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a megachurch model

Ian at the Irreducible Complexity blog offers 7 steps to starting a megachurch [link]; unlike most steps, they’re paragraph-length, so I’m going to list them by opening sentence:

  1. First think about yourself.
  2. Get up to date demographic information for your city.
  3. Plan to run a commissioning service for three months down the track.
  4. Hire a great graphic design company (or better yet a talented religious designer willing to work on the cheap).
  5. Recognize that most of your churchgoers will be currently attending other churches (you’ll typically have less than 1/5 new converts).
  6. Make sure your first year of church is super-professional.
  7. From the very first service you need to be thinking about revenue.

The first bullet might be better stated “You (as pastor) are the church; project a persona that is professional and powerful;” the third as “build your initial inner circle from disaffected ex-members of other churches’ inner circles.”  The others read pretty well as summaries of their paragraphs.

This is his summary of what he’s learned from various sources regarding megachurches (he provides a bibliography) including works by Scott Thumma (editor of the Hartford Institute megachurch database) and Dave Travis, the megachurch and leadership expert we met a couple of days ago over at Intelligence Squared. The author is a self-professed atheist, and his ear for the jargon isn’t quite right (church people don’t talk about “how God is going to change the world” in so many words, do they?), but otherwise he’s totally believable; e.g. either he or his primary sources understand that asking people to pray for you and your ministry is an effective way of getting buy-in; church growth runs the risk of being “basic marketing, really;” etc.

So for the rest of this post let’s take it as read that his is a fair model of a megachurch: churches are in a sense multilevel marketing schemes; churches need pastors who are powerful leaders; every existing church represents a ready pool of dissatisfied church-goers; marketing is important; “God at work in this church” is the product; etc. What good does this model do us?

Most of the time when I hear complaints and criticisms sound wrong somehow. I’d offer Mollie Hemingway’s points in the I2 debate as a case in point (on further reflection she’s not just accusing megachurches of failing to be Lutheran; she’s accusing them of being (gasp) evangelical). Michael Horton’s (and others’) repeated flogging of “moralistic therapeutic deism” being another. These approaches seem to me to share a common flaw: they’re affirmations of values that contrast somewhat with what one might find at a given megachurch, but they’re not necessarily right. They may be just another high-sounding bunch of buzzwords and slogans.

So  I think rather than going for the easy answer (“only go to this type of church”) I’ll suggest questions to ask. Each of them doesn’t necessarily point to a fatal flaw in a church, but taken together they constitute a sort of megachurchy inventory.

  1. Every church tells a story about itself; what story is your church telling? Is the story true?
  2. How does your church communicate? Is your church engaging in a marketing exercise?
  3. Is your pastor basically honest? Is he a man of integrity? Is he the same person out of the pulpit as he is in the pulpit?
  4. Does the pastor spend time in the pulpit telling you what a great church this is? Be careful; learn to tell the difference between reflexive pride and crafted message. They’re both problematic, but they’re indicative of different things.
  5. What sort of people attend your church? Does your church have a power clique? What distinguishes the insiders from the outsiders? Every church has a group that’s there looking for a spectacle; at your church what is this group looking for? How many of the people at your church became Christians there? How do they describe the process of becoming Christians?
  6. What sort of a story does the church tell you about money? How does it describe the money it takes in? How does it describe  the money it spends? Is the church accountable for its money?
  7. Is your church slick and packaged? Is it always on message? Can you put that message in plain language?

Neither of these lists should be taken to be definitive, but I hope they’re helpful. I wish I’d had lists like these a couple of years ago. Or ten years ago. I’ve watched churches before and gotten a nameless uneasy feeling (“why is that man standing there saying what he’s saying?”) and it would have been helpful to have a megachurch marketing model in hand if just for comparison’s sake.

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  1. Ian
    December 17, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Hi Mike, thanks for taking my post on further.

    “(church people don’t talk about “how God is going to change the world” in so many words, do they?)” — My Jargon might not be mega-church ready, but I did get the distinct sense that one of the things that successful church brands offer is the unlimited optimism that is lacking from many (more realistic?) churches.

    There’s something in the Christian message that is about changing the world. About the radical arrival of the Kingdom, of the Good News being genuinely Good and universal. Paul often uses the language of struggle, violence and war to describe the gospel.

    But then that crashes on the rocks of a church who’s ambition is to make sure the church roof is in good order, or that we can have new hymn books this year, or if we can afford a full time youth pastor.

    A preacher who can say: “No. We think big. God has called me here because he wants to change our nation. Jesus wants to change the World, and I for one am willing to be used.” has a powerful message (i.e. a message about power). That is attractive.

    And, of course, ten years later, when the megachurch has grown to 5000 people the pastor can still talk with some authority about the great work being done. The pastor of a church that’s been struggling to stay at 100 people for half a century, is probably less likely to preach that way, and that is somewhat self-fulfilling.

    The flip-side of all this for me (as an atheist) is simply this. If a person genuinely does believe in those things (in the radical ability of God to save, in the desperate plight of the unsaved, in the ultimate fate of those who have not accepted), surely it behoves you to do everything possible to reach people. And that means using the most powerful marketing techniques our culture has devised. Metachurch marketing doesn’t feel any more abusive to me than Coke’s marketing.

    Anyway, thanks again. I’ll have a read through your blog, some interesting articles I’ve stumbled on already.

    • December 17, 2010 at 1:17 pm

      Ian —

      I didn’t mean to imply any criticism, and my question here is honest. For all I know there are megachurch pastors nowadays who talk about how God is going to change the world.

      Generally, though, I would expect the message to be more focused on the individual, and maybe a bit more laden with Christianese. E.g. “a move of the Spirit” or “victorious living” or some such.

      It’s hard to get the jargon right; I have yet to see e.g. a movie with a fictional sermon that sounds right.

      Nevertheless thanks for your research; as I mentioned I found it really helpful. It’s well beyond the usual “the church growth movement is just modern business practices applied to the local church as if it were a small business,” or some such, which is true but not helpful if you’re looking for ways to identify these practices in action.

  2. Ian
    December 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    I didn’t take it as criticism, Mike. Thanks again for the response. There are pastors who talk about changing the world, in my experience, yes. But you’re also right that I possibly miss the subtle framing phrases that fit it directly in with their theology.

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