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5 Unfair Criticisms of Large Churches It’s Time To Drop

When you think of large churches and mega-churches, what comes to mind?

If there’s one thing I learned from writing about the church, it’s that some people hate megachurches. With a passion.

I try not to engage the trolls and the haters in the comments on my blog (engaging them just gives them what they want). But I’ve also noticed that even among normally more balanced and nuanced church leaders, it’s easy to take swipes at megachurches.

Sometimes I wonder how much of that is born out of envy, a sense of inferiority or simple misunderstanding, but after years of hearing people complain about large churches and megachurches, it might be good to re-visit the subject more intentionally.

A while back, someone left this comment on about some large church pastors who burned out:

Wish these guys would get wise and start obeying Scripture and follow the New Testament model of interdependent churches under presbytery rule with representatives. Of course these preachers get burned out. They’ve made themselves the lynchpins of megachurches. They should get burned out. It’s a bad model of church government on many fronts, and it’s actually from the mercy of God that these men burn out. Churches are meant to be small, tightly knit communities, not splashy corporations. You build a monster, you get devoured. Or you become a monster. Burnout of megachurch pastors probably saves souls.

Burnout of megachurch pastors saves souls? I wish I was making this up. But I’m not. Somebody actually wrote this.

Sigh.

Are megachurches perfect? No. But no church is perfect, including small and mid-sized churches.

Even on a simple logical level, saying all megachurches are bad is like saying all small or mid-sized churches are bad. It’s just simplistic and illogical thinking. And for the record, I’m a fan of small churches—of any sized church—that wants to reach its community.

There’s nothing wrong with small church. There is something wrong with dead church.

There's nothing wrong with small church. There is something wrong with dead church. Click To Tweet

And occasionally, when small churches start to reach new people, they become mid-sized churches. And then, before you know it, some of them become larger churches. Then what?

If you’re against church growth, you’re against the basic mission of the church: to reach people.

So what happens when a church starts to grow? Do you shut the growth down? Do you get bad at what you do so you stop reaching people? Or do you keep your churches smaller on purpose and multiply (by the way, that’s now called multi-site)?

The logical issues alone with slamming large churches are riddled with problems.

But it’s even deeper than that.

So here are 5 criticisms of large churches it’s finally time to drop.

If you're against church growth, you're against the basic mission of the church. Click To Tweet

1. It’s a one-man (or one-woman) show

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that a large church is a one-person show.

That’s because—quite naturally—most of us think of the founder or senior leader when we think of a large church (there are some large churches where that isn’t the case, but they’re the exception).

As a rule, most large churches hardly behave like a one-man or one-woman show. There are actually teams of highly skilled leaders around the point leader. Anyone who says a large organization is a one-man show doesn’t understand what’s required to lead a large, complex, let alone multi-site organization. You simply HAVE to have dozens to hundreds of capable staff and thousands of capable volunteers.

In reality, far more small churches are one-man or one-woman shows than large churches.

It’s far more likely that a small church or a mid-sized church (say 400-600) is a one-person show because it IS possible for the leader to do pretty much everything. That breaks down entirely once your church is larger than a thousand in attendance. In fact, your church will never sustainably grow to 1000 people if it’s a one-person show run entirely by the leader.

In reality, far more small churches are one-man or one-woman shows than large churches. Click To Tweet

While the reasons for Mars Hill’s collapse five years ago are complex (I talk about them in Episode 79 of my Leadership Podcast with Mars Hill insider Justin Dean), you can argue that it wasn’t sustainably built because it imploded when Mark Driscoll left.

But Newspring and Cross Point Churches have done very well under new leadership since their founding pastors left. For more on the encouraging story at Cross Point, you can listen to my interview with Kevin Queen and another with Cross Point’s senior leadership team members Drew Powell and Matt Warren.

And many other very large churches have gone through changes in leadership successfully. Southeast Christian grew significantly after its founder left and is now on the third generation of succession.  Christ Fellowship in Florida is thriving after its founder left. Gene Appel handed over a very large Central Christian Church in Las Vegas to Jud Wilhite, who has led it to unprecedented growth and expansion over 15 years.

People who say large churches are one-man shows don’t understand large churches. Period.

2. The people who attend are blind sheep

First of all, if you think the people who attend large churches are all blind sheep, why don’t you ask them if that’s the case? After all, it’s a pretty insulting accusation.

If you visit most megachurches, you won’t find blind sheep. You will find leaders. Actually, most often, you’ll find capable leaders—independent men and women who appreciate the level of purpose, thoughtfulness and mission behind many of today’s larger churches.

I’m not saying leaders don’t also go to small or mid-sized churches, but they also (perhaps predominantly) become engaged in large churches. Why?

Well, because great leaders tend to gravitate toward churches and organizations that are well led.

They want to be well-led in church because that’s what they’re used to in the marketplace and in life. Great leaders attract great leaders.

They’re used to leaders and teams of leaders who know how to make critical decisions, to advance a collective cause and who can lead and manage complex organizations.

By contrast, capable leaders avoid poorly-led organizations and churches.

Great leaders tend to gravitate toward churches and organizations that are well led. Click To Tweet

3. Big churches don’t produce real disciples

Of all the criticism, this one stings me the most personally, mainly, because it’s just not true. And while I haven’t led a gigantic personally, I’m founding pastor of a large church (1500) and this criticism always chased our ministry.

Start with the basics. What is a disciple?

Someone who has decided to trust Jesus as their Saviour. But how do you know whether they’re following Jesus?

Jesus actually gave us a very practical test that helps us tell. He simply said: “By their fruit you’ll recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?”

In other words, look at someone’s life for the evidence.

Knowledge, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, is not spiritual maturity. Knowledge makes you arrogant. And arrogance isn’t a mark of Christian maturity.

If you go to a megachurch, you will discover thousands of people whose lives look more like Jesus a few years down the road than they ever did before. You’ll discover people who have placed their faith in Jesus and who are being transformed by the love of God (and you’ll discover that in small and mid-sized churches too).

You know who isn’t being transformed by love? The critics.

Think about that for a while. And maybe worry about that as well.

Knowledge is not spiritual maturity. Knowledge makes you arrogant. And arrogance isn't a mark of Christian maturity. Click To Tweet

4. People don’t like attending large churches

This is a fun argument to spin because it sounds like what Yogi Berra said about a certain New York restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

While it may be true that there is a cultural trend toward smaller, the truth is people in continue to flock to megachurches.  Studies continue to show that megachurches keep getting bigger and there are more of them every year. And even a more recent study shows churches over 250 in attendance are more likely to be growing and seeing people become Christians.

Large churches are doing a better and better job of making things smaller too. The launch of new, smaller campuses and smaller worship spaces are models many megachurches are adopting.

The paradox is that large churches keep getting larger and smaller at the same time. Which is one of the reasons they keep growing larger.

The paradox is that large churches keep getting larger and smaller at the same time. Which is one of the reasons they keep growing larger. Click To Tweet

5. Megachurches are unbiblical

This is a common criticism of megachurches. People don’t like the lights, the structure or “CEO” style leadership.

I’m just not sure the argument stands up, though.

First, the critics of megachurches are rarely practicing what might be called ‘biblical’ forms of church. My guess is most don’t get up at 5 a.m. each day before work, get together with other Christians to pray and promise each other that they won’t cheat on their wives, that they’ll care for the poor and stay faithful to Jesus.

My guess is they’re not reciting ancient canticles, gathering daily in each other’s homes and radically pooling their possessions to care for the poor and help other fledgling churches fuel the rapidly expanding Jesus-movement. If they are, my hat’s off to them. This is probably a fair representation of the form of first-century Christian worship.

The reality, of course, is that the church has always changed, adapted and responded to changing times.

Organ music, now seen as traditional, obscure or even quaint, was the ‘radical’ new worship of the nineteen century.

It’s so easy to confuse the method with the mission and preferences with principles. The methods change. The mission doesn’t.

In fact, if you want to jeopardize the mission, never change your method. You’ll become irrelevant in a generation. Just Nest and Ring have changed home security, Lyft and Uber have disrupted taxis, Airbnb has changed the hotel industry and the way we vacation, it’s not that people gave up on home security, transportation or accommodation, it’s just that how we now do that has changed.

Ditto with the church. There may be a day where large churches are no longer an effective way to share Christ with others. If that’s the case, they’ll fade. In the meantime, though, if they continue to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus, why stop them?

If you want to jeopardize the mission, never change your method. Click To Tweet

A Different, Practical Approach That Can Help Your Church Grow

Getting a stuck church growing, or helping a church that’s reaching new people grow even further can seem daunting.

It doesn’t have to be.

Whether you’re a church that isn’t growing, has plateaued, or whether you wish your church was growing faster than it is, I’d love to help you break through. That’s why I created the Church Growth Masterclass.

The Church Growth Masterclass is everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

Naturally, I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that.

But I believe you can position your church to grow.

You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The 5 keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • 5 essentials for church growth
  • 5 disruptive church trends to watch—and how to respond
  • How to increase church attendance by increasing engagement.

The Masterclass includes a complete set of videos that you can play with your team, board or staff, PDF workbooks that will help you tackle the issues you’re facing, and bonus materials that will help you navigate the most pressing issues facing churches that want to reach their cities today.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

Thoughts?

Any other unfair criticisms of large churches?

Play nice in the comments, please. We really are going to be spending eternity together, and it would be good to start getting along now.

Scroll down and add to the conversation. We get better as we listen to each other and learn from each other.

16 Comments

  1. CA Jan on August 23, 2019 at 4:46 pm

    When you talk about ‘growth’ it’s worth asking where that growth is coming from. Research done on this (Ward, 2013) shows that overall Christian church attendance in the Western world is not growing, it’s shrinking everywhere, at a fast rate (in the developing world this is not the case obviously). What megachurches experience is ‘church transfers’, that is people moving from smaller churches to bigger churches, usually because they have bigger/more resourced youth groups/family ministries etc. It’s estimated that approximately 90 percent of large church growth is transfer growth, in other words rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s like when a fancy new shopping mall opens and ends up killing off the town centre shops. It’s not that there is a lot of new shoppers, it’s just the geography of where I shop that’s changed.
    Taking the shopping mall thing further, many megachurches resemble shopping malls, cafes and bookstalls included. A sociologist would tell you that the rise of malls and megachurches are connected by the same phenomenon, an entertainment/consumerism mash up. This model was great for the 80s/90s and early 2000s. How it will work in a fearful, climate-shocked, post-capitalistic, chaotic future world is something else entirely.

  2. S. Christoher Fischer on July 20, 2019 at 2:35 am

    I am sorry, but Mr. Nieuwhof is setting up straw men to knock down. While there are Biblically sound churches of more than 1000 people the VAST majority are completely compromised and do not preach the Gospel. Many (if not most) barely reference the Bible, using one or two verses out of context, and then preaching a message focused on themselves, or the temporal needs of the congregation. While helping the poor, and reaching out to the suffering are important missions fro Christians, the mission and message of the CHURCH is the Gospel. If a church doesn’t preach the Word of God as anything more than an out of context support for a secular or semi-theological statement they are no better than the likes of Arius or Montanus, who claimed to be Christian, but took what they wanted from the Scripture, but ignored everything else.

    As for your points, they are, as I said, strawmen.

    #1.) The “show” is focused on one (or two) individuals. If you look at the credits for a concert or stand up comedy program, there are often many people involved in producing the media. But you are there to SEE Joe Comedian or Jane Vocalist. That is the primary meaning of many critics of the Mega Church movement. And it is a very valid criticism.

    #2.) While there may be sheep attending these churches, many, if not most, have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and actually repented of their sins. Doing good, is a good thing, but the fruit is not the deeds, its the doctrine. A Muslim can just as easily be experiencing a life change and start living a moral and giving life, but they do not believe that Christ died for our sins, and rose in victory over death. Most who attend a Mega church are probably in the left hand group of Matthew 25.

    #3.) As you apparently don’t know, someone who is a disciple follows the DOCTRINE of a TEACHER. Being “transformed” may be a good thing temporally, but unless there is an actual spiritual rebirth, it doesn’t amount to much. The ONLY way for someone to actually follow Christ is to hear His full counsel, and that means actually teaching through the Word, and not trying to be relevant. People read and listen to the sermons and teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon. How many go back and re watch the sermon on the Batman movie from 2007. If you are relevant, you just become irrelevant faster.

    #4.) The people I know who wouldn’t like going to a Mega Church would provide the reason of too much entertainment, not enough Jesus. That is the MAJOR problem of most Mega churches (see above points for further detail).

    #5.) The fact of the matter is that Churches are supposed to focus on one individual. The person in the pulpit is irrelevant as long as his focus is on who it should be. One of the big problems with the form of Mega Church government is the lack of true accountability. A pastor can literally remain in the pulpit for years, making statements that are nasty or blatantly heretical, and unless they have a public relations disaster nothing will happen.

    Mr. Nieuwhof, if you truly wish for people to stop criticizing the Mega Churches, they need to start being churches again, and stop being businesses.

    • Raj on July 21, 2019 at 8:53 pm

      “A straw man is a form of argument and an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent.”

      @S. Christoher Fischer what you’ve listed above seems to be the actual strawman that Carey is trying to address which seems to be based on anecdotal than data based evidence. I could be mistaken, do you have any data that compared mega/medium/small sized churches with the below claims?

      Some of the claims:
      – “VAST majority are completely compromised and do not preach the Gospel”
      – “barely reference the Bible”
      – “many, if not most, have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and actually repented of their sins”
      – “the form of Mega Church government is the lack of true accountability”

      Is this your experience with a local mega-church or are you looking at data from a report? There are 1000s of megachurches, so would be really keen to see what data you’re looking at.

      • S Christopher Fischer on July 23, 2019 at 12:20 am

        I deliberately avoided naming names, but I have viewed and or listened to sermons from hundreds of megachurches, and very few even approach a closing gospel presentation in the last 5 minutes of a sermon. This is from my one personal research. Just look about on YouTube at the number of sermons that are based on the book written by the preacher and not on the Bible. Even if the pastor’s book is biblically sound, it shouldn’t be preached from the pulpit.

        Or look at all the sermons that are done on popular cultural phenomena (such as movies, television shows, popular novels, or special events like a circus or rodeo). These are all designed to “draw in the unchurched”. And they may be successful in bringing people in the auditorium for an interesting show . But how much time is spent preaching the Gospel, and how much time is spent entertaining people.

        The only way to eternal life is through God’s Word, and you have to hear it to receive it. How many people are just as destined for hell after the Movie Sermon Series DuJour as they were before hand.

        Have you ever watched the A&E series “Scientology and the Aftermath”? In it you see how the Church of Scientology is presenting all these statistics to their constituents, but when you actually research the true data it’s all smoke and mirrors. How many of the people who come forward after a sermon are still attending 1 year later? How about 5 years later? How many of them have a true understanding of the Gospel? Look at the WillowCreek survey from a few years ago, or Ray Comfort’s True and False Conversion.

        This is one of the biggest problems of the church today.

  3. THIAM MÉKÀ de GOGUENHEIM on July 6, 2019 at 8:14 am

    Dear Carey, I feel blessed reading this post of yours and thanks so much
    Jesus Christ sent us on mission: go and make all nations my disciples
    Personally I am working in building a choir of 600 female voices here in my community
    It’s a call, it’s a vision, so help me God
    Danielle

  4. Raj on July 2, 2019 at 9:14 pm

    “There may be a day where large churches are no longer an effective way to share Christ with others.” Carey, if in 10-50 years this is true, what do you think would replace it? Digital experiences? Home groups?

  5. Carol Harris on July 2, 2019 at 11:46 am

    Dear Carey, We are asked to not expect non-Christians to behave or understand our motivations and convictions as Christians. Far more challenging is standing firm in Him when other Christians don’t understand those same motivations or convictions–or criticize us.

    Perhaps if we approach it from a listening and empathetic stance, firmly rooted in Christ, rather than a defensive one? I have to believe that it’s a test to see how much love and grace we can sustain when we are under fire by, of all things, other Christians.

    I do not know the church in Canada—yet the church is till the church, regardless of location. In the U.S., the dark side is waging a huge initiative, convincing Christians that the church exists to meet their individual needs. We need to consciously decide not to participate in these efforts!
    We can expect that, when the human element in a church overshadows the divine, deep hurt and alienation follows…and some reluctantly decide to leave. In their pain, they find the easiest scapegoat—the church—and point to the most obvious: too big, too small, too diverse…not diverse enough. To make matters worse, many pastors show empathy and solidarity (perhaps in an effort to grow their own flock) by reinforcing this misdirected justification for change rather than point to the comfort and strength Christ offers in their choice of a new church home.

    My point? If we stay whole-heartedly focused on Christ, we have no time to address these misguided and misdirected criticisms. This is His battle. Those who criticize us need our prayer and, most of all, God needs our attention to his plans in those arenas where he has truly anointed us.

  6. John Pearrell on July 1, 2019 at 3:14 pm

    People who are against large churches obviously have never read the book of Acts. After the first meeting the church grew to 3,000. After a subsequent meeting they stopped counting everyone and just started counting men—at 5,000 strong. Most scholars hold the church in Jerusalem numbered 25-30,000. Which is why they got the attention of the Jewish leaders. The misconception of the “small house church” comment comes when they leave the large meeting in the Temple Courts and continue what started there “in their homes.” Sounds more like large church/small group structure then small church structure.

    Oh, and while there, Jesus didn’t travel around with just 12 guys in tow either. Every place He went we see large crowds gathering, so if we are going to complain, I guess we have to start with the Founder of the movement. Sigh

  7. Jacob Pannell on July 1, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I realized a couple of my own biases as I was reading. I always appreciate being challenged, and I am constantly worried about confirmation bias.

  8. Olutayo on July 1, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    what a wonderful post. I totally agree with you Sir. I believe megachurch is born out of total commitment and obedience to the great Commission, Go ye. A going small Church will surely become a megachurch some day. The is an organism so it must grow. The ministry of five fold spiritual gifts is more pronounced in the megachurch. Thanks.

  9. Chris C on July 1, 2019 at 10:13 am

    The first mega church sprang into existence when 3000 were added in one day. Kinda hard to say that mega churches are ‘un-biblical’…..

  10. Dennis on July 1, 2019 at 9:47 am

    Dear Carey,
    Good post. It stung a bit. As one who recently moved from a large church to a smaller one, I confess I have made some negative comments contrasted the small church existence against being in a larger church – for which I need to repent.
    My biggest issue is your comment: “If you’re against church growth, you’re against the basic mission of the church: to reach people.” This is where in my mind the shades of gray come in.
    The mega-church came out of the church growth movement of the ‘90’s which enabled the whole idea of the consumer Christian. I think it was you that said, “People think they are upgrading to first class when they go to a larger church.” That comment drips of Christian consumerism. Packing out a church is not the objective – it is making heart compelled disciples.
    If John 6:65 is true that God grants repentance, there is a cost both in not striving for salvation for all who are called (dead church) and in compromising to be bigger that the scope of the calling.
    That is not to say all large churches are bad and small is good, it is just that if I wanted to just come to church, sit on my hands, be verbally assured and wait for heaven, I would be in a large church. OK – that is the sin nature in all of us and these people exist in all churches and we all have a bit of it in us.
    I agree – We need to be willing to change methods and we need to stop comparing and get on with the family business of making heart motivated disciples.

  11. Steve S. on July 1, 2019 at 8:49 am

    As a pastor of a smaller church, I’ve heard similar critiques of large churches–many of them are unfounded. I think the struggle pastors and churches have with mega-churches is that it’s easy for congregants to leave small churches for the “bigger and better” mentality. Smaller churches are unable to compete and hurt moreso because they lack the same resources. So yes, I dont doubt there is some kind of envy with pastors. For me, I believe a church will grow if the church is prepared and the Lord is willing. If a mega-church is growing, I assume–perhaps somewhat naively–they are doing at least some things well.

    I agree with what you’ve said in this post; mega-churches are not inherently good or bad. However, this post appears to be a rant. You appear to play defensive throughout and as if you have a chip on your shoulder. As the old saying goes, and I’m sure you know well, “not every hill is worth dying on.” I’m not sure the subject was worth addressing.

    • Raj on July 2, 2019 at 9:19 pm

      I feel Carey definitely feels the sting with the criticism, which he believes is unfounded. I think subconsciously pastors could be self sabotaging their churches from growing or being larger themselves if they believe the above points.

      “it’s easy for congregants to leave” – that’s definitely painful, I wonder if it also works the other way for you? Where people that don’t feel connected at a larger church go to a smaller church?

  12. Tom Bozikis on July 1, 2019 at 6:31 am

    Dear Carey,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve attended both small and mega church services, and what I’ve observed is whether those churches are “Christ-led.” I’ve found in the mega churches withwich I’ve been acquainted, there is a diverse leadership structure in place with one purpose, and that is to make disciples. And the emphasis isn’t on growing by numbers, although as people come to the Lord, the church grows.

    I wonder when discussing a topic like this, is why a church isn’t growing. Is it because of poor leadership, or is it that the Lord isn’t leading it? It is my belief that a church that isn’t committed to the Lord and the major tenants of scripture won’t be blessed, and most likely, won’t survive. I think your example of Jesus’ example of getting good fruit from a bad tree can be expanded to unbiblical church organizations as well. Of course, this is a topic for a different kind of post.Tom Bozikis

  13. Rogba Arimoro on July 1, 2019 at 4:10 am

    Dear Carey, thank you for the interesting writeup. It allowed me get a glimpse into another side of the conversation.
    I don’t really agree with the reasons for some of your points but i totally disagree, in particular, with your last one. It’s true that most critics aren’t practicing the kind of Christianity that obtained in the Early Church but that doesn’t in anyway nullify the importance of that structure for today or mean that the church should not work in that way.
    I agree that times change and people adapt so as to remain relevant but adaption does not necessarily mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.
    Church was designed to be led by a plurality of elders and not one man. This was, asides other reasons, to ensure a balance of power and to ensure accountability. Having a one man led church organisation is dangerous and has led to a lot of disastrous consequences for the body of Christ over time. A church is about Christ and nobody else, the danger of the brethren elevating their pastor above Christ is real and has hurt, and continues to hurt, countless people (both pastors and brethren) till date. It is an old testament model and should not be practiced in an era where Christ has died for all and everyone has access to God.
    Do people need guidance and leadership? YES! But they need it from a group of people who can support each other and hold each other to account; not from a King-like figure who wields absolute authority over everyone else. It is totally unbiblical.

    Thank you

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