Thursday, July 30, 2009

Are Megachurches Christian?

Journalist Will Braun took a random Sunday, and downloaded the sermons from the 10 biggest churches in the US, and the 10 biggest in Canada, to see if there were any common threads in the messages preached.

Here's a bit of his commentary:

...with sermon titles like “Thirty Days to a No-Regret Life” and “I Want More . . . Self-control” as well as emphases on overcoming difficulties and attaining goals, many of the preachers covered terrain similar to Oprah.

Of course the preachers add a Christian discipleship dimension, but it’s still a smiley, energetic approach to making your life better and more meaningful. Just look at the glowing face of Lakewood pastor Joel Olsteen (who wasn’t preaching on April 13) on the cover of his book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day.

The point here is not that self-improvement is inherently problematic but rather that it is, by definition, self-centred. It’s about you and your happiness and your success. Fifteen of the 20 sermons would fall in the category of “improving your life by the power of God,” without ever expanding beyond a sort of me-and-my-Jesus world view. Three made brief forays outside the gates of self-help land (mentioning creation care and sensitivity to the poor) and two placed church solidly in the context of a global community.

The issue is about what wasn’t said. What was not said in any but two of the sermons was anything like: The church is in a better position than anyone to stop the genocide in Darfur. When we participate in an economy dependent on exploitation, we erode our souls in the process. The indigenous people in the Arctic, whose way of life is melting away beneath them, are our neighbours.

For most of the preachers, the church is not cast as a collective force of compassion and change in a violent, warming world, but rather as a vehicle for individual betterment and eternal bliss, with care for the needy sometimes tacked on as a religious duty.

Emphasis mine. Braun concludes:

While these mega-churches are undoubtedly meeting certain needs, they are not, for the most part, geared toward the needs of the greater world. If you would have walked in the door of one of the 20 largest churches in Canada or the U.S. on April 13, 2008 you would have most likely walked into an other-worldly realm – something removed from the warming, starving, self-destructing world out there. And in that way it would have been kind of like walking into an amusement park

Our church has no pretensions to being a mega church. But the same infection lurks - the temptation to appeal to people's selfishness, to preach a gospel that 'meets my needs', to make church entertaining, fun, joyful, stimulating without crossing over the line into mere entertainment. Maybe this comes back to the problem with 'event' church over against 'community' church: if the life of the church is centred around a building and an event which you're trying to populate, then there's always a temptation to go for what will be popular rather than what will be authentic.

There's an even deeper question here: have preachers of self-improvement ceased to be Christian? We're so used to the old litmus tests - the bodily resurrection of Jesus, gay sex (?), who's allowed to pray at communion - that things like this seem to pass by without anyone noticing. But the fact is that a God who's prime purpose in sending Jesus was to aid human self-improvement is not God, it is an idol. A gospel of self-improvement, no matter how many times you quote John 10:10 , is a false gospel.

Ht Danielle Strickland via Sheepspeak.

Update: Tim Chesterton, from across the pond, has some more reflections on this.


  1. Don't worry, God doesn't mind people worshipping idols.

    It is not as if he is going to do anything about it.

  2. 'Maybe this comes back to the problem with 'event' church over against 'community' church: if the life of the church is centred around a building and an event which you're trying to populate, then there's always a temptation to go for what will be popular rather than what will be authentic.' I think you are spot on with this comment! If you immerse yourself within a community then the welfare of the community must surely become important. I think the church in the west has largely forgotten how to do this. I really want to explore how to do this!

    David, how are you exploring new ways of being church where you are? I'm getting ordained within the Baptist Union in June 2010 and want to explore new ways of church and would love to hear you experiences.

  3. Thanks Joe - I must admit I'm further down the road with the theory than the practice, but we're having a go!

    Various things going on, but possibly for an email conversation. If you go to our church homepage (St James Yeovil) there's an email contact for me there. Alternatively, are you going to the Mission 21 conference in Bath in November? It's on church planting, new forms of church etc., and looks very good. If so, we could have a chat there.

  4. It's not praising God in a church that makes you a christian, but it's also what you do once you leave and how you treat your neighbour. St Paul wrote in Romans 2, 'it is not hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who are justified'

    God Bless,