In the tall shadow of the megachurch

As many of you know, I pastor a contemporary service in a large (for Methodists, anyway) traditional First Methodist church. The church is successful, in part, because it offers excellent traditional worship in an area surrounded by highly contemporary megachurches or megachurch wannabes. Our church is distinctive. Even the First Baptist church next door offers mostly contemporary worship.

For better or worse, the kind of worship we offer in Vinebranch will be compared, not to other Methodist churches nearby, but to places like Northpoint Community Church a few miles away. Honestly: We’ve asked some of our church’s young married couples, who mostly have never set foot in Vinebranch, why they don’t give us a try. They’ve told us: “If we wanted contemporary worship, we’d go to Northpoint.”

In a way, it seems so unfair! We don’t have their budget, their staff, their coffee, their volunteer manpower, and at least some of their cool technology. Besides, as United Methodists, we have some different theological imperatives and a very different church structure.

Eh… What are you gonna do?

While I only grudgingly accept the comparison to our megachurch counterparts, I still think our worship compares favorably. I’m proud of the work that we’re doing—not satisfied that we’re doing all we can, but still proud.

All that to say, I read with interest this piece by Roger Olson on the megachurch phenomenon. You might be interested in it, too. Dr. Olson, as always, lends a nice historical perspective to the subject. He doesn’t see megachurches as anything new. But he raises good questions.

I do wonder about two things. First, can a church larger than a few hundred people really function as a New Testament ecclesia? It seems to me that church discipline was a necessary part of New Testament church life. How does a megachurch do church discipline? Yes, the standard answer to all such questions is life groups or what used to be called “cell churches.” But if the cell or group functions as the real church in the New Testament sense, why have the large church? The standard answer is that the large church, gathering only on Sundays, can accomplish more good for the kingdom of God than little churches meeting in homes. In that case, then, megachurches are simply replacing denominations. Then the question becomes how well can a person really worship God in a crowd of several thousand? Do these mass worship services tend to become spectator events?

As Olson suggests, megachurches might be replacing denominations—but, I would hasten to add, with an important difference rooted in technology. Northpoint has a network of satellite campuses to which pastor Andy Stanley is beamed each Sunday. (From what I understand, Stanley appears very lifelike on a high-definition screen.) If this model grows, will Northpoint and its fellow megachurches become like McDonald’s? No matter which campus you attend, you’ll be served the exact same thing. Is this a good thing?

I’m not sure that it’s a good thing for us pastors who are not Andy Stanley! But I’ll keep plugging away and being faithful to the Lord. As I said in a recent staff devotional, Jesus didn’t call me to be Andy Stanley. He called me to be Brent White. And that’s good enough.

5 thoughts on “In the tall shadow of the megachurch”

  1. Bravo, Brent. A message that goes right along with what another megachurch pastor, Rick Warren, was saying last week in his devotionals. If we are envious of others we are really telling God that he did not make us good enough. Don’t envy the megachurch. Let’s be the best First Methodist in Alpharetta we can be!

  2. Brent, I commend you for your efforts in the tall shadow. You asked, “If this model grows, will Northpoint and its fellow megachurches become like McDonald’s? No matter which campus you attend, you’ll be served the exact same thing. Is this a good thing?”

    As I understand the North Point model:
    The campuses are different after all. The video feeds aren’t the exclusive method… there are live, in-person, sermons delivered. I think the biggest thing to understand (and you may already) is that for North Point the ‘win’ is not sunday morning ‘church services’. The ‘win’ is people in small groups later in the week. The purpose for North Point’s Sunday services is to create an environment that would be a step forward for unchurched people plugging into ‘community’ in a small group. So many people criticize the Northpoint model from the basis of their projection of what Sunday morning service means to their own church’s strategy. I would say that if a church does not have small-groups-meeting-at-homes-each-week as the integral part of their ‘Great Commission’ strategy, then what North Point does on Sunday mornings WOULD BE hard for them to justify emulating.

    So, so long as the Sunday morning service is not all that people participate in, as long as they commit themselves to ‘community’ in a small group, then I think the answer can be, “Yes, this is a good thing.”

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