What is a megachurch? Why do they exist?
In short, they’re evangelical industrial centers that bank on high attendance numbers. They exist because we allow them to, because we are attracted to charismatic personas who make us feel good about ourselves, and because we don’t like being held accountable by moral or spiritual institutions when living duplicitous lifestyles. And lack of accountability is to a megachurch what deceit and chicanery are to politics.
For one to understand a megachurch we needn’t go far. Turn your tv on come Sunday morning and you’ll be showered by tv stations that bank on the financial fluidity of large church structures that pay millions of dollars every year to make sure their message, their stage set-up, their ministry style, their liturgical steps are followed, that their revamped culture becomes vogue and that their charismatic leader becomes the centerpiece that holds everything together for everyone to see.
But how does one know if they’re part of a megachurch?
Classification of a Megachurch
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research set off to categorize what makes a church a megachurch. They must meet these seven steps to qualify as a megachurch.
- 2000 or more persons in attendance at weekly worship, counting adults and children at all worship locations.
- A charismatic, authoritative senior minister
- A very active 7 day a week congregational community
- A multitude of diverse social and outreach ministries
- An intentional small group system or other structures of intimacy and accountability
- Innovative and often contemporary worship format
- And a complex differentiated organizational structure
According to HIRR, if your church body has fewer than two thousand weekly attendees, lacks a charismatic leader who wields his power with impunity, has fewer than seven weekly events or services, has few or no outreach ministries, does not have a dedicated small group ministry, uses hymnal books and a choir to sing them for you, and your leadership consists of no more than a handful of an under-qualified staff then congratulations, you’re part of a regular church.
And I hope you don’t take that as a dismissive attack on your numerical worth, sense I believe a church is worth more than the number of people one can fit into a building. Considering how a select few congregations can sit more visitors in their pews than a professional basketball game, that’s quite impressive but numbers for number’s sake means nothing in the Kingdom of God.
God is more focused on where your salvation stands, namely, on the person of Jesus Christ. All else becomes secondary.
But I want to give you an image of a couple of larger churches, a regular-sized one, and a megachurch and the good they’re capable of accomplishing in the name of God when they heed to God’s word and prudential judgment.
And then I’ll give you a few examples of why megachurches are complicated, lack accountability, harbor predators, produce financially irresponsible teams, and diminish the witness for Christ Jesus in their immediate community.
Christian Assembly Church
ABC and CNN reported a story about how a small church in Southern California managed to raise over five million dollars to wipe out medical and other debt of over 5,555 struggling families within their immediate community and beyond.
“Because of the generosity of the people at Christian Assembly Church, we are able to give a Christmas gift to the people of Los Angeles, no strings attached,” Said CAC’s co-pastor Tom Hughes.
This church does not qualify as a megachurch under Hartford Institute’s conditions for one but it sure does qualify as a church and the benefit of proper financial stewardship.
Green Acres Baptist Church
Green Acres Baptist church set off to raise funds to help pay off over $4 million dollars of medical debt for their East Texas neighbors. After joining forces with RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit that strives to help families in difficult circumstances who cannot pay their debt. RIP Medical Debt couples with local churches to raise the necessary amount of funds to alleviate such a heavy burden from middle-class communities. Green Acres Baptist Church raised $45,000 of that total $4 million dollars toward this effort. GABC’s giving initiative Kingdom 25:40 mirrors Jesus’ words to his disciples from the gospel of Matthew 25:40:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Green Acres Baptist Church barely qualifies as a megachurch.
Freedom Life Church
Freedom Life Church raises funds and sets aside materials for the destitute and less fortunate residents of Edmonton’s inner-city community. This initiative is produced by a Christ-centered mission to care for the meek, weak, and vulnerable of our communities with whatever we have and wherever we can.
FLC Edmonton does not qualify as a megachurch.
From national news to local chatter, churches that help the poor, assist those in need, are aware of local issues, and become active when called to do so are more in tune with the Great Commission positioned by Christ to his disciples towards the end of His ministry on earth.
In fact, the first church would have served as the pinnacle of community efforts because, like Luke, the physician explains to his disciple Theophilus in the Book of Acts of the Apostles that the Christian community was extremely effective and spread like the plague because of its dual approach: gospel preaching and community outreach.
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
Clearly, a church needn’t be mega to accomplish mighty deeds. Helping the disenfranchised, housing the homeless, caring for the widow and the orphan, paying off medical debt, preventing evictions due to loss of income, helping children with food, school supplies, clothing, and footwear are all staples of Christan communities.
Come to think about it, what helped the first-century church flourish was the life, teaching, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What also helped the church grow was its focus on the community surrounding it because of Christ’s gospel. Their healthy understanding of God helped them understand the needs within themselves and within their proximal communities. Where the poor were strangers they become brothers, where widows were left to fend for themselves they became mothers, where prostitutes were but sex slaves they became sisters protected by the church, and children left for death after birth or possibly destined for abortion were saved and considered adopted children, part of the family.
A utopia, perhaps, was this first-century church that would later spawn hospitals, universities, orphanages, and further outreach, all in the name of Jesus for the sake of God and the benefit of man. Indeed, a church that understands that we are all created in the image of God endures sweat, tears, and blood to make sure their neighbors, believers or not, are taken care of.
Hillsong New York
As controversial as Hillsong New York has been in the past, I do give it and massive institutions like it credit for holding their leadership, no matter how high it goes, accountable for their shortcomings, whether they be innocuous or eternally damning.
Hillsong New York recently released their lead pastor, Carl Lentz, because of moral failings, which were later revealed, by pastor Lentz via his Instagram account, as extramarital relationships.
Hillsong estimates that over 12,000 people visit their churches around the world every week, (pre-pandemic) with musical ministries such as Hillsong, Hillsong United, and Hillsong Worship, all part of Australia’s mother church Hillsong, has revamped the way the church does worship, musical ministries, stage set-up, conferences, concerts, tight jeans, tattoos, and lyrical choices. From spinning hymnals and romanticizing their choruses to creating its own musical and church culture, Hillsong stands on the zenith of Christian contemporary music and culture.
Their influence is felt around the world through various languages as their songs and ministries are replicated, adjusted, translated to suit adherents in non-English speaking countries. I have their songs in Portuguese, Spanish, German and English. And those are the languages I am somewhat or completely familiar with.
Their reach is boundless and I applaud their very difficult decision to oust one of their own after his moral relapse. This is not an abandonment of a man and his family but a stance taken in a prudential and biblical form to hold men and women in ministry and in laity accountable when they do fail.
These situations are experienced in both megachurches and regular churches. What sets them apart is their focus on Christ, their surrounding communities, and accountability. Numericals are irrelevant when these three structural philosophies are centerpieces of a believer’s community as their witness shines forth whether they boast of 30,000 or 300 church members. They are assisting their communities wherever they can, with whatever they can, for as long as they exist within that community.
Now we are met by more nefarious types that have stained the image of what Christianity truly is, has been, and will be for decades to come. Whereas exemplary churches, mega or regular, stand to preach, teach, serve, assist, and hold their own accountable, these following examples are not only sad to recount but should be publicly mentioned and shunned.
I hope the reader does not see my approach as bitter, spiteful, vindictive, or slanderous, for I am not here for that. I am here to remind you, and possibly myself, that Jesus warned us of men and women who would be like wolves among sheep, seeking to devour the vulnerable and usurp the financially naive. They form circles of leaders who do not challenge their abusive nature. They create traps for people who seek to hold them accountable so that their depravity is never brought to light. They scurry behind corporate entities and law firms so as to never answer for their actions whilst amassing personal wealth through the evangelical industrial complex (megachurches), disregarding the struggles of surrounding communities, predating on the vulnerable, on married women, single women, young women, and impressionable women who are part of their staff. They deny any and all accusations of wrongdoing and denounce such allegations as demonic persecution and deem their accusers as disgruntled liberal-minded secular lunatics bent on destroying unity within the body of Christ, never admitting fault or held accountable for their moral, spiritual, financial, and social failures.
What a harangue.
Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church
This non-denominational megachurch located in South Barrington, Illinois, northeast of Chicago, was founded in 1975 by the now-disgraced and too-late disgraced pastor Bill Hybels. Independent investigations report that Bill groomed and predated on married women who he would surround himself with and take on corporate retreats around the world, as he ministered and taught the bible to different churches.
From sexually inappropriate comments to sexual harassment, predatory behavior, intimidating staff, denigrating and discrediting them when they challenged his abusive conduct, and worst of all is when abuse survivors and victims shared their stories with the church leadership and board they, too, were discredited and called liars.
Hybels was accused of attempting to coerce a female colleague to participate in sexual intercourse after placing his hand on her abdomen and kissing her in his hotel room whilst on a church conference in Sweden. The female colleague, a married woman who was part of his senior leadership team, managed to rebuff his advances and leave the room before anything more destructive took place.
She claims he informed her, before attempting to kiss her, that he had taken an Ambien; a powerful sleep-inducing drug. He had also been drinking wine and offered her a glass. The following morning he dared ask her what took place in his room since he could not recall a thing.
Such predatory behavior and forethought to protect his actions, should anything make it into the light, and it did, is to claim that whatever he said or did was done so under the influence of drugs and alcohol, to which he could claim ignorance and a lapse in judgment as a way to distance himself from his responsibility in the matter.
Careless predatory behavior.
In fact, the destructive nature of Bill Hybels’ duplicity was already in full force.
After years of internal and external investigations, allegations, denials, public denials made by Bill, his lawyers, his closest friends, who were also in high ranking positions of leadership within Christendom, and the church board, Bill Hybels was forced to step down from his position of prominence within Willow Creek Community Church.
Not long after, the entire church board stepped down from leadership as they admitted their fault and failure to believe in Hybel’s victims. They recognized their ineptitude to confront a bully and predator when faced with surmounting evidence of his wrongs and brought ridicule to the name of Christ within their community.
Willow Creek has since gone through a roulette of temporary ministers, who were fired or resigned, and are still struggling to maintain a structure of leadership that upholds the fabric of Christian ethics and decency.
Since Hybel’s ousting, the co-founder of the church and long-time Bill Hybels friend and mentor Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian has also been accused of clergy sexual abuse. After another wave of allegations and denials, Bilezikian also resigned in shame and disgrace, further adding to Willow Creek’s run of charades.
James MacDonald, Harvest Bible Chapel, and Walk in the Word Ministries
MacDonald’s radio ministry Walk in the Word alone reaches millions of English-speaking Americans and Canadians via radio with ease and his former Harvest Bible Chapel church was an example of how churches should function.
MacDonald also posted a video to his church website and YouTube of him disguised as a homeless man, make-up and all, as he sat outside the church he pastored to see how its adherents would react to a less fortunate man begging for food and money outside their congregation. Some passed on by, some gave alms, and others stopped to chat and pray for the would-be homeless man. Worship began inside, progressed, the band played, and when the time came for the sermon of the day, MacDonald walked from the back of the church, through the halls, and onto the pulpit where he began to remove his make-up to deliver his sermon.
The church was surprised, gasps were heard from the crowd, MacDonald smiled and then went on to preach about caring for the less fortunate and the gospel’s efficacious arm within the less fortunate community.
As I type, this video has 1.8 million views on YouTube.
James was and for that matter still is an unimaginably phenomenal bible exhorter. He captivates his audience, raises his voice on tough issues, and softens it on tender ones. His teaching series is priceless.
Priceless? So we thought.
James MacDonald was ousted from Harvest Bible Chapel after numerous reports of bullying, harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse, and his bodyguard confessing to a radio spokesperson that James had solicited his help in finding a hitman to kill his son-in-law after news of his son-in-law being involved with a woman other than his daughter was made known him.
MacDonald was biblically disqualified from pastoral leadership. Matter of fact, he was disqualified from leading anything.
Witnesses allege that MacDonald would fly into fits of rage, shouting at temps and secretaries at the flip of a switch and later preach against these very things.
The man lived in two worlds, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality within the church.
Because of prolonged abuse, allegations of harassment, bullying, intimidation, and an allegation of wanting to hire a hitman, James was ousted from the church by the board.
One year after his ouster he began an online ministry to hopefully recoup his name and status and when that didn’t pan out the way he wanted it to he sued Harvest Bible Chapel for defamation, libel, and damages and the church settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
MacDonald’s million-plus dollar estate was soon paid off, his abrasive persona re-elevated by credulous die-hard followers and his money-making teaching style is back on the market to capitalize on the evangelical industrial complex once again.
A church set on holy standards, braving the issues of poverty surrounding its community, and teaching God’s word faithfully was led and complicit, for a great length of time, of supporting and elevating a morally bankrupt man because of his teaching and preaching ministry made their facility millions of dollars.
They endured moral failure in leadership so they could make a buck.
Mary DeMuth, author of We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis described this strange incongruence between great bible teachers and their duplicitous lifestyles within the church.
“I think with gifted leaders in particular we have to be very cautious about assigning fruits to gifts so when someone is gifted we assign the fruits of the spirit to that person automatically. We connect them. And we just assume that they have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. And so that’s why it’s so hard when one falls and we think, ‘well they were so gifted and we were thinking actually they were full of fruit.’ But giftedness and fruitfulness are two different things. And you can be an exceptionally charismatic person who leads people to Christ and then behind closed doors be ruining people’s lives.”
I believe megachurches are great when their focus is on healthy and wholesome Bible teaching, discipleship, accountability, ministerial outreach, and wary of a single person governance structure.
Anytime a megachurch or any church, for that matter, surrounds itself around a single individual or family, it runs the risk of making the message of Jesus Christ, the gospel, the Great Commission, and the second advent of our Lord only as important and as relevant as the current charismatic leader they promote.
As soon as they’re gone, retired, resigned, fired, ousted, or dead, the ministry and spiritual fervency of that church is gone with them. Or sadly, they scatter to find the next best thing.
I will list a few names that we must be aware of, not for the sake of defamation or spite, but caution because these ministries are blossoming as a result of their reach, their message, their numbers, their many dedicated tv or online programs, but what makes them stick and flourish financially is one person.
This is extremely dangerous.
The Evangelical Industrial Complex works and functions within megachurches to help them catapult themselves from local community ventures to organizations run by CEOs, not board members, pastors, and elders; CFO’s, not treasurers accountable to the body; inspirational five-minute message speakers, not bible teachers equipped with the word of God from an accredited school; charismatic heresies accepted as spiritual newness and revivalism; instead of revival spawned by biblical and divine repentance.
Please, again, take these names and ministries with a grain of salt and the entirety of the Bible so we, like many before us, may not be led astray to serve or follow ministries simply because they’re hip or because they have swelled. The problem with swelling is just that, with time, it will diminish.
- Steven Furtick, Elevation Church, and Elevation Worship
- Bill Johnson, Bethel House of International Prayer, and Bethel Worship
- Robert Jeffress Jr., First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas
- Paul White, Paula White Ministries
- Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Copeland Ministries (net worth $300 million, why?)
- Sean Feucht, Bethel, Burn 24-7, Light A Candle, and Hold the Line ministries
- Franklin Graham, Samaritan’s Purse
- Jerry Falwell Jr., former president of Liberty University
- James MacDonald, Home Church Network
- Jim Bakker, The Jim Bakker Show
- Creflo Dollar, World Changers and Creflo Dollar Ministries
- Benny Hinn, Benny Hinn Ministries
- Joyce Meyer, Joyce Meyer Ministries
- John Hagee, John Hagee Ministries
- Joel Osteen, Sharing Hope for Today and Lakewood Church
- Kris Valloton, Bethel Church in Redding, California
- Greg Locke, Global Vision Bible Church
Just to name a few.
These personalities named above have well over 100,000 adherents who visit their mega-centers every week (pre-pandemic) and have a reach of tens of millions worldwide.
Our focus must remain on the person of Jesus Christ, with a continuous drive for healthy Biblical exposition, discipleship, and training. Our endeavor as a church should be to confront the evil within and without, recognizing the needs of our community and sacrificing our time and money where it is required to assist, even if our returns from these ventures are minuscule or none.
There was no Apostle Paul International Ministries.
No Apostle Peter and the Church of Jerusalem Ministries.
There is no Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Podcast International Ministries.
We do not have a Doubting Thomas’ Purse Ministries.
There’s no such thing as Timothy’s Church, led by a youthful and influential pastor that amasses wealth for the sake of self and image ministries.
There’s only one ministry, one leader, one God, one purpose, one drive, one call, one mission.
Anything else is eternally less.
In their transformative book for leaders, Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God’s Agenda, Henry and Richard Blackaby tackle this issue. Whenever we intend to produce Godly work through worldly efforts, we create these conglomerates called megachurches when in reality they’re multi-million dollar recreational centers that we attend to make us feel better about ourselves and our innocuous pleasure and comfort centered faith. This church lifestyle is man’s attempt at God’s mission instead of God’s mission in our realm. The Blackaby’s confronted this notion by referencing Jesus’ apostles, James and John when they sought to destroy the Samaritans with fire from heaven when these unbelievers mistreated Jesus and were inhospitable toward his followers.
“It is telling that James and John never suggested such a drastic response to the Pharisees, even after Jesus called them children of Satan (John 8:44).
The brothers may have had good motives. Perhaps they saw this as an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate his power so that, in sacrificing one village, many others would come to believe. It could be they were acting out of misguided protectiveness. They would not stand for their Lord to be disrespected. Whatever their reasoning, Jesus rebuked them. Once again their best thinking was completely out of line with the Father’s plan.
Acts 8:14-17 provides an interesting epilogue to this event. The gospel message began to spread rapidly out from Jerusalem. Word came back to the apostles that the Samaritans were receiving the gospel, so the Jerusalem church sent Peter and John to investigate. One can only imagine what went through John’s mind as he entered Samaria this time. Perhaps he came upon the village he and James previously intended to destroy. But this time, rather than sending a deadly fire, the Holy Spirit filled the Samaritan believers. What a contrast. Human wisdom for that place would have wreaked total destruction. God’s plan produced joyful deliverance. Instead of death the villagers receive eternal life. There is perhaps no more graphic biblical depiction of the contrast between people’s best thinking and God’s way than this account. Just like James and John, every time leaders develop their own vision instead of seeking God’s will, they are giving people their best thinking instead of God’s. That is a poor exchange indeed.”
Megachurches can accomplish great deeds, actions, and tasks, financially they’re powerhouses for the benefit of the disenfranchised who surround their state of the art facilities. In God’s hands and under His Holy Spirit’s guidance they can be wielded as an arm of the church proper to enact benevolence and grace on many, but under the rulership of a charismatic persona, the guidance of a board, the megamillions under building ownership and property accumulation and land acquisition they’re just centers of commerce.
They’re just mega centers, not churches.
If I recall correctly, Jesus turned tables and cracked a whip several times because of just this kind of abhorrent idolatry of leaders and money.
Lest we forget, megachurch pastor Joel Osteen closed his 16,800 seat congregation to hurricane Harvey victims seeking shelter and refuge from the storm and subsequent flooding that proceeded the storm. The former Houston Rockets stadium turned worship center not only had the capacity to shelter hundreds of families, relieve local publicly funded bodies of help, usher those in need into stability and peace, but also use this opportunity to shine Christ’s light to so many in dire needs.
But the 600,000 square foot church was closed to outsiders because according to pastor Osteen and his leadership team, its parking lot had experienced some water damage and flooding.
I’m curious if Jesus would behave the same way.
So in closing, megachurches can be useful if they become an arm of the church proper in community assistance under God’s direction.
But the moment they become the image of a man or a woman, or vice versa, they’re fit for nothing more than money pits for money-hungry, money worshipping televangelists and their like-minded adherents.
Take these words with a grain of salt and some hot sauce.