Al Hsu on Megachurches

kinnon —  July 30, 2008 — 3 Comments

Al Hsu has posted, Suburbia and the rise and fall of megachurches. It’s interesting, important and confirms much of what I’ve suspected – as the former megachurch guy that I am. He quotes Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation:

A large reason megachurches grow is because of where they usually locate–in burgeoning suburbs. Young families, attracted to the suburbs’ less-expensive housing, want religion for their children. They’re energetic, and they have rising incomes. Megachurches have enormous overhead and a huge need for volunteers. Burned-out megachurch staff members sometimes complain that they spend more time “feeding the beast” than feeding the flock. Feeding the beast requires a constant hunt for “good” families. To the dismay of the more idealistic, good families don’t mean those who need God the most but those who are committed, able, energetic, and prosperous. (pp. 105-06)

As I have noted ad nauseum, most many megachurches seem to be nothing more than the equivalent of a big box store – delivering goods and services to the religious consumer – while vacuuming up Christians from the smaller churches in the area. (Quoting A-Rox from this video.)

Ed Stetzer said this in an interview on Dave Fitch’s blog yesterday (around Ed and Phillip Nation’s Compelled by Love – another must read book),

Let me also add something that an old friend of mine once said. He explained, “The way you win people is how you keep people.” So, I think we need to be careful in how we do ministry. If our ministry is built primarily on attracting people to the show, it is hard to get them to then love God and others on a mission.

Al Hsu asks,

So are the suburban megachurch’s days numbered? Perhaps. One of the dirty little secrets in church growth circles is that many prominent megachurches are plateaued and or declining in attendance. I suspect that the multi-site church movement is one way that traditional megachurches are already retooling themselves to adjust to changing demographic and geographic realities. Instead maintaining bigger facilities with more people commuting in from farther away, out of necessity churches are rediscovering the need to go local. Instead of focusing all of the church’s programming and activities at a central hub, churches need to decentralize and distribute their ministry activity into local communities and neighborhoods.

The reality is that gas prices alone are going to change how folk “do” church. (The Anglican Church we attend in the heart of the city draws people from all over the Greater Toronto Area.) Higher gas prices may actually aid the church in discovering the Missio Dei where they live.

These are interesting times to be alive.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

3 responses to Al Hsu on Megachurches

  1. Bill,
    The effect of a mega-church on a local community is very similar to the effect of a Walmart store on a local community. Their ability to offer a greater variety of goods and services at a lower price is usually detrimental to the existing local businesses or ministries.

    The majority of consumers/members see the increased influence of the big box store/church as a positive thing.

  2. And the sad thing is that just as the WalMart’s tend to dry up the downtown core of the places they appear – the megas tend to dry up the neighbourhood churches that might have had some chance of becoming missional spaces in those communities.

  3. Bill – If you’ll allow this to be posted anonymously, I’d appreciate it, as you know who I am from the email address required for posting comments, but it’s important to focus on the issues involved, not have readers trying to figure out the place or church involved.

    Years back, I moved to a city where a church had grown relatively large (ie small mega-church) right in the middle of a residential neighborhood by drawing in commuter members from far outside the neighborhood. The church had been in an ongoing battle with neighbors for over a decade in as-yet-unsuccessful attempts to get more parking so they could get even bigger. And then there were the issues of noise and increased traffic that bugged the neighbors.

    I learned a lot about this from the local rental agents I worked with. When they heard I was part of a sort of neo-monastic group, they were actually enthused. “This community needs more people who are spiritual, but not like the kind at [church name].” And then they unloaded about how this church had set itself against the community.

    This isn’t to say that everything happening at this church was bad. In fact, when I no longer lived in that area, I met a relatively young disciple who’d experienced some significant spiritual maturing there.

    But what happens if or when this church finally gives up on building a parking lot/garage, or maybe lose a lot of commuter-members due to gas prices? Will they ever be able to overcome their infamous reputation with their neighbors? Even if they tried to go from the mega-model to missional, have their past actions fenced them inside a toxic waste perimeter that they’ll never be able to break through? Whatever must they do to try to become a local expression of “misseo dei” instead of die?

    I know this could seem extreme, but there are other ways where churches and especially larger churches could find it hard to survive in the future. What about those news reports on whether non-profits (read: churches) should have tax breaks removed? How could that affect the activities or viability of megachurches? And what about when suburbia neighborhoods age and there aren’t so many potential volunteers to harvest? And-and-and. There might end up being a lot of factors that bring a collapse of empire sooner than expected. What’ll we all do then? And what unexpected but positive opportunities could that present?


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