Why Hasn’t Church Growth Elevated Our Communities? (A Sincere Question Seeking Honest Feedback)

Question mark 200cToday’s post is filled with questions I don’t have answers for. That’s where you come in. Warm up your typing fingers to add feedback in the comment section. But first, a little background.

For the past 20 years I’ve pastored a Small Church in Orange County, California. In the past 50-plus years this county has given birth to the Crystal Cathedral, Calvary Chapel, The Vineyard, TBN, Saddleback Church and many other megachurches and mega-ministries. We’ve become Megachurch Central.

Also in those 50 years, church growth principles have become the preeminent way pastors are taught about how to have a healthy, growing church. Not just here, but around the world. Many of those principles started here, and some of their most visible successes are within a half-hour drive of my front door. A lot of those principles have been very helpful. I still use many of them today.

So Orange County may be home to more megachurch success and teaching than anywhere else on earth. Which leads me to my first question-without-an-answer for today’s post.

Question #1: How much impact has the megachurch movement had on the culture of the communities where megachurches are thriving?

If individual congregational church growth is as important as we’re told it is, shouldn’t it be having an obvious impact on the culture at large, especially in the communities where it has been so successful? 


Who’s Changing the Culture of Our Communities?

Most megachurches have done great ministry in their communities. They’ve fed the poor, mended marriages, helped recovering alcoholics and addicts, brought people closer to Jesus and so much more. There’s no question the moral slide of those communities would have been faster and steeper without the influence of good, healthy churches, both large and small.

If there’s anywhere on earth where the moral climate should be higher now than it was 50 years ago, it’s Orange County, where we have so many successful stories of church growth, right?

But has Orange County become a more church-going place in the last 50 years? A more Christian place? A more moral place? A more compassionate place? A more Godly place?

You don’t need to live here to know that the answers to those questions are no, No,  NoNO and “you’re not seriously asking me that question, are you?!” 

Instead, it could easily be argued that our county’s culture has been more impacted by Disneyland than by all our churches combined. Including the church I pastor. Sadly, the cultural influence of our churches probably even lags a little behind “The OC” and “Real Housewives” TV shows. (Incidentally, I’m married to a real housewife of Orange County. That show ain’t it.)

And Orange County is not alone in that indictment. Which leads to my second question.

Question #2: Is there any region on earth where the rise of megachurches has elevated the moral or spiritual climate of its surrounding culture?

There may be some. I hope there are. But I don’t know of any.

Has someone done a study on this that I’m not aware of? If so, I’d love to know the results. If not, maybe this post will spark someone to do one. After all, one of the primary tenets of the church growth movement is that churches that reach their communities will grow. If that’s true, then the flip-side must be true, too – communities with successfully growing churches should be feeling the impact of those churches on their overall culture.

If we don’t have an answer to this, isn’t it important to find out? As my church growth friends like to say, “If you mean it, measure it.”

Before this is perceived as going somewhere I am not taking it, I need to say this. I am not blaming megachurches in any way for the cultural slide of our culture or my county. After all, my church has been here for the past 50 years, too. None of us has an exemplary record on this issue.

So please, don’t use the comment section to take snarky pot-shots at megachurches – or my beautiful county, for that matter. I will delete them. (I have the power! Hear me roar!)

I’m merely asking honest questions that need to be asked, even if we don’t have answers for them yet. These questions matter, because without them we won’t be keeping our eyes open for the answers.


What Kinds of Churches Impact a Community?

To close, I’d like to rephrase, clarify and extend my first two questions with four more questions I’m truly seeking feedback on. I apologize if this feels redundant.

Question #3: If church growth is so essential, why hasn’t the rise of megachurches seen a corresponding elevation of the spiritual and moral climate of their surrounding communities?

Question #4: If church growth isn’t the answer to changing the hearts and minds of the people in our communities, what is?

Question #5: How does the church impact a culture? Bigger churches? More churches? Better churches?

Question #6: If the answer is better churches, what do “better churches” look like?

Now I leave it to you.

I doubt if anyone really has a definitive answer to these questions, but I’m sure we all have some strong opinions. And I think this subject is important enough to have an honest, open, friendly discussion about.

Whadya think?


So what do you think? What kinds of churches change a culture?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Question Mark Graffiti photo from Bilal Kamoon • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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21 thoughts on “Why Hasn’t Church Growth Elevated Our Communities? (A Sincere Question Seeking Honest Feedback)”

  1. Good thought. I pastor in Montgomery, Alabama. We have seen a rapid moral decline. There are churches on every corner of every size in an community of 300,000. We have seen 32 murders thus far this year to date. I am not sure what the answer is. The individuals that commit crimes and murder are so cold and lost. These must come to some awakening. It will have to be the Holy Spirit.

    1. Mark, t’s sad, but as you’ve pointed out from your community, the argument could be made that the so-called “bible belt” may have had a faster moral decline in the last half-century than some of our less-churched urban areas. What we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working.

      The entire answer is in your last line. “It will have to be the Holy Spirit”. So maybe I need a seventh question “How do we get in line with what the Holy Spirit wants to do?”

  2. You could make the argument that some of the ‘mega’ things you listed have lost their luster: Crystal Cathedral and TBN. I worked at Disnyland–trust me it’s all fake/fantacy. I’ve hosted and been on TBN several times in the 80’s–mega bucks. 

    I think the culture has had the bigger impact on the church.  In many places mega and small churches look more like Disnyland.  Yet, Disneyland does deliver on what it offers. Do we?

    My feeling is that we never or seldom hear of the churches that are impacting communities. The impact may be too small to be  noticed by anyone other than those impacted. 

    Question 4-5:  Follow Paul through the last half of Acts. Problem is I don’ want to be that kind of bulls eye. But he sure did shake up ciity after city. Real IMPACT. 

    I don’t agree with the assumption of #3. Church growth (as a discipline) is not essential. 

    Just some initial thoughts to keep the ball in the air. 

    1. Thanks, Mike. That’s the kind of thinking and dialog I think we need to have on this issue.

      First, sadly I agree that the culture has had a bigger impact on the church than vise versa – at least in the developed world.
      Second, I think every healthy church impacts its community in positive ways – whatever their size. But, as you say, the impact tends to be localized to the “helpees”. Maybe that’s enough. After all, I don’t read about Jesus saying “go and change cultures”, but “go and make disciples”.
      Third, the Apostle-Paul-style impact seems to happen best (maybe only) in places where the gospel is new. Are we doing a good enough job as pastors and churches keeping the “old. old story” fresh for people who have grown up with it? That may be why we’re losing our young people at alarming rates. They’re inoculated.
      Fourth, I don’t agree with the assumption from #3 either. That’s why I asked it, of course.

  3. I am not sure how to approach most of the questions up there because I think in many ways the answers are pretty self-evident. I will however take on Question 5 and 6.

    I think that the “better” Church is the real answer. What that might look like, or how one gets there is a huge problem to deal with, but I think I have one idea:

    Some of your Mega Churches have bought on to the idea of going multi-site, which on paper sounds really good. But I think the reality of it is that people on the outside looking in still see that smaller campus as the actual “mega” Church that it represents. So those people, the majority as you point out in The Grasshooper Myth, who really want to be part of a smaller Church where they feel like they can be known, will not want to be part of the campus of a larger Church because they don’t feel as if it is authentic and real.

    Some of your Mega Churches have gotten on board really strongly with Church planting and do enormous work equipping and training pastors to plant new Churches, but then after their 2, 3, or 5 year support schedule is over and done with….they are over and done with.

    My idea is that I think Churches should build community Networks of Churches, that are autonomous in some respects, but yet operate around the same mission of saturating the culture they are in. And I don’t mean saturating it for the purpose of attracting more people to the Sunday service, although I am not against that. But rather saturating the community finding out what its needs are, and mobilizing people around those needs. Case in point, in the Church I am planting we have already identified that public involvement in things like the local little league baseball club is really low and that it is in jeopardy. Corresponding with that low level of involvement, and 2 years of decline in activity there, there has been a corresponding rise in youth crime and drug abuse. In our minds getting involved in a heavy way with those efforts will go a long way towards starting to see a decline in those negative stats.

    Couple that with the fact that we will plant another Church that we will continue to have a working relationship, around the combined mission to effect change in our area, a relationship that goes beyond our financial support to get them started and extends into a continuing fellowship, we will see newer opportunities arise to effect the culture as we increase our ability to exegete the culture. Staying in those relationships also models for other Churches that we are not the competition and we may see some already existing Churches (which we are already starting to see) wanting to partner with us because they see that we are Kingdom focused, and not Bodies, Bucks, Bricks focused.

    1. Those are some great thoughts.

      One church that’s doing something very similar to what you’ve proposed is Hope Church in San Diego, a church I mentioned in The Grasshopper Myth. Their pastor, Frank Wooden, is planting local churches in San Diego neighborhoods that fit each neighborhood’s style and needs, each led by a local preaching pastor who networks with the other pastors in the Hope Church family.

      In that model, the people attend a local Small Church with a pastor who knows them, but the leaders can draw on the financial and administrative clout of the larger network. Best of both worlds, it seems to me.

      1. There’s something about this discussion that I’m not completely clear on: Is this model of a network of smaller churches considered a new idea? Aside from being done on what appears to be (at least initially) limited to a city- or county-wide scale, how does it differ from denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA) or the United Methodist Church?

  4. These questions are so rarely asked by most pastors I know. When approached at all the blame is laid everywhere but at our door. We see the decline in our society but not in our churches. I am not a pastor who longs for the past, only for being real, relevant and responsive to the needs where God has placed me. I look at so much hype that leaves people empty and my heart breaks for those seeking the Jesus of the Bible and not Hollywood. We take our kids to teen meetings hosted by the mega churches in our area and provide customers for all the latest materials offered for sale to change their lives and my heart breaks. We take kids that often do without some of the basic things they need in their life and the last thing they need is to be shown things they cannot have and places they will never go. Sorry but these things do not help change our communities. I read the autobiographies of men like Charles Finney who changed towns by his ministry. Can we blame the lack of impact on cultural difference or on the shift of ministries focus? When is the last time has anyone heard of a town being changed because of a ministers preaching? The questions raised arr truly valid. Is it cultural or have we taken our trust away from the power of the Gospel and placed it in what we can do? I struggle with these same questions. I pastor in an area where poverty is rampant. Drug addiction and alcholism seems normal and the church filled with programs but not changing the community. A new program is not the answer. Money is not the answer. Better entertainment is not the answer. I love our Praise Team but they are not the answer. Mega or house or multi site is not what changes people. I believe it is the pastor wanting the God of the Bible. I have pastored for 26 years now and more than ever I see all that we try to fill what is missing with things that may draw people but not change them. Our churches are filled with hurting people. People who put smiles on when they are in church but make the same decisions in their daily lives as the rest of the world does. Where is the life changer? I use all kind of programs but they do not change lives. Let us as leaders become so desperate for the power Jesus promised and stop settling for what we can do in our strength and change can begin. Let us birth a new generation of Charles Finney.

    1. So well said, Darrell. “Mega or house or multi site is not what changes people…Let us as leaders become so desperate for the power Jesus promised and stop settling for what we can do in our strength and change can begin.”

      Keep being faith to the poor and hurting people God has placed you among. That’s where Jesus spent his time, too. Real change always bubbles up from “the least of these.”

    2. Derrill Sturgeon

      I just happened on this verse in The Message: Micah 2:11 If someone showed up with a good smile and glib tongue and told lies from morning to night—‘I’ll preach sermons that will tell you how you can get anything you want from God: More money, the best wines . . . you name it’—you’d hire him on the spot as your preacher!

      1. Ouch! When I read that I thought “How have I missed that verse?”

        So I looked it up in the NIV, which is what I usually read from. It translates that verse as “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ he would be just the prophet for this people!'”

        Same idea, with less colorful language than Eugene Petersen used for The Message.

        Those are good words of warning, no matter what size your church or ministry is. Thanks, Derrill.

      2. As a pastor if you have not yet met the glib tongued, smooth speaker whom everyone loves, just wait, they will show up! They promise everyone everything even when it does not agree with Gods Word and many people will love them. These lying prophets can lead lives of excess and people will say they are just people after all so you must forgive them. I expect more from ministers than from those seeking to follow their example. We are still human and do make mistakes but we have more expected of us and unless willing to live to a higher standard we should step aside. Forgiveness is not qualification for ministry. It is only the first step in the process. I have encountered those in ministry who sees a new church as a new opportunity to take advantage of those who do not know them. We are an independent church and it is hard to check on the past conduct of someone you do not personally know who wants to minister. Pastors seem very unwilling to say anything that ia not positive about someone who has ministered for them. Must every church experience the liars, cheats, manipulators and adulterers without a means to check on them? People can be very deceiving!

  5. I am temporary pastor in a small church in southern Utah where the culture is LDS. I see that there is still a vacuum there that the church can fill.We are only just now having an impact on the city. The culture is also LDS even for those who don’t go to church. We have quietly been building relationships with them and reaching out to the lost that have been offended by their church.
    There are no easy answers to any of your questions because the nation as a whole has stepped away from the concept that there is a God. Where I’m from the mega church just makes people mad. They perceive these large churches as money chasers or just another organization or corporation.
    I think because of the direction our country is going in that in the long haul a more grass roots kind of movement is what is going to impact area. I think the church as a whole is in flux.

    1. Keith, your comment “We have quietly been building relationships with them and reaching out to the lost that have been offended by their church”, along with your recognition that the culture at large has a negative view of the institutional church reminds me that I need to be more careful how I use phrases like “the church”. I need to remember that “the church” is you and me.

      The congregation I serve also has a primary ministry of reaching people who have been hurt by “the church”. One of the ways we’ve discovered to do that with some success is to help people restore the biblical understanding that we – you and I – are the church. Not a building, a denomination or an administrative structure. That change of mindset needs to start with us.

      We’ve allowed an institutional picture of “the church” to replace Jesus’ idea for the church in our minds and in the minds of the people in the world around us. They see the institutional church failing them because institutions always fail us. But Christ in you and me is what will restore that trust. Not just me, or just you and me, but Christ in you and me. That’s the essence of the church.

      Thanks for adding to this important conversation and reminding me of that principle.

  6. Take a look at a quote from David Wilkerson’s sermon about the Last Days Apostate Church. He preached this in 1986…does he have us pegged today or what? What’s been said above in posts/comments mirrors what he said then.
    God is saying, “When you were first called – when I touched you and delivered you from the enemy, you wanted only Me! You prayed about everything! You had a childlike trust and faith in Me, that I would guide you, that I would miraculously supply all your needs. I was your joy – I alone was your satisfaction. You were not burned out; you had a yearning heart after Me!
    “Now you have all your experts, your how-to books. You have modern methods, you don’t need Me to supply your need now. You have experts to tell you how to raise money, how to write letters, how to make appeals. You have seminars, training sessions, more experts, more advice, much of which incorporates the teachings of this world. You are learning how to do things better, but getting to know Me less! I am not the center of it all now, you do it in My name, busily engaged, hard working – but it leaves you weary, burned out, empty, because you are on the road to Egypt. You are headed in the wrong direction.
    Our churches no longer have the power of God to attract the people. They go down to Egypt, borrow its music, its dancing, it’s entertainment, hoping for a crowd! No passion for souls – just crowds! Church growth at any cost! Look at the average church bulletin; it looks like a theater calendar. The church wants to ride the swift horses of Egypt! It is a stench in God’s nostrils.

  7. I’m not a pastor. I’m very happy these questions are being asked. My love of God is strong and sincere I am going to try not to be offensive in anyway please receive with love. I’ve been to different sized churches. When someone gives birth do they leave the infant to fend for themselves? Pastors especially in ” mega churches” seem to forget that a person born to Christ is an infant needing the parent (pastor) more than ever for the proper diet, love and nurturing and direction, a relationship at this point it so crucial. Also, I have observed that most “Christians” attend church on Sunday maybe bible study whatever day. Do you and members of your congregation go into the community? Those dark scary places, do you ask what you can do how you can help? Do you follow through? I believe God resides in all of us but we are not so willing to live as Jesus did or even try. We attend church pass judgment and avoid anything that is uncomfortable. We don’t all feel that we have Gods ear so we need Christians to connect to as people and to feel we have a connection to God through his servants. I hope this makes sense. Soup kitchens and TV sermons are wonderful but they require the community to do all the work. If you truly want to reach the community you really need to get out into the community and be the change you wish to see. This is how the mormans get so many converts, trust me I have an inside track they are always goi g to people’s homes giving them the good news offering to build or fix fences, takeout trash, move things, send people with food, offer rides, fellowshiping etc.
    We are litteraly starving for fellowship and to see God in people! Bless your heart I believe you’re sincere, that is why I’m trying to give you the most sincere answer I can. I pray you and everyone else reads my answer even if in the form of questions. I’d like to add something else. Just as a newborn needs all the thing I mentioned and more, not all of his children are called to simply be spectators some have purpose (we all have a purpose in Gods plan) but we need to encouraged, groomed sometimes taught how to find out what that purpose is and what coarse we need to follow to fulfill that purpose. I realize none of what I say is easy but I believe the rewards can be greater than anything you can imagine and your rewards in heaven even greater! I hope this helps. Sincerely

  8. Recently, the Lord has laid on my heart to help the congregation I’m privileged to pastor see a “no holds barred” look at just who a disciple really was–from a first century Jewish perspective. A disciple, (called talmid) was one who wanted to BE like his rabbi–and of course, Jesus was the Rabbi to top all rabbis. I told them a disciple is a believer and a believer is a disciple–no two separate categories.

    To me, this is the crux of the whole thing. If we stopped trusting in church growth principles and had one passion–to be like Jesus–then we would have a burden to reach out to others. We would have the compassion (or at least pray for it until He gives it to us) of Jesus and seek to bring others into the Kingdom (under the rulership) of God. I think we’ve forgotten that a disciple is one who is committed to radical obedience–because our Rabbi was. Jesus said, “I always do what pleases the Father.” If we would just believe, and live as though we did–that the Holy Spirit truly lives in us, we would yield to His control, allow Him to set our daily agenda, allow Him to give us His mind and heart, even in our daily workplaces, and allow Him to speak and do through us the things which would be pleasing to our Father.

    Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And He said that in the context of the beatitudes: i.e., those who were spiritually bankrupt, who mourn over brokenness of the world and themselves, who are meek, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc. We are to come into contact with the world AS THOSE WHO HAVE THE CHARACTER QUALITIES OF A CITIZEN of the Kingdom of Heaven. And then let the chips fall where they may. I believe our problem is that we are unwilling to receive the fallout from openly identifying with Jesus and the righteousness which is part and parcel of the Kingdom (in keeping with the beatitudes of “being persecuted for righteousness’ and Jesus’ sake). Jesus calls us to witness to the world, not adapt ourselves to the world, because our citizenship is in heaven. Why was it that the gospel went so far and wide in the first century–and within 70 years, 10% of the Roman empire consisted of Jesus followers? Because the citizens of the Kingdom of God went everywhere preaching the good news to the citizens of the kingdom of this world. Why? Could it be that they each considered preaching the gospel was an individual responsibility and privilege? Because they saw the boldness of the apostles, and their willingness to “suffer shame for the Name” (Acts 5:41), could it be that, when scattered due to the persecution that arose in the aftermath of Stephen’s martyrdom that they, too, had that boldness, relying on the Holy Spirit to give them strength to openly identify with Jesus, letting the chips fall where they may?

  9. Could it possibly be that the church is full of immature Christians, some who have been Christian for years but who haven’t grown into maturity. Every Christian is destined to be conformed to the image of Christ and that means the full stature of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:13. Is there any other pathway to that place of maturity except via the cross? And the “crucified with Christ” message is not a popular message!
    If it is true that the average Christian experience is that of a child, then what the world sees is people who are little different than they are. If that is so, then why would they even be interested in being a Christian? If we’re not the salt of the earth, we create no thirst. We all know that statistics show the same percentage of immorality in the church as in the world so the evidence is overwhelming that we’re dealing with spoiled children in a pampered society. Having said that, I sometimes wonder also if God has or is removing His Spirit from America because of her continuing sins? I pray for a revival of conviction!

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