Many church leaders run for guidance to mega-churches like Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community in Chicago, Illinois and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The draw to mega-church conferences for these leaders is often a fear that their own approaches to ministry are not effectively reaching a postmodern world.
The fast and frightening pace of change in our culture easily causes traditional churches to feel as if they’ve lost touch — and many have. When their ministries are not effective, leaders who care ask questions about how to better “do” Church. Unwilling to become stagnant or to accept status quo, these leaders pursue new models for their ministries. And, since mega-churches give an appearance of success, leaders fill church vans and hit the highways in search of new ways to do church.
The churches attracting these leaders are, almost without exception, mega-churches with uniquely gifted mega-leaders. The desire on the part of these mega-churches to help leaders do a better job is praiseworthy. The mega-churches also have some great ideas for effective ministry. However, after years of offering leadership conferences and seminars, these Churches have sensed a need to warn participants not to mimic their methods. Those who try to duplicate the ministry of these churches are often disappointed. Their well-intentioned desire to revitalize their own churches is a good thing, but in many cases their efforts create more problems than they solve.
The reasons for this dilemma are important.
First, when these leaders return to their churches (energized by new ideas), they are in danger of forcing change. But an established church is easily threatened by new ways of doing ministry. Forcing new structures on churches promotes instability and uncertainty.
Secondly, those who attend the seminars often make the mistake of duplicating the product without the process. Leaders are wise to patiently evaluate their unique ministry communities before implementing new methods. Most of the mega-church leaders consciously developed a strategy in relation to their specific communities. Effective and long-term change, especially in more traditional churches, cannot be rushed. Leaders must prayerfully and thoughtfully evaluate new ideas and methods first to see if they align with the plan of the Master Builder of the Church, Jesus Christ, and secondly, in relation to their individual churches and communities.
Thirdly, when a leader hastily tries to change methods, Church members often interpret his efforts as an attack on their faith. Though often misguided, it is common for people to closely connect their faith with the traditions and methods of their churches. Leaders must help their congregations distinguish the unchanging faith from the methods used to communicate it. When this is accomplished, it is easier to convince people of more effective ways to do the work of ministry.
Finally, and most importantly, uncritical acceptance of mega-church methods is never wise. The leaders who attend these seminars would be wise to read some thoughtful critique of the movement before bringing the package home. Os Guinness’ book Dining With The Devil would be a good place to start. Douglas Webster’s Selling Jesus is equally valuable. All who desire to be effective in ministry must face the question of how to be relevant without compromising the demands of the gospel.
There is nothing wrong with new methods as long as Church leadership does not employ methods that put them at odds with the one who said, “I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18). Remember, we are calling people to follow Jesus, and he never hesitated to make known the demands of following him in the context of costly sacrifice. We must be careful not to mislead people into thinking that they can follow Jesus on their own terms.
It’s a good thing to be willing to innovate for the sake of the gospel but a word of caution is needed.
“when sociological reality is taken as the given to which church strategy and tactics must adjust, the church is in danger of becoming market-driven in an attempt to create a particularly attractive religious boutique to which all (or all within an identifiable market niche) are welcome and within which a variety of goods and services must be offered for personal choice.” (Joseph D. Small)
A Deeper Concern:
There is a more serious concern related the pursuit of new ways to do Church. Is it possible that this trend is an indicator of a much deeper identity crisis? Though it is not always the case, often leaders who attend these conferences lack confidence in ministry because they lack a solid Scriptural understanding of the church. A superficial ecclesiology inevitably makes leadership susceptible to insecurity and faulty understandings of ministry. Leaders must develop and teach a biblical theology of church. When God’s people are secure in their understanding of what scripture teaches about the church, they will be more flexible about changing methods. Revisit important NT texts like Acts 20; Ephesians 2:14-22; 4:11-16; Hebrews 3:12-14; 10:25-26; 13:17; I Peter 5:1-4. An investigative study of these passages will save you the money spent on a trip to the mega-Church.