America is a superhero driven culture. Have you noticed? Almost every movie, television show, and young adult book series is drenched in super-heroism. Think about this for a second. Batman, Superman, Captain America, Iron Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, Wolverine, Harry Potter, Arrow, Flash, Jim Gordon, Rick Grimes, Han Solo, James Bond, Katniss Everdeen, Jessica Jones, Superman, Thor, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, The Hulk, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Frodo. The list could go on and on and on. Hero worship is definitely what makes America tick. And it doesn’t stop with popular culture in books, movies, and TV shows. We also have the same mentality in politics and religion. Everyone is looking for the next political, super-hero leader to move America back to greatness. In the American church, it is much the same. I don’t know that I have ever known a time when the church has been so enamored with mega-churches and super-hero pastors. These tech savvy, mega-leaders make themselves larger than life and secure their enormous following through television, social media, and multi-site satellite congregations where people gather to listen to their message on huge theater sized screens. Consider just a few of these current Christian super-leaders and their mega-ministries:
- Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, Houston TX – 45,000 members, 20 million television viewers in 100 countries
- Andy Stanley, Northpoint Community Church, Atlanta GA – 27,429 members, 36,000 attend, 6 satellite broadcast locations.
- Perry Noble, New Spring Church, Anderson, SC – 28,000 members, 32,000 attend, 19 satellite broadcast locations
- Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Church, Chicago, Ill – 25,000 members with 7 satellite broadcast locations, The Global Leadership Summit – 122,000 registered and broadcast in 200 host sites and 70 countries
- Joyce Meyer, Televangelist, St. Louis MO – 100 million radio followers, 30-50 million television viewers, 9 global offices, 70 books
- Ed Young Jr., Grapevine, TX – 24,162 members, 7 satellite broadcast locations including a location in London, England. Also broadcast on television and radio
- Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest CA – 22,418 members
- John Hagee, Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, TX – 20,000 members, 20 million television viewers
- Steven Furtick, Elevation Church, Charlotte, NC – 18,000 members, 10 satellite locations
- Creflo Dollar, World Changers, Atlanta GA – 13,000 members, 15 million television viewers
This is really just a thumbnail sketch of how the evangelical landscape is shaping up. Generally speaking the American mega-church is defined as a Christian church that is over 2,000 members in size. In 1970, there were only 10 mega-churches in America. Today, there are over 1,700 mega churches in existence and that number is growing yearly. This does not mean that there are simply more Christians, it means that Christians are overwhelming identifying with large, media centered, personality driven churches. It’s hero worship. Or put another way, it is the “cult” of personality. More and more, Christians are looking for a larger than life personality to center their lives around. While many argue that this phenomenon is a good thing, I believe that there are inherent dangers that come with this movement. I’ll list a few here:
- Personality Idolatry – In the mega-church model, a larger than life personality shapes Christian thinking, rather than the scriptures. Whenever a single personality is exalted, then Christ is subtly degraded. Furthermore, very little value is placed on theological training as only 52% of mega-church pastors have a college degree. A winning personality trumps all other considerations.
- Brand Idolatry – In the mega-church model, the particular church brand becomes a badge that creates a “my church is cooler than your church” mentality. Members associate their identity with the church brand, rather than with Christ. This creates a church culture where jabs are commonly made toward smaller churches that are seen as insignificant and uncool.
- Singular Leadership – In the mega-church model, the mega-leader usually controls all the financial and directional decisions of the ministry. There is usually no plurality of leaders – like we have in the Presbyterian Church. Instead, all the power is held by the Senior Pastor and all decisions, including his salary and benefits, are unilaterally made by him.
- Lost in the Crowd – In the mega-church model, the leadership views its members as “giving units” that empower the church vision, rather than people to be pastored, taught, and loved.
- Hiding in the Crowd – In the mega-church model, members begin to see Christianity as an event to experience rather than a family to belong. Sin is easily hidden and the sanctifying nature of close Christian relationships – of knowing and being known – is lost.
- Worship as Entertainment – In the mega-church model, the worship service is viewed and evaluated in terms of its entertainment value rather than its exaltation of the Triune God and Christ centrality. While it is healthy to have a church service that expresses joy, laughter, and celebration, most mega-church models emphasize entertainment over and above teaching, the sacraments, spiritual growth, education, sanctification, discipleship, fellowship, community, repentance, and other valuable worship service assets.
With everything else going on in our present day American culture, I must admit that the phenomenon of the mega-church movement is the thing that concerns me more than anything else. As Christians face the future, nothing is more important than a strong, bible believing, gospel oriented, Christ centered, God exalting church. Just to be clear, I have no qualms with church growth. I want Christ’s church to grow large in number. I want to be involved in missionally reaching the lost. However, in the studies I have read, I think churches tend to function best and have the greatest impact when they exist in the 800 – 1,200 people range. After a church reaches that number, church planting should be the aim and focus, not pursuing a mega-church model. This has been the strategy and focus of one of my favorite pastors – Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer PCA in New York City. Several years ago when Redeemer began to experience a boom in numerical growth, they made a conscious decision to implement a reproduction model of training and sending out church planters. As I observe the scriptures, and especially the book of Acts, I feel that this is the most biblically healthy model of church growth.
Furthermore, as a pastor, I certainly do not want to be anybody’s super-hero. I am not larger than life. I don’t have a corner on the truth. I am not cooler than anybody else (Except for Justin Woodall. I’m way cooler than that guy). And in no way should anyone depend on me or on Pastor Julian as the foundation of their Christian faith. Our job as pastors, above anything else, is to point people to Christ. Over the last 20 years, Pastor Julian has unshakably held to that mentality. He and I together want to continue to drive home the truth that Jesus Christ is the Savior. He is the Lord. We want to exalt the Triune God-head. He is what it is all about. We want SPC to continually be oriented around the Glory of God alone – Soli Deo Gloria!
Personally, I don’t want SPC to ever be known as the “cool and happening” church in Myrtle Beach. Instead, I want us to be known as a church that exalts and worships God, that loves Christ, that repents of sin, that loves the scriptures, that reaches out to hurting people, that loves each other, that invests in our community, that works hard in our jobs, that loves widows and orphans, that loves children, that sings with a full heart, that loves to laugh but knows how to weep, that prays for marriages, that hates unforgiveness, judgmentalism, and sinful attitudes, that welcomes new comers, that reaches out to the lost, that holds faithfully to love while never backing away from truth. I never want us to be known as Julian Riddle’s church or Tim Melton’s church. I want us to be known as Jesus Christ’s church. I don’t know about you, but in these days when everyone is looking for a hero to rescue them, I have only found One hero worth worshiping. He alone deserves to be the Lord and Savior of our lives. He alone is worthy of our adoration. He alone is our One true Hero.
So with that said, I heartily embrace what the Father said to Peter. When the young disciple was thinking about using the appearance of Moses and Elijah as a religious sideshow to launch a mega-church movement of his own, the Father said, “Peter, Christ is my Son, whom I love; he brings me great joy. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5 paraphrase)
* With this article I have included a detailed infographic below called “Mega-Church / Mega-Business.” The graphic is provided by www.onlinechristiancolleges.com. Click on the picture to bring up the full graphic. A few things to note:
1) This is an older graphic so the information is a little dated. Perry Noble and New Spring Church in South Carolina is now the fastest growing mega-church in America. They are currently number four on the US list with 32,000 attending and an annual budget of $50 million.
2) In 1970 there were only 10 mega-churches in the U.S. Today there are over 1,700.
3) 72% of mega-church growth comes from other churches while only 6% comes from reaching the un-churched.
4) While most mega-church pastors are grossly irresponsible in the way they handle church finances, Charles Blake, Craig Groschel, and Rick Warren are exemplary. Still, their accountability is self-applied and does not necessarily come from being under the authority of a plurality of church elders.