Recently a well-known Christian school associated with a megachurch in a large city somewhere in this part of the country (don’t ask me where because I don’t know) came out with a study which showed that 80 to 90 percent of their graduates had abandoned the Christian faith within 5 years of their graduation. As you can imagine, this was quite a distressing piece of news for them, because it showed that for the most part they were not making disciples for life.
This is one of the early manifestations of something which is going to rear its big fat ugly head within evangelical Protestant-dom during the years to come: the discovery that much of what we call evangelicalism is really just smoke and mirrors which has little if any real effect in inducing people to lifelong discipleship. Another manifestation is the Willow Creek self-study that came out last fall which showed that many of their programs were doing little to promote the development of lifelong disciples of Christ.
This is of special interest to me because I am involved in a megachurch. Now our megachurch is different; we don’t try to have programs to appeal to anyone and everyone in every imaginable variety of suburban American life–we don’t have a Christian school or sports leagues or even an adult Sunday school program–but in many ways we are like the typical evangelical megachurch. We have an impressive and beautiful facility, a stupendous light and sound system, and a very engaging preacher. As a result, we are attractive to lots and lots of people.
Now don’t get me wrong here. All of these qualities listed above are good qualities. And I appreciate it very much that I have the opportunity to be a part of a church that does all of these things. But how much of this drives actual life change and moves people out of the culture and into committed discipleship of Jesus Christ?
The problem here is not with megachurches. Megachurches are just doing what megachurches do, which is to serve their public, to provide them with opportunities for involvement and engagement which do not exist at other churches. And they do an excellent job of this.
The problem is with the attitude that we in evangelical Protestant-dom have toward megachurches. We as Americans love to be impressed by huge buildings, spectacular light and sound productions, and swarms of people. We are impressed by anything that draws a crowd. So when we see a church that is drawing gobs and gobs of people, we think, “Ah–it’s a move of God!!! The spirit of God is really moving there!!!”
We think that all we have to do is give people–our young people in particular–a little dab of something that we package up just right to make it as appealing to them as possible and call it Christianity, and that will be enough to innoculate them against the culture. But American culture is extremely materialistic, extremely consumeristic, extremely hedonistic, and its influence is extraordinarily strong and pervasive. I think that in the years to come we are going to find that we need to give people something much different from what we have been giving them in order to motivate them to move away from the culture and onto the path of following Christ.
Another point: In Catholic teaching and practice it is the Church that serves as the mediator between us and Christ, through its traditions, its teaching and interpretation of Scripture, etc. We in evangelical Protestant-dom are moving in the exact same direction, though we would never admit it. We place so much emphasis on the role of the church and what happens in the church in facilitating the relationship between a person and Christ. Many of us have stories of how we came to faith in Christ which go something like this: “I went to such-and-such church and loved it!” “I went to such-and-such church and the music was great!”
1 Timothy 5-6 reads as follows: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.” The object of our faith is Christ, not the church. To be sure, the church does play a part in the faith story of any believer, but it is not the end-all, be-all of our faith journey. Christ is the end-all, be-all of our faith journey. When we say such things as “I went to such-and-such church and loved it!” in describing the defining moment of our coming to faith in Christ, we are heading in the wrong direction, of elevating the church into the place which ought to be occupied by Christ alone.
Well I’ve been pretty hard on megachurches this time around, and I don’t want to close without mentioning something that my church is doing which I believe is right. Today my church is putting on a special program where we come together and then go out to various areas in the city and serve for part of the day. Some of us will be delivering meals to AIDS patients. Some of us will be doing construction and landscaping projects for people around the city who need help. Some of us will be helping to prepare and serve meals in a homeless shelter. And so on.
The Bible is clear that service to others is an integral part of Christian discipleship. Jesus came into the world to serve; He has made it quite clear that if we wish to be like Him then we must serve others as well. I look forward to participating in this opportunity to serve, and I hope that there will be many more in the future.