5 Unfair Myths About Megachurches It’s Time To Bust

When you think of megachurches, what comes to mind?

If there’s one thing I learned from blogging 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 more balanced 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 another set of cheap shots in response to my blog post on the recent exits of Pete Wilson and Perry Noble from their ministries, I thought it was time to engage the accusations that often come at megachurches.

To give you a sample of what megachurch leaders hear regularly, take this comment that was posted on my blog in response to my post last week:

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.

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.

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? 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 myths about megachurches it’s finally time to bust.

megachurch myths

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.

While the reasons for Mars Hill’s collapse in 2014 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 many other very large churches have gone through changes in leadership successfully. Southeast Christian grew significantly after its founder left. So has Christ Fellowship in Florida. 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.

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

2. The people who attend are just blind sheep

First of all, if you think the people who attend a megachurch 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.

3. Megachurches 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 megachurch personally, I have led a large church (1000+) 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.

In this post, I outline in detail why the chief characteristic of a disciple is love, not knowledge. We’ve falsely defined discipleship in this generation.

Knowledge, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, is not spiritual maturity. Knowledge makes you arrogant. Love transforms you.

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.

4. People don’t like attending large churches

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

While it may be true that Millennials love relationship and smaller gatherings, the truth is people in every demographic continue to flock to megachurches.  Studies continue to show that megachurches keep getting bigger and there are more of them every year.

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 why they keep growing larger.

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. The person going door to door selling encyclopedias is going to have a tough time in the future, especially given the fact that Encyclopedia Brittanica stopped publishing in 2012 after 244 years. It’s not that people got out of the information business, it’s just that how we consume information 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?

Want More?

If you want more, I outline 7 issues churches of all sizes need to wrestle with to become more effective in my latest book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow.

In the meantime, any thoughts?

I do welcome thoughtful comments. Toxic comments or rants will be deleted. (In my view, you’re not helping anyone with that kind of argument.)

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

26 Comments

  1. Alexi Hoehle on August 29, 2017 at 10:07 am

    It kind of makes me laugh when you insinuate a church will not survive a generation or two if it doesn’t change. Hmmmmm, Orthodox Christianity is the second largest church in the world, right behind Roman Catholicism, and the oldest form of Christian practice, starting at 33AD. The Orthodox faith is practiced in the manner which the disciples practiced. It does not change with the times, and I’d bet you’d have a harder time knocking the faith out from under an Orthodox Christian than any other of your 30 or 40,000 denominations. We have almost two millennia of Holy Tradition to stand on. At best, you have a few hundred years, or in the case of the non-denominationals, a few generations. Look at Orthodoxy-even persecution and the deaths of many priests and faithful under communism failed to stop it! in the past few years alone, over 5000 new churches have been built in Russia alone! I am here in America, and we have young people worshipping Christ at every service, along with their grandmothers and moms and dads. There are many many converts as well! God bless you and I hope I have not come off as arrogant, just trying to refute some of your ideas a bit.

  2. Tim Poole on September 26, 2016 at 11:27 am

    I embrace the church no matter what size it is. My concern is the mission that Jesus gave us to make disciples. Paul said that the last days will be filled with deceptive doctrines and those that are counterfeit Christians Matt 7:21. I worked with cults in years past and the primary reason most people end up in one is because of lack of maturity. When the church no longer equips the saints for the works of the ministry, but spoon feeds and entertains the masses for church growth and more numbers, it misses the point. I don’t care what it looks like as long as the mission to make disciples is preeminent. John 17 is very clear that his disciples would love one another and be as one in mind and purpose, comparing the union of Jesus to the Father. How can we be certain that we are his disciples if we are just there to spectate and be entertained without even knowing the person next to us? Without knowing the intent of God due to lack of maturity, we will swallow a placebo and feel very comfortable in our delusion because we are surrounded by so many doing the same. When there are leaders that refuse to speak on eternal judgement,( which is a elementary teaching of Christ Heb. 6:1), and have the biggest churches, then I get very concerned. I think we are being set up for the great falling away Paul referred to because we no longer love the truth and go on to maturity. Jesus said ” The one who endures to the end will be saved “. The gospel of comfort and entertainment has produced a church that is three thousand miles wide but only three inches deep.

  3. AllOnline on September 25, 2016 at 11:07 am

    I like the discussion that your post has started, Carey. I’ve noticed, on the “one-man show” point that this happens in most congregations–not because one person is actually running things, but because one person is the focal point. Only one person preaches and teaches, one person prays, one person is the “face” of the congregation, etc….and hardly any other person shares their gifts to edify the other people. And other such issues that happen with true one-person shows.

    How can we have congregations with effective leaders and still have all people participate in edifying others? I haven’t seen that happen yet, but I pray that I do.

  4. Mark on September 24, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    Carey, I “stumbled” across you blog site and enjoyed reading many of your past blogs. I think it’s great that you are bringing these topics up for discussion.

    Regrading “mega” churches, I have only attended one for about 6 months so I am anything but an expert on the subject however, my experience was that because it was so big, many of the “leaders” they had placed in charge of small groups, singles groups, etc were not trained very well and some, in my opinion, should not have been leaders at all. The one guy leading the singles group I attended (before I got married) actually suggested sleeping with someone first before you got married to see if you two would be a good “fit”. Many of the smaller group leaders would go out on Saturday nights as a group and get hammered at a local bar.

    This can happen to any church, anywhere, I get it, but when something gets that big, it’s hard for senior leadership to know what’s really going on………….

  5. Weekend Leadership Roundup - Hope's Reason on September 24, 2016 at 8:43 am

    […] 5 Unfair Myths About Megachurches It’s Time To Bust – Carey Nieuhof […]

  6. pastor robert on September 23, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Carey, I have heard the critique of “mega-churches” that they are more interested in building their own kingdom than planting churches and building the kingdom of God. What is your thought on that? I assume you’re going to say that mega churches typically plant more churches than smaller churches – but I didn’t know if you had any solid facts or stats on that?

  7. davetravis on September 22, 2016 at 9:04 am

    For a research based approach which includes all your answers – see our book “Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches” – Scott Thumma and I cover the ten most prevalent myths and respond using data from surveys of leaders and attenders. And hey, you can now get it on Amazon for a penny! (used)

  8. Thursday Picks ~ 9-22-2016 | Life on the Bridge on September 22, 2016 at 8:57 am

    […] 5 Unfair Myths About Megachurches It’s Time To Bust –Carey Nieuwhof 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 more balanced church leaders, it’s easy to take swipes at megachurches. […]

  9. Richard H on September 22, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Thank you! I think a lot of pastors don’t like megachurches because they wouldn’t have the skills to lead one, so lauding megachurches is, to them, the lifting up of a measure of effectiveness (large scale church growth) they can’t attain.

  10. Tim Kristianto on September 22, 2016 at 8:21 am

    This is a great article Carey! I remember one of my friends telling me that they only wanted their church to stay the same and not grow, because big churches are fake, I.e. Only care about growing. I’ve found the opposite.. being part of a mega church, I find churches grow because they are healthy. A healthy organism will continue to flourish, but an unhealthy one won’t. I find it hard to see fake churches being healthy..

  11. Lawrence W. Wilson on September 22, 2016 at 5:53 am

    Carey, this is a good reminder. It’s often hard to distinguish between our preferences and actual indicators of church health. I’m glad for you and other trying to move the discussion away from church size to church health. Better yet, the spiritual health of church members, which you mention here.

  12. Ryan Miller on September 21, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    Carey- I NEVER respond to blogs but I have to tell you that this post was awesome. My church plant is launching in 4 weeks and I have aspirations of reaching thousands of people with a life-giving church. Thank you for giving voice to those of us who want to reach the masses for Jesus.

    PS- your leadership podcast is gold.

  13. Chris Kuhne on September 21, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    I am one the founding pastors of a church that is considered “mega”, but we began with just a few families and a handful of college students. We never set a goal to be mega – only effective. But we were reminded in reading “Purpose Driven Church” that anything healthy grows. Pastors should never seek to put a lid on what God may want to do in a community – Who are we to govern his work that way. Leading mega is complex, hard, emotional but fulfilling all at the same time. I so appreciate the honest dialog you’re creating with this post.

  14. Tim on September 21, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Love your work, Carey.

    I’ve trained and pastor in Sydney, Australia – a conservative corner of the world, it must be said. I have often encountered this tension between small ‘faithful’ church and larger ‘pragmatic’ church, and it has always frustrated me. I think it (can) excuse poor leadership and an inability or unwillingness to follow through with the Mission Jesus gave all believers.

    There’s a lot more that needs to be said on the subject, but be encouraged that your blogs and podcasts are really helpful, even over here in Aus.

  15. Carson Pedraza on September 21, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    Yes! To all of this! I’ve been on staff at 4 different churches – 2 megachurches and 2 small(ish) church plants and they really aren’t all that different. Their challenges may be different, their approach may be different, they both have flaws and they both have strengths – they are also both the bride of Christ, led by men called to do so, who are simply doing the best with the knowledge and teams they have. The amount of time wasted insulting a different method of doing church breaks my heart (and delights the devil, I’m sure). Thank you for your timely wisdom, as usual.

  16. Crista on September 21, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    Really appreciate your voice on this topic–and so many others, too!

  17. Samuel Vanderwood on September 21, 2016 at 11:23 am

    Thanks for this Carey! It really breaks my heart to see people bashing other churches or church leaders, no matter why they do it.
    Kitchener has this amazing group called CityWatch, which is a group of church leaders who meet monthly to pray, worship and chat about what’s happening in our churches. Church leaders come from all different sizes, from the largest in our area to some of the smallest and from all different denominations.
    I think if instead of critiquing the things we don’t like, we prayed for one another and supported the other churches in our area, no matter if we agree with everything they do or not, the Church as a whole would be much better off.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 21, 2016 at 12:18 pm

      Love this idea and practice Samuel. Thank you!

  18. RWilliams on September 21, 2016 at 11:09 am

    “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”

    I love this! I wonder if there were naysayers at Pentecost… “5,000 is too much… how are you going to track all these people? How will you know if they are spiritually growing?”

  19. Brad Brinkley on September 21, 2016 at 10:54 am

    I think if you put any church, small, large, or mega, under the microscope, you will see the flaws. Megachurches are easy targets because they attract more eyeballs. My gut says that those who make the comments you outlined would probably get filleted if they went under the knife…

    A little background, I pastor a church that is a Open Network church that uses resources from Life.Church and Craig Groeschel. LC has been extremely generous to us, and having gotten the proverbial ‘peek behind the curtain’ I can promise you that it being a one man show is a huge myth. Craig is what people on the outside see, but he is the one I’ve learned from the least. The incredible leaders are a mile deep in that organization, and their heart for Jesus and spiritual intensity would put most of us to shame. As far as Craig goes, when you get to hear that guy in a no holds barred context, you quickly understand (and feel) why he is where he is. If people who attack guys like Craig put just a fraction of the work and intensity into the kingdom of God that he does, I believe that the church as a whole would benefit.

    I am hyper aware that a huge majority of the public communication coming out of LC rests on Craig. If he were to go down it would impact not only LC, but also all of the Open Network churches that have aligned with LC in content and vision. I can’t speak to the long term effect it would have on LC, but I can honestly say I think we would be better off than we were before our partnership with them. Our church is healthier, better led, and more spiritually intense as a direct result.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 21, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      This is a really insightful comment on multiple levels Brad. I know Craig also has Sundays where they have something like 72 different communicators at 72 different services. They’re into leadership development in a big way.

      • Nick Blevins on September 28, 2016 at 8:34 pm

        I would love an in-depth, behind-the-scenes walkthrough of how LC does leadership development. I’ve heard Craig reference some pieces, but I know there’s so much more we could all learn from. Obviously, I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me like it’s one of the biggest driving factors of their growth.

        Carey, you can make that happen, right?

        🙂

    • Jay Jones on September 21, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      This was an excellent response. I think I can combine the two thoughts and perhaps go slightly ahead with it.

      Our experience is with 12Stone in Atlanta. We came there as broken individuals, freshly converted outside of any church. We were immediately taken in and loved in a community setting that we had never experienced before. When we first started, the church was 4 campuses and we had no clue what a “mega-church” was.

      Over the next 24 months we helped pioneer one of 5 new campuses. We could drop names on many of the leadership, and I will in fact drop one. I have personally learned more about what a true leadership mind is from watching someone who is 110% genuine personally and professionally and that is Dan Reiland. The people around him radiate that, and it becomes contagious. These people love people, and they mean it. When they say “One Matters”, they live it, as do so many of the membership out in the wild.

      Now WE are the church planters of an online presence, and that is mostly possible because of Craig and LC’s most generous Open Network resources, and the Church Online Platform. I agree with your assessment of Craig and his team most fully. Our aim is something a bit different from both, as we are reaching into the homeless and nomadic community that we now find ourselves living in, but much of the drive, discipline, and necessary love was initially fostered by Christ, but molded into useful tools for the Kingdom by the very “mega-churches” that have been denigrated.

      At the same time, we can’t forget the smaller churches with pastors that are just simply a breath of fresh air, such as Gary Morris of Life Church Meridian in Meridian, Mississippi (not the same Life Church as Groeschel).

      May the Lord aid us in the harvest for His glory.

    • pastor robert on September 23, 2016 at 9:18 am

      Brad, can you give me some info on this? how did your church get aligned with LC? Did they approach you or vice versa? Does your pastor preach LC’s sermons, do you play a feed of Craig, or none of those? Are you still “autonomous” or do you operate as a “satellite” of LC? Thanks for your info! Not sure if i’ll be notified if you respond, so you can email me at r.a.hampshire@gmail.com

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