"Our Big, Empty Churches"

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Wow! Another piece, this time over at WORLD magazine, that goes to the heart of some thoughts and discussions I've had lately. In Packed, But Still Empty, Gene Edward Veith argues that many mega-churches going the "contemporary" route are deep in membership but shallow in spirituality.

Here are some of the highlights:

Veith's launching off point is an op-ed piece by journalism student Clint Rainey from the Dallas Morning News:

(Mr. Rainey) says that the contemporary touches are designed to appeal to baby boomers, not to today's young people. "These churches attract middle-age adults like iron filings," he says. "But my generation isn't in such awe." ...
He says that today's young adults crave real religion.

Part of the problem is what sociologist and megachurch pastor Leith Anderson calls "generic Christianity." He points out that today, one can go into a church (especially a megachurch) of nearly any denomination—Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Lutheran—and be unable to notice any difference among them. ... The sermons will tend to be about practical biblical tips for successful living, and go light on doctrine and sin. Also, all of these different denominations tend to use Sunday-school curriculum and other material from the same nondenominational publishers. These companies purposefully avoid all controversial issues and doctrinal distinctives, which would limit their market share."

And yet, this unity comes at a cost. Both liberal theologians and church-growth theologians downplay historic doctrines, seeing them as divisive and irrelevant. Both value what is new over what is old. And so both cut themselves off from the spiritual heritage of historic Christianity. Since some Christians today make up their own theology and practices as they go along ... their spirituality can seem shallow or "empty."

I can already hear the anti-megachurch crowd baying. "Oh boy! We haven't had a good megachurch-whipping in a long time!" This attitude from those who at other times champion peace, unity and reconciliation.

This piece wasn't anti-megachurch, nor should it be. Veith correctly observes that there are megachurches who remain faithful to Scripture and heritage. I would further argue that megachurches aren't the only ones who have been willing to trade quality for quantity. They are simply the ones who have been successful.

This doesn't confine itself to one type, denomination or size of church. Just like money, the pressure for numbers is great, even in a megachurch. How much do you think they worry about having to continually top themselves or risk losing their numbers to the next megachurch?

I don't suggest that we ignore numbers. You could have unimpeachable faithfulness to God's Word and mission and be totally useless without a flock to shepherd. Somewhere along the line however, there are choices to make in the face of the pressure. How far will you go? What will you compromise? Which lines will you cross? Are you discipling or entertaining? Are you nurturing or baby-sitting? Are you on a mission or a census?

Mr. Rainey closes his column with these haunting words: "In Europe, mass religious apostasy left its churches people-free, but the American megachurch could bring this irony: We, unlike the Europeans, have people in our big, empty churches."


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