I can’t begin to count the number of times that I’ve heard members of smaller churches bad-mouth megachurches. The shots come in any number of forms. From the way that people come dressed in jeans to the way people drink coffee freely in the lobby, to the tight pants of the worship leaders, to the “watered-down cheap-grace Gospel” they supposedly teach, there’s a lot of hate going around.
I’ve always wanted to visit these mega-Churches and see what all the commotion was about. Recently I got my chance to visit the “belly of the beast.” For my Doctor of Ministry program, I was sent to do a case study at the Saddleback Church in Southern California. Saddleback is famous for many things, among which is starting the “Celebrate Recovery” program. They also have a well-known pastor in Rick Warren, author of the bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life.
For those who are not familiar with Saddleback’s structure, it is a multi-site church network. The idea is that every campus has their own in-house pastoral staff and worship team. However, for the sermon, all of the campuses live-stream the sermon simultaneously. I didn’t attend their main church. Instead, I visited one of their satellite campuses in Anaheim, CA. (By even admitting that I’ve visited them, I know that I’ve been blacklisted somewhere.)
The Anaheim campus is relatively new (It’s only been in existence for approximately 6 years), yet already has a membership of over 2,700. My main task was to speak with several volunteers and ask them a few questions, such as:
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- How long have you been a member here?
- Where is your area of ministry?
- Why did you choose to join this church?
What I really wanted to know was what kind of mindset these volunteers have that might be a reason for the content growth of a mega-church like Saddleback.
Here is what I found.
1. Front-line volunteers are new to the church and to faith.
Every front-volunteer (these are the first faces guests see like greeters, information booth, parking attendants, etc.) that I spoke with was a new Christian with less than 5 years in the church. It seems that as soon as they gave their lives to Jesus, they were immediately given a ministry assignment. Whether a spiritual gift inventory or another tool was administered, there was an intentional setting aside to serve in an area (or several as was the case with a couple of them).
They also understand that the purpose of the church is primarily for those not currently in church. I was surprised when they said that church launched a new campus because their former church campus got too big at 2800…so they launched another campus that has now grown to nearly the same size in six years.
I want to take a parenthetical moment to mention to my home church(Miami Temple) that when I presented the idea of growing to be a 2,500 church in 5 years, the idea was laughed at by some. I had no idea that there was a church that actually did it!
As Adventists, what makes us incapable of thinking the same could happen to us? Maybe the issue isn’t one of doctrine, but of faith.
I wonder if the reason that Saddleback grows at such a rapid pace is that genuine faith is infectious. Maybe by having new members at the forefront of ministry, that excitement is caught easier. It might also be because new members are crazy enough to believe that God can still do the impossible.
2) They live the Shema (i.e. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself).
Gaye, the first volunteer that I met said that she grew up in the Moravian Church and left because Saddleback emphasized the importance of making Jesus her personal Savior. She was baptized as an infant and felt that there was no emphasis on what she as an individual had to contribute to the advancement of God’s kingdom.
Another greeter, Patricia, came because they were the church that loved her and her husband completely and unconditionally. They were both dressed in jeans and had jewelry on so I knew what they were talking about.
Before I arrived in their main worship area, I was greeted by no less than six perfect strangers in the lobby area. Three came up and asked if I was new and inquired how they could help.
That sounds like loving your neighbor as yourself in church. How does your church stack up?
3) They are all intentional about ministering to others and being discipled.
Every single one of the volunteers that we spoke to was a member of a small group. They raved about how many small groups there were in church. From groups for men, women, families with children, singles, and on and on, they shared how their faith grew because of the smaller communities they were a part of.
“Our church is too large to get to know everybody. The way that we grow is through our small groups. We also get to know people at our weekend services and bringing them into the life of our church,” said one volunteer. In their minds, real church happens during the week, not during the weekend program. That sounds pretty biblical to me.
What really surprised me was that they have visitation teams made up of volunteers and visit their missing, sick, and regular members! In other words, the task of pastoral care doesn’t fall primarily on the shoulders of paid clergy. They have truly embraced the Protestant concept of the Priesthood of All Believers.
Overall, I had a great time worshiping with people who are loving God in the best way they know how.
I’m going to shift gears here now because it’s not enough to share the lessons that I saw. I need to give myself a reprimand. If I’m honest, in the past, I’ve had walls of prejudice regarding megachurches and what they’ve done.
I’ve also criticized them in the past.
Yet this visit convicted me that hating on large churches for “what I believe,” are prejudices in many respects. Bashing large churches a cherished sin that we need to repent of because, when we disparage what mega-churches are doing, we stand guilty of the following…
We are disrespecting the Holy Spirit
Jesus told Simon Peter in Matthew 16 that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, “I will build my church.” If people are being won to Jesus and their church is growing faster than your church, why do you feel the need to bring them down as a way of bringing yourself up?
In the Early Church, even Gamaliel (who was part of the group that crucified Jesus) had the sense to tell his faith community to stop bashing the ministry of other people with the following words, what reason do we have to judge them?
“…in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” Acts 5:38-39
We show that we value theology more than people.
If you have thought of any of the following phrases when describing a mega-church:
- They are not concerned with absolute truth.
- They have a simplistic, watered-down gospel.
- They are Sunday-keepers.
- We can’t mix truth and error.
- What do they have to teach us?
- We should interact with them only as a means to convert them.
You have possibly fallen into the trap of making theology into an idol. In all of these statements, the implication is that theological knowledge brings you into a state of higher spiritual favor than other sinners, even among Christians. While no one would see themselves like that, it’s very common to the way we usually operate, and legalistic.
I’m like 99% sure that Jesus hears us say these things and his reaction in Heaven is…
When we expect God to be partial to or show favor to us strictly because of our obedience or law-keeping, (especially in relation to sheep that He may have in other folds) it reveals that I don’t really know either God or his law. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a proud Seventh-day Adventist. However, I’m not brave enough to believe that we have a monopoly on the truth.
So, for example, the Southern Union invited Ed Stetzer and Lee Strobel to speak at a conference where the theme was the Gospel and received criticism. There are times when it would make perfect sense to invite non-Adventists to speak on topics of common importance: the Gospel is one of them. It doesn’t mean that we have to shy away from Adventist’s distinctive beliefs either. Actually, by inviting pastors from other denominations to speak at our conferences, we avoid creating echo chambers of belief and practice. It also helps our public image when other denominations see that we’re not all weird.
We reinforce an unhealthy understanding of Remnant Theology.
We do know that there will be Sunday-keepers in Heaven, don’t we? We do know that the Sunday law is not currently the Mark of the Beast, right? We do remember that Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd,” right?
Sometimes, I think we mistake smallness for faithfulness and think that because we have empty churches that either the shaking is happening (and we’re on the right side) or that we’re preaching “Present Truth” in a way that is driving nominal Christians or heathens away.
Stop calling it “the shaking” when people leave your church. Sometimes, the church is unorganized, unloving, unchristlike and unapologetic about it. People have enough problems in their life for you to add to it.
I’ve gone on long enough. In the end, what is the solution to all of this? It comes down to three simple principles: Love people. Be self-aware. Grow in grace.