Some people assume that because my sympathies lie with the missional church that I am anti-megachurch. I will admit that I have concerns about megachurches, or that I think they are poorly suited for some things. But for many things, they are great.
First, let me clarify that I don’t think the opposite of missional is attractional. I think all churches should be attractive. There is no particular virtue to being unattractive. Missional churches would not refuse participation of people who came to them because they were attractive. Now, its vitally important to consider to what and with what we’re hoping to attract people. There are definitely strategies for attraction that dilute the demands of discipleship and honor the values of a culture that treats members like consumers of services offered by the church. And I think that this is what some people mean when they use the word “attractional” as a perjorative. But I think this is too easily dismissive of megachurches and often done by people who secretly wish they were the pastor for one.
So, of what value the megachurch?
In the freshman Bible course I teach, I have students write a paper wherein they describe their relationship with the Bible to this point in their life. I read several papers every year of students who either had quit going to church or had never been who found a way toward God through their experience with a megachurch. And because of that, they are now sitting in a Bible class at a Christian college.
I think this is the particular genius of megachurches. They provide a way back to faith for persons who came to view the church as stodgy, boring, and irrelevant. While this does not exhaust the number of things they do well, I think this is their particular genius.
In fact, that’s the thing about megachurches: they are monuments to doing things, and a number of things, well. They greet people well. They execute their complex worship services well. They provide help for divorced recovery and single-parenting and substance abuse recovery–all done well. They produce great Easter and Christmas services. Because of their financial strength, they support many worthy endeavors that smaller congregations simply cannot take up.
For these reasons, and others, I am thankful for them and wish them well.
Lyle Schaller once commented that these churches are not so much congregations as mini-denominations. This is both their strength and weakness. They have reach beyond what most congregations possess, but they struggle with the face-to-face. And I don’t know of any megachurch pastor who isn’t concerned about this and who doesn’t seek to address this, usually through small groups.
But small churches have unique gifts as well. And megachurches have little to offer them in terms of models for their success. They simply can’t be imitated. They are two very different things. I am a proponent for missional church, not only for theological reasons, but also because this impulse gives small to medium sized congregations hope for a faithful future that also involves a different kind of engagement with the neighborhoods in which they exist.
I often have leaders from large congregations come to a class I teach and tell me that their pastor back home warned them not to drink the missional kool-aid. I usually take that as a back-handed compliment, that like a mosquito I am providing a sufficient enough irritant to give megachurch leaders a critical moment of reflection. But in the words of one theologian, “why can’t we all just get along.”