Scott, David, and Warren did, but it is safe to say that on average, less than half of new church members– regardless of church size– come from other local churches. My guess is that megachurches attract more distant (new in town) transfers from other churches, but that is just a guess. Regardless, at this point, we just don’t have evidence that megachurches transfer people out of local churches at a higher rate than other churches.

Now, I understand that some have a very emotionally-vested perception that megachurches steal all the sheep from local churches. And maybe it was true at your church. But by and large, there is no statistical evidence that shows that megachurches are having a disproportionate impact on other local churches through transfer.

I want more unchurched being reached, but by and large with the information we have now, there is not evidence that megachurches transfer in more than other local churches– and in certain instances may do a little less.

For what it is worth, I’d love to see more research here to definitively answer the question, but at this point, someone’s hunch or angst does not make a trend or reality.

7 – Megachurches Are Full of People of the Same Race, Class, and Political Preference

“Many megachurches have intentionally adopted an inclusive vision that the church is for all people no matter what race or socioeconomic group. The leadership of these churches has a strong desire to cultivate an atmosphere of inclusion and embrace a wide diversity of people. This message is translated to the people in the pews.” (p. 138)

I honestly can’t imagine anyone believing this myth is true. When I look back at all of the megachurches I’ve been in over the years, many of them are most diverse than smaller churches– socially, economically, and ethnically. Maybe the splits aren’t even, but even still, they are much more diverse than most smaller churches. Most smaller churches are catching up, and I’m glad for it.

8 – Megachurches Grow Because of the Show

Thumma shows that while the worship service elements are important to the growth of megachurches, the greatest influence was the pastor and members’ active involvement in– and passion for– evangelism and integrating newcomers (p. 160).

In the circles in which I run, we call this closing the back door. A church can’t grow if someone walks out the back door every time you have someone walk in the front door. Assimilation is one of the major components of growing churches regardless of its size. An effective assimilation plan will help any church. When you have members– not just staff– who are committed to bringing people in the front door while closing the back door, churches grow quickly.

9 – The Megachurch Movement is Dying

Nope.

See this post.

So, long story short, there is a reason there is a book called Beyond Megachurch Myths. I hope you won’t spread them.

Read more from Ed here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
 
— Laurie
 
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
 
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)
 

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Understanding Megachurches, Part 1: Growth

One of the more popular series last year on the blog dealt with the question “Can Megachurches be Missional?” It was part of a continuing– and important– dialogue within the Christian world.

Several people have written and researched at length the trends found in megachurches. Whether it is our LifeWay Research/Outreach Magazine list of the 100 Largest Churches in America or John Vaughan’s helpful research, Elmer Towns’ articles for Christian Life, or what Warren Bird and Scott Thumma are researching, megachurches are of interest to many.

The fact is that many practices found in smaller churches trickle down from larger ones, but also because we are a numbers-oriented culture– we want our church to grow, so we try to copy what the growing churches are doing.

While imitation is often the greatest form of flattery and many copy their methods, their terminology, and their programs, megachurches tend to face scrutiny– some fair and some unfair. In the process, several unhelpful things are said about them either out of jealousy or ignorance. One piece of misinformation spread about megachurches is that they are a dying breed.

I have heard this over and over again– that the megachurch is dying out. That people are wising up and getting into organic churches. That the mindless robots who blindly follow a the charlatan megachurch pastor have seen the light. The day of the megachurch is done.

One problem: the claims are just not true (and some of it is quite insulting to many passionate believers who attend megachurches who actually have higher levels of involvement and service according to the best research).

Facts are our friends– and we need some here. And the fact that Christians are choosing megachurches– and megachurches are thriving– is not a matter of debate, it is simply a matter of math. (This is not to say that there are issues to consider, but it is helpful to get this fact straight.)

So, the number of megachurches is not declining. Recent analysis from Scott Thumma and Warren Bird show the opposite, actually. There are more megachurches every year, not less. And, they have exploded in number in the last few decades.

megachurches-in-the-us

You are entitled to your opinion about megachurches, but not to your own facts. The fact is, they are not going away. Instead, they keep coming.

The graphic might show a slowdown in the last two years from the explosive growth (from explosive to electric?) we saw over the past decade, but Warren and I don’t think so (yet). Two years does not make a trend, and the trend is quite remarkable when it comes of the number of megachurches.

For example:

  • The number of megachurches in America has nearly doubled during every decade over the last half century.
  • In 1960, there was 1 megachurch for every 7.5 million Americans. In 2010, there was one for every 200,000 Americans.
  • There are as many megachurches today in the greater Nashville area as there were in the entire country in 1960.

Now, I don’t think that every megachurch is good– I assure you, I think some are quite terrible and fulfill every stereotype out there. Yet, there are also some great ones, and for that I am thankful. I want to understand them more and, when possible, to encourage them on their journey.

We are actually considering some learning communities (with D.Min. credit available) for megachurch pastors who want a peer group to considering that question. More soon on that, but for now… you have the facts.

For more information on megachurches and many of the stats cited in this article, visit Leadership Network’s megachurch resource page.

Read more from Ed here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
 
— Laurie
 
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
 
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.