The Megachurch’s Unintentional Murder of Connected Christianity

Image courtesy of Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Creative Commons

I think the megachurch movement has created a clearly unintentional but serious infection which may lead to the eventual death of Christian connection, AKA the church.

Let me explain.

After noting a “meh” response to the last church I visited in the Mystery Worship adventure, I thought I’d better analyze what happened because the worship itself was quite well done.

A varying team accompanies me on these mystery worship visits. Age range: pre-teen to the geriatric, and have differing religious backgrounds.  We generally get together to talk after each service, share impressions, and consider the next worship adventure. Our general assessment about this particular day was an unenthusiastic, “Well, it was fine but . . . ”

What was our hesitation? Two reasons I suspect.

One, we are visiting and know no one. We have no sense of local community, of having just been in worship with a larger group connection. Simply, we don’t know anyone else. As friendly as people can be–and this was a particularly friendly place–nothing replaces the depth of a genuine knowing of one another.

Two, and this is the more pernicious issue, we are reaching a point where we want to be wowed by what takes place.  We want something unusual, something snappy, something profoundly moving, something spectacularly life-changing. In other words, we are in danger of becoming worship snobs, sniffing our collective noses at anything that doesn’t quite meet our increasingly exact standards.

We want a weekly experience of Pentecost, but not the hard work of the Ordinary Season that follows it. We want the “high” without having to grow deep roots and learning to expend ourselves to produce fruit that will nurture the world.

In a small scale, my mystery worship team is exemplifying the worst of consumer Christianity. We want to skip to the mountaintops and ignore the trained guides and their work on getting us there and the personal discipline necessary to make the journeys.

Almost all of the fastest growing churches I have visited aim for the spectacular in worship. The gatherings feature loud music, light shows, lots of visuals, and big-name preachers, many of whom are former pro athletes. The worshiper tends to have a passive experience at the feet of the experts. Literally “at the feet” because the stages are set up high, ensuring good sight lines in the massive spaces.

The children’s areas are lavishly furnished with audio/visual equipment, ensuring little boredom and preparing them for the passive experience of adult worship.

This past Sunday was full of congregational participation. The particularly excellent acoustics in their space meant that the attendees could hear one another well. The collective worship responses gave a healthy sense of being in a large community of like-minded people. As a result, the congregational singing was far more robust than I’ve seen just about anywhere else.

But megachurch auditoriums are set up for professional bands with expensive amplification, not for the unamplified human voice. Few attendees sing, mainly because they sense they are singing alone, an uncomfortable sensation for most. Other voices are lost in the massive spaces.  Almost none of those types of worship services expect any unison reading or responses. All comes from the front.

I know that megachurches work hard to create connective small groups and these become the lifeblood of a healthy large church. Nonetheless, these expensive and expansive Sunday “productions” have contributed to the rapidly growing breakdown of people worshiping and working together in community. Few have a holistic church experience–it has become increasingly fragmented from daily life and much more like a weekly Superbowl half-time performance, quickly criticized if it doesn’t meet individual standards.

As I consider the future of my own denomination, The United Methodist Church, I’m aware  of the push and need to create more megachurches. Among other things, such entities pay much larger apportionments, and help keep the bureaucracy functioning, the Bishops and their minions paid and the pensions funded. These are our financial realities.

But I think megachurches are essentially, and certainly unintentionally, killing the essence of Christian community. At its core, Christianity is intended to be lived out in deep intimate connection with others who intentionally speak the truth in love to one another, offer to one another comfort and support, bear one another’s burdens, and together manifest the transforming presence of Christ to the world.

Certainly, much admirable mission emanates from larger churches and their extensive resources. I never want to ignore the good they have brought. I simply voice my concern that the kind of vulnerable connection that is needed for healthy personal growth to Christian maturity becomes increasingly difficult as the size of the church grows and worship becomes a professional performance rather than the work of the people.

12 thoughts on “The Megachurch’s Unintentional Murder of Connected Christianity

  1. It seems that we have become quintessential voyeurs; we like to watch everything! Dangerous and I agree this entertainment mentality that has bombarded the church does not end well for the church in the west. “This life’s dim windows of the soul Distorts the heavens from pole to pole And leads you to believe a lie When you see with, not through, the eye.” Blake

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  2. A great set of observations here, Christy. I worked on the worship/music staff at a large, Willow Creek Association church for a few years and can ratify much of your claims. What I will say is that, surprisingly, we did in fact find some lasting friendships in that particular setting; ones that continue to this day some 20 years later. However, the worship setting itself was too expansive for connectedness and, as we ultimately discovered, often vacuous and easy to outgrow. Thanks for sharing your discoveries!

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    1. Thanks for sharing your observations about the Willow Creek Association. Working on the staff like that should indeed result in lasting friendships because you would get to know one another so very well and be integral in the lives of your team. But for the average attender . . . it does appear to be a whole different story.

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      1. True enough, Christy. For many in our setting it was certainly the case. It’s surprising to me that people will find one another even under circumstances that mitigate against such connections. The case you’re making here, a valid one, is that such gargantuan settings can and do actually mitigate against a sense of immediacy, warmth, and genuinely lasting community – something generally seen in much smaller settings. Keep snoopin’ around and sharing your findings!

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  3. Maybe this is simplistic but to me the basic need that the church fulfills is to be a Community. People need community and they find it in various places and various ways. People leave churches, myself included, when this community becomes unfulfilling of thier needs for a loving community. It’s not as if the church is the only place to find God, afer all! Small churches are NOT immune as there can be cliques, hostility and ingrown attitudes present that make an open minded individual more uncomfortable to attend, than stay home.

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    1. You are so right, Sue. Small churches are hardly immune to hostile and closed off people. And I agree: we are all looking for a loving community. When I was an active pastor, I used to tell my church that our times together were given to them to practice being Christian so that when they went into the rest of the world, they had the habits of loving forgiveness so ingrained in them that they came naturally.

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  4. Big box stores lead to Big box churches. It’s the Walmartization of Christianity. : P
    When Walmart opens up shop in a community, it drives the smaller ma & pop stores out of business.
    This is just what’s happening with churches across America.

    author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

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    1. Oh yes, that is indeed what has happened. In the marketplace, however, there is more of an expectation of a cut throat competitive nature–particularly in a capitalistic society like ours. But the church is actually supposed to be different. That’s the heartbreak of this.

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