Thursday, April 22, 2021

5 Marks of Harmful Megachurch Culture

 


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Introduction

Megachurches are a modern phenomenon. More specifically, they're a modern American phenomenon. An article from the University of Washington written nearly a decade ago sums up both the definition of a megachurch and just how effective they have been:

Megachurches, or churches with 2,000 or more congregants, have grown in number, size and popularity in recent years, coming to virtually dominate the American religious landscape. More than half of all American churchgoers now attend the largest 10 percent of churches.

Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music and what [James] Wellman calls a “multisensory mélange” of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor.

The researchers hypothesized that such rituals are successful in imparting emotional energy in the megachurch setting – “creating membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality,” they wrote.

Although that is a great summary, there's much more to examine when it comes to megachurches. A church culture that has been influenced by this movement often features some harmful elements. These "marks" can actually be a hindrance to the Christian priorities of gospel proclamation, theological clarity, and biblical admonishment and encouragement.

To be sure, much of the harmful megachurch culture that people experience stems from unbiblical theology and philosophy, which can vary greatly. An examination of those things is best done on a case-by-case basis. This article is about the culture itself, which seems to be very similar across a variety of churches.

It should be noted from the outset that not every megachurch has a "harmful megachurch culture" and not every church with a "harmful megachurch culture" is, in fact, a megachurch. Some congregations have the attendance numbers to qualify as a megachurch, but have managed to maintain a culture that represents historic Christianity and reflects biblical priorities. Then there are other churches that don't have 2,000 or more congregants, yet seek to implement some of the harmful elements of more influential, bigger churches as a means of relevance and growth.

It should also be noted that although the five marks listed below show up in nearly every context of the megachurch culture, music is where this is all most obvious. After reading through this article, go find a recording of a megachurch's service on YouTube and listen to their singing time to see if you can spot all five elements. Here's an example to get you started.


Self-Focus

Harmful megachurch culture hurts people by encouraging them to continue thinking about themselves. In the flesh, people are already thinking about themselves -- they don't need to be taught how to do so. This is why God gives this command to Christians, who are called to reject the flesh and to walk by the Spirit: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others," (Philippians 2:3-4). 

Harmful megachurch culture does not call self-proclaimed Christians to primarily focus on the needs of others with humility. Instead, people are led to consider life very individualistically, appraising their own situation and needs as most important. The most pressing matter is always the personal struggle, not the needs of others. This way of living is of the old self, not of the new nature that Christ gives.

When considering the difficult personal circumstances all people go through, the Christian is to look to God who is in absolute control over his or her circumstances. This is a great encouragement for God's people because the Lord is both sovereign and good. As I've stated before, if He had only one of those attributes, life would be quite depressing. However, God is both sovereign and good; therefore, we shall rejoice.

Harmful megachurch culture doesn't teach such a concept, though. The people are not told to abide in Christ, looking to Him as they endure what He has sovereignly brought about. Rather, they are so often led to look at themselves more and more and view God as the one who is waiting on them to initiate a way of escape from that which bothers them.

The individualistic approach to Christian living is absolutely damaging to those who hear such teaching. Their eyes are taken off of the sovereign God and His people -- the two priorities for the Christian as reflected in Jesus' answer regarding the great commandment -- and their focus is placed on themselves, being consumed by their own worries. (See also all of the first-person pronouns in the megachurch culture praise music lyrics.)




Empty Positivity

Much of the instruction spewing out of harmful megachurch cultures is akin to vague self-improvement books rather than clear, biblical instruction. It's quite obvious that the goal is to be positive and encouraging, regardless of how much sense anything makes. This precedent is so dangerous.

Not all of life is positive. In fact, much of life is disappointing, frustrating, tiresome, or depressing. But the lie of the prosperity gospel, which much of harmful megachurch culture is based on, is that a person's life can be full of positivity and happiness despite the inescapable effects of sin in the world. This false teaching states that the negative forces in a person's life can dissolve only if he or she will do x-y-z to dispel it. 

Here's the reality: Creating a life full of positivity is impossible, and any instructions given to help a person achieve it are made-up and foolish. Those people front-and-center on a stage somewhere proclaiming that they are living a completely positive life are lying. They have put up a false front. To those who are encouraged to focus on themselves as their own priority, though, such teaching is deemed inspiring and refreshing. 

The result of this teaching is empty positivity -- as opposed to genuine, biblical faith and joy -- and those who buy into it are consequently unable to actually face the trials of life from a biblical worldview. They've been told to speak to their circumstances so that everything will change, but this is an absolutely hollow approach to life that does about as much as one of those "Live, Laugh, Love" signs hanging above a pile of credit card bills in the home of a recently divorced alcoholic.

This empty positivity can be viewed as a drug, like meth. It's well understood that meth is harmful and damaging. It's made with poisonous chemicals and has an incredibly negative impact on the user. However, many people are determined to ingest it because it produces "feelings of euphoria, arousal, reduced fatigue and appetite, loss of inhibition, and increased sociability," as articulated by drugpolicy.org

Empty positivity also has an incredibly negative impact on people, but they are attracted to it because they get many of the same dopamine effects that people experience when they use a drug like meth. They'll often leave church services on a Sunday, go out into the real world, and experience the emptiness of this teaching, just like when a person comes down from a high. But in the same way a drug addict must return to the harmful substance to get up again, the people who shoot up empty positivity must return the next Sunday to get a hit of the stuff that kills them. Harmful, indeed.


Vassal Jesus

One of the most ubiquitous and terrifying features of harmful megachurch culture is their use of Jesus. The phrasing here is quite intentional -- yes, their use of Jesus. Back to that in a moment.

There's an air to harmful megachurch culture that smells of Dualism, which teaches that good and evil are two equally eternal forces that war against each other. This heresy should be emphatically rejected on the basis of the unique sovereignty of the one and only transcendent God of the universe, but far too many self-proclaimed Christians think in its terms. As the people who are submerged in this harmful culture approach life with a dualistic outlook, Jesus is considered not as the sovereign God who does whatever He pleases, but rather as a helper who will step in to fight the bad things in your life when somebody invites him to do so by invoking his name. Entire sermons are based on this thinking.

In the Middle Ages, vassals were hired by lords to care for their land and protect them from their enemies. Vassals had more dignity and value than the peasants, but they didn't have as much control as the lords. They fought on behalf of the lords when they were beckoned and were given some sort of a wage.

In harmful megachurch culture, where people are instructed to focus on themselves, so often it is assumed that the individual Christian owns what he or she has in life and fights battles all alone, unless that person chooses to give it over to Jesus. At that point Jesus will enter the scene as a vassal hired by the lord for some specific service. 

A proper biblical perspective sees Jesus as King, the Owner of all things. Human beings are stewards of what rightfully belongs to Him. He is not waiting on standby for people to feel the need for Him; rather, the Lord actively working in all things bringing about His perfect will. He is not seeking to be used by His people based on their independent prerogative; instead, He has called His people to worship Him in and through every area of life as humble stewards of His gifts and grace. He is not the vassal; He alone is Lord and all men are to approach Him as His servants.


Christians Anonymous

In his recently published book on corporate worship, Matt Merker states that Christian worship should not be anonymous. This is a very pertinent point. He writes:

If we are God's temple, then a Christian service is, by definition, a communal affair. Unlike going to a movie, where you try not to notice who is sitting next to you, at church we warmly greet one another because we share the same Spirit. We hear the voices of brothers and sisters we know by name as songs, prayers, and Scriptures reverberate around us. Rather than slipping out of our seats to leave during the final song, we stick around for fellowship.

This instruction Merker gives is right and good. However, in the harmful megachurch culture, anonymity is encouraged. People are invited to join others in a dark room and there's no pressure to socialize. This is a very potent illustration of the harmful, individualized, self-focused approach to the faith -- no one is under any obligation to think outside themselves. This is not what "church" is!

Corporate worship events that take place as God's people come together should not have the same atmosphere as a movie theater, stage play, or musical performance. The Sunday morning gathering is to be full of faces that are visible, voices that are heard, and hands that serve. This cannot be done in the dark. The church is to call people to the light, as children of the light, children of the day, as we see each other face-to-face.

For those who claim the name of Christ, an anonymous existence in the dark should not be an option. If any so-called church encourages and/or facilitates an anonymous existence in the gathering, they are a hindrance to true, biblical fellowship. The people who attend will suffer because of it.


The Hype Hamster Wheel

Finally, a fifth mark of harmful megachurch culture is the constant pursuit of things that excite people. In this culture, so much emphasis is placed on the production of events that each one has to be just as exciting (if not more exciting) than the last. Whether this means the church will be dropping Easter candy from a helicopter, creating a Frozen-themed Christmas service, or just majorly dressing up the regular Sunday morning service, everything must be the most exciting event of all time.

It is absolutely insane to think that there are churches out there who spend $80,000 in one year on cameras, just for the sake of creating a better Sunday morning production. But those churches exist.

This truly is a hamster wheel, meaning that it never ends. It's an unending race with increasing speeds. There's no rest or peace; there's only need for more fanfare. Much like the woke movement, the hype that harmful megachurch culture seeks to create eventually eats itself alive because it's never satisfied. It eventually has to self-destruct because it cannot keep itself alive.

Most importantly, this aspect of harmful megachurch culture is to be rejected because it's all about human performance. Performance is antithetical to the gospel. The gospel tells sinners that their performance is irrelevant because it could never take away their sin. The gospel goes on to tell sinners that by forsaking their performance they can find absolute rest in Christ. Church culture should reflect the gospel in every way and, therefore, should never be about performance.

This is not to say that churches should forsake their stewardship responsibilities or reject striving for quality. As far as it depends on them, local churches should come together to do what they've been called to do with a desire for excellence. But they have not been called to perform or create environments of loud, energetic ballyhoo.

Additionally, it's been said, "What you win them with, you win them to," meaning, that if a person joins a church based on the excitement generated by the performance, that person will likely only remain in the church so long as things remain interesting enough. However, if a person is won by the simple message of the gospel, declaring the wondrous Person and work of Jesus Christ, there will be peace and rest imparted to that soul which no man can take away.



I hope these thoughts have been helpful in thinking through harmful megachurch culture and why it's important that these traits are avoided. May we serve God humbly, in wisdom, for His honor and glory alone.

7 comments:

  1. Sounds like a lot of self centered assumptions brushing broad strokes...

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    1. Bob,
      Sounds like it might have stepped on your toes!

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  2. It seems like this could have just addressed "harmful church culture" - especially considering that the article says: "not every megachurch has a 'harmful megachurch culture' and not every church with a 'harmful megachurch culture' is, in fact, a megachurch." If size isn't the problem, why choose a label that specifies size?

    Imagine if I wrote an article on "The Harmful Habits of Old, Bald Men" and then went on to specify that my critique doesn't actually apply to all old, bald men, and it in fact often applies to young, hairy men. It would be obvious that I should have chosen a different title and defining theme.

    Having said that, good points are made in this article.

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    Replies
    1. I was thinking the same thing, but you explained it better than I could have.

      Maybe I'm defensive because I attend what is technically a megachurch, but our average worship service (pre-panemic) was under 300 people, because we are also multi-site (and most campuses have 2 or more service times). But I've seen many of these things in much smaller churches too.

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    2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. The harmful culture referenced in the article has been popularized through the megachurch movement and there are still many influential megachurches that promote and propagate it today. Therefore, it is most logical to connect the culture to the megachurch phenomenon.

      Delete
  3. Hi! I am new to your blog, but I've been reading your articles today. I just wanted to stop by and express my appreciation and thanks for what you do. The Lord bless you!

    ReplyDelete