Please attack, critique, tear apart where necessary. I have been deliberately provocative at some places – who, me? – and would like feedback.
By Rowland Croucher
I was told that at some point in the 1970s we at Blackburn Baptist Church (Melbourne) were one of three ‘Megachurch Congregations’ in Australia. The other two were AOG Pentecostal – at Mt. Gravatt in Queensland (Reg Klimionok, senior pastor) and Paradise in Adelaide (Andrew Evans). Others in the 1980’s and 1990s outgrew those three churches (including Crossway, the new name for the Blackburn Baptist Church, with up to 4,000 attending weekly).
Two definitions: ‘Megachurch’ for our purposes was 1,000+ attending worship services each week. (Many church consultants, following Lyle Schaller, tend put the figure at 700+). And a ‘congregation’ happens when more than 50% of Sunday or weekly attenders are part of a small study/prayer/ministry group: we had more than 60 small study/prayer groups and up to 30 ministry groups, with over 70% of Sunday attenders involved. ‘Aggregations’, as I use the term, describe churches where the majority of Sunday/weekly attenders are not in a small group: Australia has had several Catholic and Protestant ‘megachurch aggregations’ in the last 150 years.
There are now probably 50 megachurch congregations (1000-plus) in Australia, and, I think, no (non-Catholic) ‘megachurch aggregations’ (due, in my opinion, mainly to the advent of television: folks don’t have to travel any more to hear their favorite preacher). About four-fifths of these are Pentecostal/Charismatic, the others are Baptist and evangelical Anglican (8-10) and maybe a sprinkling of others: but probably no Uniting Church (except perhaps Wesley Mission in Sydney, and one in Adelaide), no Presbyterians, Lutherans, Reformed, Salvation Army etc.
How do congregations become megachurches? My cryptic/simplistic response in pastors’ conferences: ‘They do whatever it takes to get more people to come back again.’ They all have entrepreneurial leadership, a serious approach to training leaders and others for ‘ministry’, quality administration and music and communication/preaching (‘quality’ preaching in terms of ‘attractional’ style rather than theological quality, often: see the ACC channel on Foxtel for proof of this rider).
Churches, like modern retail organizations, come in four varieties: ‘corner store/parish’ churches; boutique/emerging churches; franchise churches; and larger megachurches. Parish churches are having a hard time: like mom ‘n pop corner stores, 70% are battling, 20% breaking even; 10% growing. Franchise churches (a la 7/11) follow a pattern from the mother church (and may become a megachurch – like Hillsong in London). ‘Boutiques sell nothing you need’ says Richard Rohr; but seriously, they cater for a specific clientele (like GenX single adults and young families), and often form in reaction to churches-as-institutions, so they meet in pubs or schools or homes, and have a very fluid organization. Megachurches can be compared to shopping malls/supermarkers, catering to a variety of people’s needs. Note those last 7 words: am I saying that megachurches grow in response to people’s perceived needs in a consumerist sense? Yes, of course. Which is why it’s silly to criticize megachurches for following that pattern, and still shop at supermarkets! And remember, all megachurches started smaller – from one of the other three models – and grew. Some megachurches are in city centres, or inner suburbs (Richmond AOG Melbourne, St. Hilary’s Kew), or outer suburbs (CityLife, Crossway, Melbourne), and one or two regional cities. I know of none in rural areas in Australia (though I’ve met a few in the U.S.).
According to U.S. researcher George Barna, 50% of avowed ‘Christians who openly declare their allegiance to Jesus as Lord’ (rather than being nominal) are not now in an organized church each week. Where do they ‘worship’? TV, radio, internet, homes etc. Why is that? Well, re TV, see an article I wrote 15 years ago – http://jmm.org.au/articles/4861.htm .
Is there anything intrinsically wrong with the megachurch model? No. There were two in the biblical record – the Israelites in the desert, and Jerusalem after Pentecost. Interestingly, we have two fairly identical prescriptions for organizing these large groups (Jethro to Moses Exodus 18, and the appointment of deacons in Acts 6).
Megachurches are often criticized for having too many ‘passengers’ who simply ‘warm a pew’ each week, and ‘don’t know too many others’. That is a half-truth. Of course you can’t know everyone in a large group (some folks would have wanted the conversions at Pentecost to stop ”cos we won’t know everyone’ – silly, eh?). But large churches generally do a good job of encouraging people to join small groups.
‘They steal from other churches’. Another half-truth. One response to this is a large church pastor’s retort: ‘We don’t steal sheep; we grow grass’. Most of the megachurches are actually giving people away: three of the largest congregations in Melbourne -CityLife, Crossway and St. Hilary’s – have each planted three or more churches in newer and inner suburbs. But, yes, at Blackburn we had more Anglicans attending than were committed to the local Anglican church. We didn’t deliberately set out to ‘steal’ these people, they just wanted to keep coming, and in a free country that’s hard to stop. We encouraged many to go back to their original churches, or at least to be committed there, and perhaps come occasionally to, say, our evening services if they wanted to.
‘Large churches are not healthy’. I’ve visited and preached at several Australian megachurches, and I would refute this generalization. Small churches can be sick and malnourished, yes; larger churches can be fat and unhealthy, yes. But not necessarily. I don’t think size is correlated with spiritual health at all – healthy and unhealthy churches come in all sizes and shapes. See my 100 Marks of a Healthy Church http://jmm.org.au/articles/8825.htm .
My critique of megachurches would be on other grounds:  They can be ‘monocultural’. Of the several ‘modes of worship’ in the history of God’s people, they practice only one or two (mostly ‘celebration/charismatic’). See http://jmm.org.au/articles/8601.htm for more generalizations like this. Monoculturalism can happen chronologically as well: sometimes megachurches do much more to segregate people into common-age/interest groups than mix them with those of a different theological persuasion or chronological age.
 More seriously, megachurches are prone to all the evils of institutions generally. Sociologist Robert Merton used to say that the evil in institutions is greater than the sum of the evil of the individuals within them. Some megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Brian Houston draw their congregation’s attention to the 1 billion people living in dire poverty, but I have yet to hear a public, serious critique of their respective governments for doing less than they should in terms of moving towards the .7% UN foreign aid target. Why would they criticize the party of the majority of their worshippers? Well, the short answer is that it’s easier to mention poverty statistics and engage in some ministries to the poor, than prophetically attack the systemic causes of poverty. Marvin McMickle has a brilliant critique of American pastors on this question (‘Where Have All the Prophets Gone? He asks. And his satirical response ‘To megachurches every one’ See http://jmm.org.au/articles/19588.htm ). In Australia I’ve been campaigning for Dawn Rowan, against whom the Commonwealth and South Australian governments have wasted more money then on bringing David Hicks home (see the channel 7 video on the frontpage of the JMM website