Is the Era of the Megachurch Over?

Crystal Cathedral

All my life I’ve heard preachers talk about a coming worldwide revival.

But it’s never happened.

There have been pockets of excitement, from the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, to the church growth movement of the 1980s. The 1990s brought local spiritual outbreaks in places like Toronto and Florida, along with controversy over their genuineness and effectiveness. And the new millennium brought The Renewal from England and Australia.

But most of the people who have any awareness of those episodes are like me – professional clergy.

The average person has no idea any of those movements happened. Aside from the rise of the megachurch and new casualness in our music and dress, most people haven’t seen any change in the way we do church.

Because of that, I never thought I’d be the one to say this.

I feel a stirring going on.

Hold that idea. We’ll come back to it.

 

Yes, No, Maybe So

In recent years there’s been a lot written about the impending demise of the megachurch.

Is the era of the megachurch over? Yes. And no. I hope so. But I hope not.

Let’s look at these four contradictory responses one at a time, shall we?

  • Yes. The first generation of the megachurch is most definitely over. The sad demise of the Crystal Cathedral was the first domino to fall. As one of the original megachurches, its jaw-droppingly swift and total collapse has shown others what can happen after the charismatic founder of a megachurch steps aside and the next generation tries to step in. Megachurches that ignore the lessons to be learned from this sad episode do so at their peril.
  • No. The era of the megachurch is not over. Not only will there will always be megachurches among us, they are currently growing faster and bigger than ever. Megachurches have discovered and, in some ways, created a spiritual thirst in a segment of society that can only be fulfilled by the full-service, high-quality product that they offer.
  • I hope so. For the past three decades, the megachurch model has not just been the dominant method of teaching how to do church, in evangelical circles it’s been virtually the only one. It certainly has been offered up as the ideal. I hope that era is over and that new models will start being added into the conversation. Not to replace the megachurch model, but to work alongside it.
  • But I hope not. I truly hope the era of the megachurch is not entirely done with. Many people have been, and continue to be blessed by megachurches. As I describe in The Grasshopper Myth (Chapter 8 – Why We Need Churches of All Sizes), megachurches offer many much-needed ministries and resources that smaller churches will never be able to provide.

 

A Deeper Longing

Recently I’m sensing a growing desire in people to reconnect with God and with others who love God. But what they’re longing for has very little to do with what we, as pastors, have been taught to produce.

There’s a sizable group of people who don’t want the well-ordered, fully-prepared, passive-rather-than-participatory experience that megachurches are so adept at providing. They want genuine, intimate fellowship and worship.

The current wave of complaints being voiced about the institutional church have little to do with being anti-God, or even anti-church. Often, these frustrations are cries from a deeper longing for a real experience with God and for a healthy church to express it in.

I talked to a friend last week who used to be a megachurch attender. About a year ago she and her daughter started attending a Small Church. Her face lit up as she told me how much more they were both getting out of church, now that they were in a place where they felt needed, cared for and a part of genuine fellowship. She’d never sensed that in the bigger churches she used to go to.

It’s not that fellowship and connection can’t exist in a big church. Most of them have very healthy small group networks. But in a big church you have to seek that out. In a Small Church, it’s more likely to happen by default.

The era of the megachurch may be drawing to a close as the perceived “correct” way to do church. A new era may be starting in which we value what churches of all sizes can bring to the mix.

I hope so.

I may even be starting to believe so.

Yes, I definitely feel a stirring going on.

 

So what do you think? Are you sensing a shift in what people want from their experience in church?

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16 thoughts on “Is the Era of the Megachurch Over?”

  1. I have worked for and attended small church through mega-church, and I truly do feel better and God does work more in my life through the small church, because it is a relationship with the parishioners that I love. Alas I have never been in a medium church, my question is what is defined as a medium church??

    1. Hi Greg,

      Your sentiments are something I’m hearing a lot more lately. People are being drawn back towards smallness and intimacy.

      As to your question about medium churches, ask ten “experts” and you’ll get ten answers, but it’s usually somewhere along these lines:

      Small Church: Under 200 (maybe 250)
      Medium Church: 200 – 500 (maybe as high as 800)
      Big Church: 500 – 2,000
      Megachurch: Above 2,000

  2. I have worked for and attended small church through mega-church, and I truly do feel better and God does work more in my life through the small church, because it is a relationship with the parishioners that I love. Alas I have never been in a medium church, my question is what is defined as a medium church??

    1. Hi Greg,

      Your sentiments are something I’m hearing a lot more lately. People are being drawn back towards smallness and intimacy.

      As to your question about medium churches, ask ten “experts” and you’ll get ten answers, but it’s usually somewhere along these lines:

      Small Church: Under 200 (maybe 250)
      Medium Church: 200 – 500 (maybe as high as 800)
      Big Church: 500 – 2,000
      Megachurch: Above 2,000

  3. Great articale Karl. I believe that large/mega churches are successful to the degreee they do “small” well….and “all size” churches are successful to the degree they do small well. Everything I see in the early church is based on people experiencing life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, but in small community. I don’t believe God has called anyone to be a spectator, which is what happens when people experience Christianity outside of community. I’ve seen it happen in all types of churches. Unfortunately, spectators tend to cheer when things go well and boo when things aren’t going so well. Small/community takes people off the “couch potato” version of Christianity and out of the grand stands and puts them on the field in a real experience with Christ and other believers. Really enjoying the articles you are putting out.

    1. Rick,

      So good to hear from you! I’m happy you’re enjoying the articles.

      Your statement that “all size churches are successful to the degree they do small well” is dead on.

      Healthy big churches understand that, as do healthy Small Churches. One of the challenges we have as Small Church leaders is to embrace the value of smallness, rather than being intimidated into thinking we have to act big in order to be a great church.

      It’s bad enough that some big churches have lost the personal touch, it’s even worse when a Small Church loses it.

      Keep commenting. I’d love to hear you thoughts on other articles as we move forward.

  4. Great articale Karl. I believe that large/mega churches are successful to the degreee they do “small” well….and “all size” churches are successful to the degree they do small well. Everything I see in the early church is based on people experiencing life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, but in small community. I don’t believe God has called anyone to be a spectator, which is what happens when people experience Christianity outside of community. I’ve seen it happen in all types of churches. Unfortunately, spectators tend to cheer when things go well and boo when things aren’t going so well. Small/community takes people off the “couch potato” version of Christianity and out of the grand stands and puts them on the field in a real experience with Christ and other believers. Really enjoying the articles you are putting out.

    1. Rick,

      So good to hear from you! I’m happy you’re enjoying the articles.

      Your statement that “all size churches are successful to the degree they do small well” is dead on.

      Healthy big churches understand that, as do healthy Small Churches. One of the challenges we have as Small Church leaders is to embrace the value of smallness, rather than being intimidated into thinking we have to act big in order to be a great church.

      It’s bad enough that some big churches have lost the personal touch, it’s even worse when a Small Church loses it.

      Keep commenting. I’d love to hear you thoughts on other articles as we move forward.

  5. Really enjoyed this one!
    Not that I want to see the mega’s go away, I agree, we – or rather, some communities really need that connection, but rural areas, such as where I serve, can’t support them.

    Looking back at my church experiences; other than when I accepted Christ as a teen, at a mega church special event…all my life has been spent in rather small churches.

    Now as the shepherd of a small church (ok ~ Tongue in cheek here! ~ according to the numbers listed above REALLY small!) my hope is that those who have been the big route and are now looking for the intimacy and relationship of the small church will bring with them the desire to serve and not end up in the (couch)/ “pew potato” version of Christianity.

    Thanks for answering the call to do this for small churches Karl, I appreciate your ministry.

    Hey, any future musings on the whole small church bi-vocational aspect?
    Thanks

    1. Thanks for the input, Scott. It’s nice to be able to attach a face to your words with your new photo, too.

      I’d love to offer some help to bi-vocational pastors, but I’ve never been one. I wouldn’t want to assume anything without the experience to back it up. There’s nothing worse than someone who’s never been there acting like an expert.

      Do you have any ideas, books or bi-vocational experts I can learn from? I’d love to use this forum to pass on good ideas.

      1. Thanks Karl,
        That pic was me having fun with my origami money gift from my youngest daughter.
        As far as any resources for bi-vocational; I’ve not found anything other than an article here and there. The only experience I have is living it.
        Although my desire is to be “full-time”, God has had me serving and working to pay the bills, not bad company though, this “tent-making” gig, just a bit frustrating in the balancing act at times!

  6. Really enjoyed this one!
    Not that I want to see the mega’s go away, I agree, we – or rather, some communities really need that connection, but rural areas, such as where I serve, can’t support them.

    Looking back at my church experiences; other than when I accepted Christ as a teen, at a mega church special event…all my life has been spent in rather small churches.

    Now as the shepherd of a small church (ok ~ Tongue in cheek here! ~ according to the numbers listed above REALLY small!) my hope is that those who have been the big route and are now looking for the intimacy and relationship of the small church will bring with them the desire to serve and not end up in the (couch)/ “pew potato” version of Christianity.

    Thanks for answering the call to do this for small churches Karl, I appreciate your ministry.

    Hey, any future musings on the whole small church bi-vocational aspect?
    Thanks

    1. Thanks for the input, Scott. It’s nice to be able to attach a face to your words with your new photo, too.

      I’d love to offer some help to bi-vocational pastors, but I’ve never been one. I wouldn’t want to assume anything without the experience to back it up. There’s nothing worse than someone who’s never been there acting like an expert.

      Do you have any ideas, books or bi-vocational experts I can learn from? I’d love to use this forum to pass on good ideas.

      1. Thanks Karl,
        That pic was me having fun with my origami money gift from my youngest daughter.
        As far as any resources for bi-vocational; I’ve not found anything other than an article here and there. The only experience I have is living it.
        Although my desire is to be “full-time”, God has had me serving and working to pay the bills, not bad company though, this “tent-making” gig, just a bit frustrating in the balancing act at times!

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