Friday, December 01, 2006

"Supersized" mega-church Sociology and Christian Century article

I read in the latest Nov. 28 issue of The Christian Century there is an article called "Supersized" by Mark Chavez taking a look at the reasons behind the growth of mega-churches and the concentration of church goers in them. It is an excerpt of a longer essay in the Review of Religious Research back in June. I haven't had a chance to read the longer essay yet; also haven't yet found online link to the Christian Century article or the RRR essay but I suspect CC will have one up soon on their site at www.christiancentury.org.

The gist, or the old news: As Schaller has pointed out to us for many years, a majority of churches in America are small ones but the majority of church goers are going to churches in large and very large churches. Chavez documents this once again.

The analysis of why: Chavez says there is no one simple reason for this. On this he is right. As others have pointed out before, megachurches aren't reeling in the unchurched as much as attracting those already churched, to some degree. Of course there isn't a simple understanding of what constitutes "the unchurched." Maybe his longer essay goes into his use of the term. One of the categories not mentioned in his essay is for the "dechurched."

He writes "nor can we explain this trend by reference to some constant advantage of size. It is true that there are certain attractions to worshiping as part of a big group. But the advantages should have been apparent long ago, with the appearance of the first big churches, not just since 1970." What he includes in passing reference but doesn't give much credence to because it is difficult to quantify, is the role of generational changes which began to show up in the 1970s as the boomers swept fully into adulthood, and the boomers and their cultural wants and expectations have driven the rise of the megachurch. This is also one of the reasons why the next cultural wave is for the rise of organic smaller churches in reaction to the boomer churches. He addresses suburbanization and shows how it has been in place and in play in American culture longer than the megachurch impact, but again doesn't delve into the role of the boomers on the suburban scene.

He says another possible explanation is that they offer a new organizational form in tune with the rising cultural tide. But, he adds, the big churches of earlier eras had many of the hallmarks we see in megachurches now. Besides the boomer factor, however, I might point out the role of the non-denominational vs. earlier era denominational big church. His study focuses on looking at big churches in denominations without addressing more in depth the way the denominational big churches are more non-denominational than before, as well as bringing the mega-churches that are non-denominational.

The explanation he helpfully brings to the table is an economic one--rising costs to provide religious services, especially as boomers want which differ from earlier generations, drive out many of the smaller churches and those churches survive in this new climate who can afford to provide the services, and that is why, as Schaller points out, it is the very large and the very small who live on. The mid-size church, program-driven, suffers. Add in the internal conflict that entails when this happens, as churches get on treadmills of anxiety about maintaining their status quo, and add in the external conflict that happens especially when denominations are encountering cultural change and challenges (the cultural wars), and people looking for church life will flock to where there is less conflict spilling over into their lives.

The upshot? It takes an increasing amount of resources concentrated to be able to thrive as a very large church in a very large church world. Especially if you are trying to create one from virtually nothing, i.e. to replicate Saddleback. To get there you should take your largest churches and healthiest mid-size churches and teach them how to multiply themselves.

The other upshot is that the emergent organic movement is seeking to fill in some of the gaps between the old mega-church and the old smaller church. As said, the megachurches aren't attracting the secularized unchurched as much as those who arent finding fulfillment in the smaller and more denominationally-identified churches; the emergent organic church not trying to be megachurch is more suited to connecting with the spirits of the unchurched and the dechurched. I think a lot of the movement of the boomers and Xers to the megachurch whether non-denominational or not was in line with the organizational dysfunction of the smaller mainline churches; the organic church is able to offer a different model but without the spectator-driven model of the megachurch. As Whitsell's book (posts below) shows, organic and mega aren't actually contradictions in terms either in all cases; but these growing and developing on the scene churches weren't a part, as far as I can tell, of Chavez' research.

Again, look for ways to take your big middle and your small large churches and multiply them in new ways, poly-site, video groups, turning small group ministry into networks of house churches; and also find ways to nurture and network and fund as much as possible the entrepeneurs of the emergent organic movement among you in order to ride the now and coming wave of anti-mega micro, simple, organic church next wave.

As I read the Christian Century article I kept thinking how there was a kind of disconnect between the statistics of the denominational mega churches Chavez' work looked out, and the narratives and stories of so many of the megachurches themselves. And when you read or hear the stories of those churches as individuals you want to put them into a larger statistical understanding. Now I am not so sure you can ever do both--but it is helpful to have both to see the limitations of both approaches. And as I read the article, I kept thinking about how much is left out, theologically and scripturally, from such articles that is important for planters themselves and for the churches themselves. He ends the article by talking about how much of the change we don't understand, the causes and consequences--and that is right; we won't ever fully grasp the way the Spirit moves and forms itself to meet God's present and future. And yet there is so much of the certainty of the passion of the imperative to be involved in this, all of this, that no statistical curve can ever capture.

3 comments:

Bill Baar said...

We visit our local mega church once in a while for shows.

I noticed for a mega Church, they offer a lot of very specialized small groups e.g. singles, divorced, young, old, sick, recovery. And there is a lot of emphaisis on sick, recovery, and hurt to the extent I wondered how many damaged people were out there in what's otherwise a seemingly pretty comfortable community.

UU's get stuck in this cycle of gloating over moral failures and harping over our supposed success..

You have to understand the Right to criticize it effectively. Those divorce statistics, for example, really bug them. How can they frame themselves as the stronghold of family values if their families don't hold together as well as the atheists do? --Doug Muder

You won't hear Red Family Blue Family in the Mega Church. It may be that's a turn off for the public at large.

Dwelling on failures rubs me the wrong way too....

...if it was a choice between those two theologies, I'd stick with the unchurched in the cocktail lounge.

Ron said...

How true bill. What I forgot to say in my post, and what was left out from the article of course because that wasn't its intent, is that it is all about health. Whether mega or micro or middle church, the spiritually healthy church--one that addresses real needs even though it may go about them with different theologies--will fulfill its purpose. The deeper question is why have more and more people found mega churches more healthy for them, and why are more and more younger folks raised in and around mega churches not finding them as healthy for them? The micro church and the mega church often can talk the same DNA language, often because they have been started in the past 25 years, whereas the middle church has trouble understanding what you even mean by DNA because they were started 40 and 50 and more years ago.

I hope people realize that there will not and should not and probably cannot be one size church for all. Mega isnt the wave of the future, nor is micro, and certainly not middle; but all three and in a multitude of variations. What might shake out in the next thirty years or more, as Barna says, is not so much a winnowing out based on size but based on healthy DNA and a willingness to engage with the culture.

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