Megachurch -curse or blessing?

In recent weeks I have been reading accounts of large megachurches in Australia and east Asia. My special interest in Australia is because there has been a huge Pentecostal revival in that part of the world. The Sydney area is particularly interesting. It is the home of the non-Pentecostal Sydney Anglicans. It is also the headquarters of an international Pentecostal network of churches known as Hillsong. Sydney Anglicans represent a conservative Reformed group within the Anglican Communion. They have a strong emphasis on bible teaching and Calvinist orthodoxy. Their links include Oakhill Theological College in London and they organise the GAFCON network within the Anglican Communion. Hillsong on the other hand has a very different theological stance. It is the largest Pentecostal church in Australia and has numerous offshoots in the country. There are also branches of Hillsong in the States and in Britain. Some 30,000 people attend Hillsong centres in Australia every Sunday.

I have read through a great deal of internet comment on this particular network of churches. All are agreed that the music produced by Hillsong is of high quality and makes the church and its worship attractive to a large segment of young people. This attractiveness of Hillsong music does however create a problem for the church. If people flock to a church, attracted by the music on offer, what sort of demands, if any, should be made on the doctrinal and moral stance of these followers? In contrast to Sydney Anglicans who set fairly high demands for its membership, the Hillsong leaders seem more relaxed. The consensus is that Hillsong draws in crowds but has relatively few expectations of these followers. The main condition for membership is that all who come should dig deep into their pockets. Financial support, in the form of tithing and extra collections is a constant theme at their services. This is necessary to support a very expensive and wide-reaching ministry across the world.

There are other serious concerns about the integrity of the leadership of Hillsong. It has been suggested that Brian Houston, the leader, was reticent with the truth when speaking about his father Frank to the Royal Commission set up to investigate child abuse in Australia. This Commission has been sitting for several years and is due to be wound up in December 2017. No doubt we will be returning to examine its final conclusions. Brian’s father Frank admitted in 1999 to his church that he was guilty of paedophilia in the 70s and 80s while acting as a minister in the church that preceded Hillsong. Rumours of his misbehaviour were the reason for his departure from New Zealand in the 70s. Brian insisted to the Commission that he knew nothing of his father’s activities. He did however admit that his church had not dealt with the situation well when it became public in 1999. He claimed under oath that Frank was then suffering from dementia and had his licence to preach had been withdrawn immediately. Some claim that this was not true and that there is a recording of the father preaching three years later. He died in 2004.

Scandal has also hit other prominent Pentecostal churches in the region. The City Harvest Church in Singapore has recently (April 2017) had six of its senior leadership sent to prison for the misappropriation of church funds. The famous and much celebrated church in Seoul South Korea with 800,000 members, the Yoido Full Gospel Church has also been plagued by financial scandal. Huge sums of money found their way into the pockets of members of the family of the leader, Yong-gi Cho. His son has been sent to prison. The father, now retired, escaped with a suspended sentence.

One of the interesting things to note is that, in spite of scandal, these three churches continue their activities without interruption. When a large bill for legal fees was presented to the defendants in the City Harvest Church in Singapore, the money was quickly raised by a whip round of members of the congregation. Devotion to leaders, even when they fall, together with an enormous capacity to forgive their activities seems to be widespread. What is going on in these situations? The dynamic of the megachurch is that all the members are drawn together in a mutual admiration of the leader at the centre. But, because the leader is not personally known to any but the few at the centre, this relationship is a fantasy one. It is a bit like the relationship between a popstar and their fans. The individual fan feels that because they may possess a signed photograph that they are somehow linked to their idol. But this relationship does not really exist.

Chris has often spoken about churches becoming like theatres. I would go further and say that these prominent megachurches are now becoming like mini-entertainment industries. They promise and promote a mixture of fantasy, powerful music and the opportunity to be drawn into a pseudo-reality. Whether God is really to be found in this loud cacophony of music and light is an open question. I am rather concerned by the extent to which unreality and fantasy relationships are created in these churches. Pentecostal megachurches are, to put it mildly, extremely unhealthy places. It is hard to see how the fantasy relationships that are offered will have any relevance when the individual encounters difficulty or tragedy in their lives. The music that is churned out in these churches is also likely to be of little relevance or help in times of despair. How can praise music speak to loneliness, depression or poverty? What these churches are saying is that attendance demands an ability to be entertained and little more. Such titillation has little to say to the task of how we are to live our lives under God creatively and well.

Some people believe that the creation of huge megachurches is a way to promote the Christian faith to a younger generation. This would seem a completely backward step for the Church. My reason for saying this is twofold. Quite apart from the issue of scandals and narcissistic behaviour among leaders that seems to beset these institutions, the glue that holds them together is artificial. The glue I refer to is the heavy emphasis on musical entertainment. Music seems to be the dominant feature of these churches. What would happen if there was a power-cut? The appeal they have is that of a night-club. A second objection to a church with huge numbers of people is that the leaders are remote. They have become superstars who travel the world business class on megachurch business. Such leaders quickly become inaccessible remote fantasy figures. They seldom speak to individuals within the congregation. This inaccessibility is bad for the congregation and it is bad for the leaders themselves.

All around the world there are churches trying to imitate the model of the apparently successful megachurch. Even when the numbers are not so vast the leaders have a fantasy of success if they can but follow the right technique. Music and charismatic preaching are thought to be the key to success. Success here sadly is not the glory of God but a wealthy life-style for the minister and international applause to feed his narcissistic craving.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

14 thoughts on “Megachurch -curse or blessing?

  1. We had a good sermon at the cathedral on Saturday from Bill Schwarz, Archdeacon of Cyprus and the Gulf. I think he succinctly nailed one of your main points here, when he said he liked to try out misquotations of scripture in his sermons. Such as… “Well done, good and successful servant”. Or worse (as he put it)… “Well done, good and famous servant”. It’s the opposite of faithfulness to Christ which you begin to outline here as the harmful, narcissistic and fantasy dynamic in these churches. Thanks for keeping us informed about these areas of church life which I personally have no direct experience of. Incidentally I’ve just finished reading “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” which you mentioned in a previous post, and which is not totally irrelevant here. A sobering but extremely worthwhile book.

  2. Thank you Stephen,

    Spot on, another extremely important blog post.

    So many people in real need fall through the noise, smoke and mirrors of these vast demonstrative theatres. Christian celebrity, music industry, TV, radio, are fed by this (I believe) strategic attack on orthodoxy.

    Instead of those souls who were in the apostle Paul’s thinking, when he spoke of God choosing, “The base things of this world, the things that this world counts as nothing,” we have actors who create their own parts in what is often a Munchausen by proxy menagerie, that brings about an ugliness that the average Joe in the street finds sickening.
    These Mega places are very dangerous, and are built on the assumption that if enough people say the same thing for long enough, it must be right, No, No, No.

  3. Ian Paul has recently written in praise of large churches, and this has been posted on Thinking Anglicans. You might want to look at it, to get the other side of the picture. I believe they have a role to play, particularly with young people and students.

    I agree with Stephen, however, that these large churches can be dangerous places, and that’s even more true of mega churches. I worked for a while in one large church, and several people with ongoing health problems told me that they were being neglected by the leadership – and indeed by many of the congregation. When they were prayed for and didn’t get healed, the church simply lost interest. I used to visit some of these people, because no one else would. Their situations didn’t play to the church’s image of success.

    In contrast, the New Testament tells us that the ability to endure, to be faithful in the midst of hardship, is one of the marks of the Holy Spirit. Perseverance, steadfastness, faithfulness – these are the qualities God wants to develop in us. I’d like every large church to have a series of sermons on 2 Corinthians – but it isn’t going to happen.

  4. You are so right about the Churches, ‘Image of success,’ this is theatre at its worst.

    I would ask you to consider that the large fellowships that young people attend can stunt their awareness, of the lower, lower, working class and the disempowered.
    When I see HTB and Mr. Gumbel conducting the alpha course, the audience appears all middle class.

    If run right, smaller churches should be better equipped to deal with making the young aware, and fine-tuning their awareness, (That at least would be the hope).

    1. Not all large churches have a membership quite as well off as that of HTB, it depends partly on their location. The one I worked at did also have some people who were quite hard up and quite a lot in fairly ordinary circumstances. The house groups would contain a cross section, and we also worked with the local homeless shelter. That was a long while ago, I don’t know what it’s like now.

      All Souls Langham Place used to have a centre in the poorer part of their parish called the Clubhouse – again, I don’t know if they still do.

      The small church on a tough housing estate where I was vicar did some really valuable work in the community and with the disempowered. I think you’re right that smaller churches can often more easily be involved with, and serve, their communities. I made the point on Thinking Anglicans. However, small churches can really struggle to find the resources and the people to do good work with children, teenagers, and young adults. To do this well requires funding and a largish pool of talent, which is not easy to find. It works better in reasonably sized groups too, and a high standard tends to be expected.

      It’s difficult to know what the answer is – maybe several churches pooling their resources for their children’s work? But if the kids’ parents want to attend a church, there has to be some provision made for the children during the service.

      As Margaret says, young people tend to be attracted by churches with good music and a crowd of other young people. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it’s just during a brief phase of their lives.

  5. It is a shame that the success of a church has to be calculated by number and I assume finances. The indicator must surely be whether the people attending are faithful and genuine and being nourished by the spirit.
    In my experience I have been in a congregation like that in a very large, lively church with contemporary music and also in my local church with traditional hymns. Most young people probably will be attracted by the former.

  6. My very final point would be the prescriptive nature of many modern churches/fellowships. Bob Dylan once said; “There is no success like failure, and failure is no success at all!” I would argue that the whole language around ‘success’ carries with it something that betrays the Christ of history.
    The words, “Achieving” and “Targets” give me earache, these business terms are now part of modern fellowships and the ‘new speak’ that is born out of academic politics.
    The sad thing is that the uninhibited way that Christ took on His ministry, encountering those on the wayside, and those at their workplace is a million miles away from the neatly structured church life of today.
    Like Kaleidoscope pieces of glass that are programmed to always form the same pattern, the churchgoer of today is cheated out of the wonder of real life. As if Paul would say, “I am made one thing to everyone”?

    Speaking as a child of the sixties, I feel that to get back to Jesus, we must, “Tune in, turn on and drop out”?

    I wish everyone a Cosmic atomic trip……. Peace and love and flowers folks.

    1. Mission Action Plans, Parish Action Plans, strategies and targets – how much time is spent on those when we could and should be out visiting the sick, helping the poor, taking the love of Jesus to the people he brings across our path?

      In one parish I had just spent the best part of year teaching and encouraging the PCC re. the 5 Marks of a Healthy Church (or whatever it was called). The next step was to ask the diocesan official in charge of the scheme to speak to the congregation. But no, the diocese had moved on to 7 Steps for Growth, and he refused to come. That was a year of effort and energy wasted. I never took part in such a scheme again.

      Much better to try and live out the love of God with the people around us.

  7. Thanks Stephen. I have no experience of this at all, but it sounds unhealthy, as you say. I love your description of the unrealistic pop star type adulation. Spot on.
    I have two sons, now in their twenties. One has always liked Cathedral music, even as a child. the other prefers the pop type stuff. Oh, and churches with good traditional music also have the problem of people going purely for the music. You do have to preach the word as well!
    The parish church I was in did different types of surveys three years running, two of them the same survey! New incumbent. Ridiculous. I perhaps don’t have to say that there was never any follow up.

  8. I would agree with your comments about megachurches. I once heard John MacArthur say that they are not churches, they are simply venues that put on an event every sunday. I have plenty of issues with MacArthur, but in this case, he is spot on. People at such churches are generally there for the show. What isn’t always apparent is the turnover. Many of them have a very transient membership, and their back door is as big as their front door. I’m sure this applies to HTB and Hillsong in the UK.

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