(No small bit of reading, but) check out Scott Thumma’s dissertation research on Megachurches.

A nice factoid: “Megachurches are a new phenomenon. This is not to say that very large congregations were absent from the history of the Christian Church (See Vaughan 1993:17-28). Yet at any historical period there were no more than a dozen or so of these massive congregations around the world…

Nearly all current megachurches were founded after 1955. The explosive growth experienced by these congregations, however, did not begin in earnest until the decade of the eighties (Vaughan 1993:50-51). The 1990’s have not slowed this growth. Data collected in 1992 revealed over 350 such congregations (Thumma 1993b). Vaughan estimates that the number of megachurches grows by 5 percent each year (1993:40-41). Given this rate over two million persons will be weekly attendees of megachurches in the United States by the start of the new millennium.”

-Scott Thumma, PhD, Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their characteristics and cultural context

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Now I grew up in the Anaheim Vineyard, a megachurch in its own right (at its peak about 5000 regular members, currently about 2000). The experience is one thing. There are sensible benefits and detriments of a church community the size of a Greek polis. I could argue for or against the many obvious and existential features of a megachurch. But lets think for a moment about the idea itself, the metaphysical infrastructure of the megachurch.

The very concept seems to be inherently post-industrial. Without large buildings (steel) uniformly decorated with purple carpet and folding chairs (mass production) and loud speakers (electrified technology) the whole production wouldn’t get off the ground. Without a wide variety of people traveling from miles away (cars) the three-thousand seat auditorium couldn’t be filled.

It also seems inextricably tied to the Protestant traditions, for without the emphasis resting on preaching rather than spiritual direction the pastor could not tend such a flock (Reformed/Evangelical non-liturgical services); without millions of dollars worth of artwork, paintings, sculptures, and ornate woodwork, ancient/medieval Christians would not have built a cathedral-sized warehouse building only to fill it with white walls (post-7th council iconoclasm); and without a painless, easy (or non-existent) process of admitting new church members, who’s to say that the seats would all be filled in time to collect enough tithes to pay the mortgage?

These are observations, not critiques. My only criticism I will state tentatively, in accord with my current level of conviction: Much of modern “progress” has actually been regress. With the exceptions of medical technology and expedited communication, much of our innovation has worked against our overall happiness. Depression has gone up by frightening percentages in the last century. We know more and more about the world and less and less about ourselves. “We know more about science and less about scientists” to quote Walker Percy. So it is likely that at least some of the megachurch phenomenon, while not entirely bad, suffers from some particularly recent ills.

Question for Discussion #1: How much of modern life has been more human and more conducive to “the life above nature,” the life in service to the God of love, and how much has been less human and less conducive? If megachurches are (as I have suggested) inherently modern post-Reformation phenomena, and popular only as recently as the 50’s, what new goods must we preserve, and what new ills must we cut out?

Compare with John 16:7 (KJV): “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”

Question for Discussion #2: Why didn’t Jesus stay bodily on earth? He could have retained the pastorship, appointed apostles and assistant pastors, ministered, and performed sacramental ceremonies. But then again his popularity would have risen, and who would attend measly ol’ Paul the Apostle’s Church when you could go to the First Congregational Church of Jesus Christ? Why didn’t Jesus stay earth and serve? Perhaps because he would have had to start a megachurch.

Posted by Keith E. Buhler