Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


On Seeker-friendly churches

posted by xscot mcknight

David Wells, in his new book Above All Earthly Pow’rs, points a big finger at megachurches and seeker-friendly churches for their approach to ministry — for “doing church differently.” He points to five factors leading to this new approach, and then critiques their church-growth-movement approach.
Here are the five factors that have prompted doing church differently, and I’m not sure many disagree here: humans need to be seen as seekers, evangelicalism is no longer growing, there is a new marketplace environment and there is also a new social environment, and there is the fear that if something isn’t done the church will become obsolete. Wells then weighs in (that’s a mild way of putting it) against the seeker church appropriation of a business model.
What I’d like to get your response to is his survey of the church-growth movement approach to doing ministry by appropriating the “homogenous unit principle” (like ministers best to like; niche ministries) and the “mechanism of conversion” (which refers to the fact that many think the fundamental obstacles to conversion are sociological rather than theological [he means humans as sinners]). His focus, though, is not on the latter so much as “niche” ministry.
He asks this: “Did the early church separate itself out into units of the like-minded in terms of ethnicity, class, and language as these megachurches have done?” (293).
Since I have attended the mother of megachurches (Willow Creek), and since I have gotten to know some of its teaching pastors, and since Wells mentions Willow (I don’t recall he mentions any others by name), I was most interested in what Wells had to say. I don’t know the research on some of this, so let’s try to make this a learning experience.
First, Wells means by “separate itself out” suburban churches that are comprised mostly of white suburbanites — affluent, cocooned from the rest of the world, etc.. Here’s his point about the self-conscious method at work in these churches: “Yet, when we set out with a methodology which we know will create churches that will be culturally, generationally, economically, and racially monolithic and monochromatic, something is amiss” (295).
Against this he counters with NT evidence of churches that are mixed — and that problems came from being mixed — and of evidence that the early Christians had churches made of all sorts (Gal 3:28) and that it evangelized all sorts. Well and good: I agree with each point. Except for this: I’m not sure we know the sociological make-up of churches as clearly as he says. Some would suggest that Paul’s letter to Rome argued that the Gentile Christians were supposed to be a whole lot more generous when it came to Jews and Jewish Christians. Still, Wells is right: the early Church was diverse (but it became very quickly Gentile as our messianic Jewish friends always point out) and it evangelized all kinds and its churches were most likely multi-generational.
I’m wondering what you think of the following:
Is monolithicism a problem in megachurches or a problem with most American churches? As I read Smith and Emerson’s book(Divided by Faith) and then the book that followed from that (United by Faith), I am struck by the fact that most American churches are racially, ethnically, and economically homogenous. In fact, the numbers are staggeringly frightful. 9o% of churches are 90% non-diverse. I measure progress here by whether or not the local church is like its demographic location or unlike it. I’d like to see stats that show megachurches are worse than non-mega-churches in this regard. Are they?
In other words, do megachurches reflect church culture or a megachurch particularity when it comes to this problem of being monolithic?
On top of this, Wells has a problem with the niche focus of megachurches — that they target a kind of audience, and they do so in light of McGavran’s principle.
Here are some questions for you:
Are niche ministries a bad thing? Sure, if the “church” itself becomes niche, then there is a problem — but that “niche church” (as I’ve already said) is characteristic of the American church. Still, I hold out hope for the value of niche ministries. I like those who minister to athletes and to businessmen and women’s Bible fellowship and 20somethings ministries — I like this. Why? Because it tailors the gospel into a context.
Do we really know that the early Christians didn’t have some niche ministries? In fact, we don’t. We don’t know how they did lots of what they did. I suspect they preached to anyone who would listen — if it was all men, they’d preach to men; if it was all women, they’d preach to women; if it was mixed, they’d preach to mixed crowds; if it was a bunch of philosophical types at the Areopagus, they’d tailor the message to them.
Are these megachurches learning about this? What I’m seeing at Willow Creek is a growing awareness that the church is too monolithic. So, what are we seeing? The growth of Casa de Luz, a ministry to Latinos. A close association with Salem Baptist in Chicago, a predominately African American church. A pastor who has put his reputation on the line for racial reconciliation. And Willow has knocked down Axis (its 20somethings ministry, which cleary was a niche ministry) and is forming more of a multi-generational church. It has an active ministry to the poor, and plenty of poor folks attend Willow.
Wells makes other points, and I’ll look at them in another post, but this one has focused on the homogenous unit principle as underlying the strategy of megachurches. It seems to me that this problem may not be a problem with megachurches so much as it is with all churches. In fact, I’m seeing signs at Willow Creek that it might be paving new ground for how to end the homogenous unit principle.



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Scott M

posted August 30, 2006 at 6:37 am


To me, it looks like the ‘megachurches’ tend to just make the already present culture of much of the American church obvious. It’s good to hear that Willow is intentionally trying to break that culture. It requires intention. Interestingly, it’s my observation that most RC churches don’t seem to suffer from this particular cultural influence.



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Norton

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:08 am


Thanks Scot. I’ve found that a large majority of the criticism of mega-churches is actually:
1. Criticism of most American churches, but since the weaknesses of American churches in general are so magnified in the mega-church, it’s easier to point at them.
2. Criticism of American culture. What do you expect from a church that is located in a geographical area where 95% of the people that live within 15 miles are white, middle-class, and educated? If the church looks that way, then they’re just doing a good job of reaching their sphere of influence. The real problem is why American culture is so segmented.
3. Criticism of themselves. Some church leader are simply frustrated at their own lack of growth/success and are inwardly jealous of the success of mega-churches. This often leads to resentment and thus the excessive criticism leveled at mega-churches.
At the end of the day, there are some legitimate issues mega-churches need to pay more attention to (just like all other churches). And hopefully, like Willow, they can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.



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Isaac

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:14 am


Not exactly on topic, but I’m wondering if there’s a connection between the ‘seperate itself out’ issue raised here and the ‘Neo-fudamentalism’ post from early. Wouldn’t the rise of Neofundamentalism just be the theology catching up to the praxis that already exists?



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John Lunt

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:18 am


I’ve been a member of two mega churches each ran around 5000 people and both of them were primarily populated with white suburbanites. There were a few people of color, but they didn’t make up a very large percentage of the membership.
I believe that American Christians go where they are “comfortable.” Everything in our culture seems to be about us and our comfort and most people are more comfortable around people they feel they are most like.
I am convinced that this will be the case until our identification with Christ overwhelms our physical and cultural identity. I’m afraid that wont happen until there is real persecution.
I don’t have a problem with niche ministries in general. It provides a way of connecting with unbelievers at a point of intersection of interest. However, I am concerned that the niche ministries tend to isolate themselves from others.
I don’t think the overall situation will change until there is real persecution in the church and we essentially get to the point where we need each other and identify with each other as in Christ. That’s one very major element that was present in the early church.



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RJS

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:49 am


Niche ministries are not necessarily bad. I think that they become bad when one of two things happens.
(1) They are built around generalizations about people that become defining and thus exclude those who do not fit within the framework of the generalizations.
(2) They create such a comfort zone that individuals are not being stretched by the necessity of interaction with a broad range of people as equals – across boundaries of gender, race, age, culture, and education to name a few.



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kent

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:52 am


I often wonder why such books are written, what the motivations are for writing a book criticizing the church for being what they do not appreciate? I live in a monolithic community, while we have some diversity in our ehtnicity, we have more so in economic background, but we do have that stepford appearance. But so does our community? Should we be more aggressive in reaching those who are different? Sure but I would like us to just be more aggressive in reaching anyone first.
10 milies to our west we have a large hispanic population that we do not reach. We have tried but they do not know us or trust us. Ironically it is because we come from Naperville, the reputation of our community is now the barrier.



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JohnO

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:54 am


We should not care about how many people are in the pews. We should care about how many people that are in the pews are REAL DISCIPLES. Who live according to Christ, obedience, faith, and preaching – throughout the rest of the week. Church needs to stop being a nice place to rest.



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John

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:55 am


There is of course the niche ministry of the early church to widows and orphans.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 30, 2006 at 7:58 am


John,
And (with Jesus) to the poor and marginalized.



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Josh

posted August 30, 2006 at 8:08 am


Along the lines of what Norton said in #2… While the monolithic nature of some churches (mega or not) is lamented for not expressing the same diversity of the NT church, in some cases this is certainly more reflective of broader culture than “Christian sub-culture”. My own experience was living in a suburb north of Dallas, TX on staff at a megachurch of ~5000. We were a mostly white (maybe 70% or more) middle-class suburban church, however this lack of diversity very accurately reflected the demographic of the community we lived in. As Norton said the segmentation (or fragmentation) happens at a much deeper level than the local megachurch… it turns out that while American churches are “counter-culture” on some things, they are “pro-culture” on reaching the demographic hand they’ve been dealt (and of course we’d expect that some things in culture are compatible and some need to be challenged). The question is do you think deciding that the monolithic demographic in a city is OK and working within that context is a bad thing? If so, what’s the solution (certainly a few have been tried in America and for the large part have failed)?
FYI: My difficulty at this church was not merely that it was monolithic, it was that it was very difficult to be in a meaningful missional community (with relational solidarity, people using their gifts…).



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jason

posted August 30, 2006 at 8:11 am


ditto #2. the fact is by and large american churches merely mirror the cultural make-up of american cities, which are still painfully segregated. in my town (columbus, OH) there are white churches, black churches, hispanic churches, and asian churches of every single size.
still, i think we have to recongnize that mirroring our culture in this respect is a failure. are we not called to be ministers of reconciliation? are not many of the causes of american segregation rooted in woundedness, exploitaiton, judgement, and mistrust? churches should be leaders of racial reconciliation in a country still suffering from inter-racial fear.
i’ll risk a little snickering from the gallery by venturing this opinion. from my perspective, in my town it seems the only churches having significant success with diversity ARE the megachurches. they’re the only ones with the influence to draw people from across many different, distant, and diverse communities, and the tend to have a long-range view of how to tackle this problem, often committing resources and ministries to this issue. small churches on the other hand tend to draw only from their immediate (highly homogenous) community, and can only afford to be concerned with short-range problems (like who will teach sunday school next week).



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Russ

posted August 30, 2006 at 8:13 am


I once led a “youth church within a church”. As we developed, we discovered we were decidedly niche. Our niche was the pierced, tatooed, punk kid. and we were good at reaching them. A quarter of our church was made up of teenagers and 9 out of 10 members of our student leadership came from unchurched families.
In the end, we became frustrated with church for 15 to 18 year olds. Separating along generational lines left our 19 year olds lost in the lurch.
Eventually the large suburban church we were a part of opted for a support style youth ministry where the youth ministry looked safe and took good care of the church’s kids.
And this is where I think the greatest danger of the church growth model lies: comfort. Come to think of it, that may be the greatest danger for any and all of our churches in America.



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Kevin

posted August 30, 2006 at 8:21 am


Scot,
Quite honestly I tire of the endless rants against megachurches. And in my neck of the woods, among “the educated, Christian professorial types(read–I’m afraid to say–”the arrogant”) it’s a kind of sport to bad-mouth Megachurches.
What I often find is that those who rant do so from a comfortable distance. They are largely ignorant of the actual ministry that emanates out of these churches. They look at Sunday morning and draw all of their conclusions from what they observe there and then. That’s not fair.
Now, that having been said, there are issues peculiar to megachurches that need tending to, but that’s true of every church and every individual Christian. (Other issues, such homogeneity of various sorts, is, as you say, a problem with all american churches.)
I’m somewhat familiar with Willow Creek (have a friend who pastors there)and somewhat familiar with Rob Bell’s church, Mars Hill (sneak in there somewhat regularly, actually) and while some are content to wrinkle there cynical noses at what they believe goes on at these churches, my experience with both the rhetoric of the ranters and the actual life of the churches suggests that there is a large disconnect between the two.
btw: I’m all for niche ministries so long as the human beigs targeted are situated in a larger context of diverse community. One of the blessings I took away from my “meagchurch” experiences in the 80′s was an every week house-church meeting where there were college students like me (20′s) learning from other members of the group in their 30′s, 40′s 50′s and 60′s even. We were a motley crew and it was a life changing, life giving experience for me.
Kevin



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Josh

posted August 30, 2006 at 8:24 am


One other questionâ?¦ For those that have been part of successful “niche ministries”, have you also seen success in church-wide unity so people felt that “we are all in the same church” (maybe demonstrated by good assimilation/retention as people moved out of one demographic and into the next)? If so, how was this encouraged and accomplished? Did you also have intergenerational involvement crossing over these various “niches”?



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David

posted August 30, 2006 at 9:41 am


JohnO number seven hit the nail on the head. There were a lot of multitudes following Jesus but very few real disciples. Although the megachurches may be drawing people in………why is it? Why do people buy happy meals? It is convenient, the cost is reasonable and although it is not completely nutritious it appeases our hunger. Nice people fill the pews, contribute financially and help churches feel good about themselves because they are “popular.” Are churches teaching people how to die?
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.” John 12
I have been to Yoido Full Gospel church in Korea. It has at the time I was there over 700,000 members. The key to the church is not the happy meal approach but rather to integrate all of the members into a home church where individuals can work out their faith. I beleive that the thrust of people attending is that they were first invited to a home bible study and I think that they even go so far as to break up the neighborhood into quadrants and their goal is to ask everyone………would you like to come to the bible study and become involved in our group? Here is a quote from the book Successful Home Cell Groups by the minister Paul Yonggi Cho which illustrates a key point that I will add to the discussion.
“One of the major problems of society today is the depersonalization of human beings. With the increases in population, everyone becomes just a face in the crowd. Many books have been written about the difficulties people are having trying to cope with this depersonlization, in which they see themselves only as numbers. They feel alienated, lonely and aimless.
This problem has also found its way into many of our churches, particularly larger ones. Many of the dynamic larger churches have been built on the strong personal preaching minsitry of an annointed man of God, whose teaching and encouragement are so needed by his parishoners. People are hungry for the Word of God and for the assurance that God considers them more than mere numbers. Yet while they are hearing words of encouragement from the pulpit, they are experiencing church
much the same thing as in secular life, they are mere spectators.
It is true that in many of these churches some of the members of the congregation are involved in a limited way in meaningful group activities and relationships. There are Bible studies and prayer groups, but usually only a small percentage of any congregation is involved in such groups. And sometimes in these groups there is little opportunity for personal involvement, particularly if the group is a formal Bible Study class. The initial enthusiasm of new members gradually wears off and eventually they become only Sunday Christians-even in some very alive churches.
Home cell groups, on the other hand, provide a real opportunity for people such as these to find meaningful involvement in the life of the church. Not everyone can be an elder or a deacon in a large church; not everyone can teach a Sunday school or provide counseling. But with home cell groups there is an opportunity for everybody to become involved.
In cell groups they are no longer numbers; they are people individuals. A person who comes into the cell group discovers he is an “I” and not an it. In home cell groups each one has the opportuntiy to be used by God to minister to the others in the group.
Our church carries out evangelism primarily through the home cell group system. Each cell becomes a nucleus of revival in its neighborhood, because the cell group is where real life is to be found in the neighborhood. When the home cell meeting is full of life, and when people are happy and sharing thier faith and witnessing to what the Lord has done in their lives, other people are drawn to them.
I apoligize for the length but felt someone may get something out of this. I think megachurches are great but are they making disciples and keeping people from feeling like a number.



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Rick Meigs

posted August 30, 2006 at 10:31 am


If the Body of Christ in a given location is being obedient to Him, faithfully proclaiming the Word, and reaching their communities, we should celebrate them, not disparage what God has called them to be and do. It is not appropriate to criticize an approach to ministry accept through an examination of the fruit that approach produces (which is part of what JohnO and David are saying I think).



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ChrisB

posted August 30, 2006 at 10:42 am


I do worry about over niche-ification, but the race divisions occur pretty naturally. In Houston, small neighborhood churches reflect their neighborhood to a large extent, but each ethnic group has its own qwerks. We don’t have “Asian” churches. We have Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese — and their services are performed in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. I have never seen, though, and El Salvadoran or Mexican church — they are simply Spanish-speaking. (Notice a pattern?)
Black churches are a different animal, though, and I think there is a good reason why. I read once where someone pointed out that charismatic churches tend to have more blacks than other evangelical churches and it finally hit me: Compared to the traditional black evangelical church, most white evangelical churches are boring. Megachurches, though, tend to have a little more enthusiastic worship services (even if they have to have it as a separate service) and so tend to have a few more blacks (though still fewer than other minority groups).
Having realized this, I’m less concerned about self-racial segregation of our churches. I think we’re missing out, but I think it is a natural thing that does not necessarily originate out of racism. If people want to have their worship services in Mandarin, let them. Rather than push our churches to “desegregate,” I’d suggest we push them to try to work together outside of Sunday morning (e.g., intra-city outreaches, mission trips).
The other niche groups at a megachurch can, conceivably, lead to a loss on the part of the individual believer and probably the church community as a whole. In a church of thousands, your only interpersonal contact tends to occur in niche groups. Thus I know lots of couples in their late 20s to early 30s with small children. And I don’t know anyone who’s single or has teenagers or grandchildren or who is a teenager. Its that intergenerational thing that’s starting to get so much bandwidth, and I do think I’m probably missing out. (I’d like to think they’re missing out too:)
Anyway, to answer the question: “Is monolithicism a problem in megachurches or a problem with most American churches?” I think megachurches are probably less “monolithic” racially and more monolithic in every other sense. Smaller churches are the reverse.



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Jacob

posted August 30, 2006 at 11:20 am


In #5 RJS hit some key factors, including: do they become exclusive, and do they “comfort” us into insulation from others (note: that’s my synthesis).
In #9 Scot hit on Jesus’ niche ministry focus on the poor & marginalized.
Here’s two related questions:
(1) Can we approve a ministry which does not include some focus (at least outreach) toward those who are needy? (2) Can we approve of a ministry which encourages being comfortable with being anonymous from others in the body of Christ?
Both of those questions need to be considered in terms of the individual, not just the congregation. Those are basic discipleship issues, IMO.



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Mark Van Steenwyk

posted August 30, 2006 at 11:27 am


I agree that megachurches are not unique in being homogeneous. However, a handful of “flagship” megachurches have, in the past, been self-reflectively and intentionally homogeneous. It is one thing to be accidentally homogeneous, it is quite another to do it intentionally. And then to take your intentional homogeneousness and publish books, articles, and other training materials to do likewise is neglegent.
I don’t have a problem with niche ministries within the larger church per se, but they aren’t the ideal. I think such ministries should be an intermediate step between the current cultural segregation of the church and more perfect expression of diversity.
Willowcreek, which has perpetuated the Homogeneous Unit Principle in America more than most churches is right to change its direction. I doubt it will have the same influence in this new understanding than it did with its old understanding, but I’m glad they’ve come around.



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Craig

posted August 30, 2006 at 12:43 pm


Rebecca Barnes has a interesting article on a study by the Leadership Network and the Hartford Institude for Religion Research. The â??large churchâ? phenomenon in North America is an easy target for religous anti-WalMart-esque commentary. Barnes notes that instead of bashing large churches we would do well to learn from what they might be doing right. I subscribe to the idea that we need all kinds of churches for all kinds of people in all kinds of places. So I am not suggesting that all churches must be mega; however, I do believe that studies like this counter the proclivity of outsiders to believe that anything BIG must be stained by compromise. It is interesting to note in the study that the trend is for megachurches to establish themselves in suburban areas. I would like to see a thoughtful article on the limits an urban setting creates on the mega-phenom. The eleven myths:
MYTH #1: All megachurches are alike.
REALITY: They differ in growth rates, size and emphasis.
MYTH #2: All megachurches are equally good at being big.
REALITY: Some clearly understand how to function as a large institution, but others flounder.
MYTH #3: There is an over-emphasis on money in the megachurches.
REALITY: The data disputes this.
MYTH #4: Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about Christianity.
REALITY: Megachurches generally have high spiritual expectations and serious orthodox beliefs.
MYTH #5: Megachurches are not deeply involved in social ministry.
REALITY: Considerable ministry is taking place at and through these churches.
MYTH #6: All megachurches are pawns of or powerbrokers to George Bush and the Republican Party.
REALITY: The vast majority of megachurches are not politically active.
MYTH #7: All megachurches have huge sanctuaries and enormous campuses.
REALITY: Megachurches make widespread use of multiple worship services over several days, multiple venues, and even multiple campuses.
MYTH #8: All megachurches are nondenominational.
REALITY: The vast majority belong to some denomination.
MYTH #9: All megachurches are homogeneous congregations with little diversity.
REALITY: A large and growing number are multi-ethnic and intentionally so.
MYTH #10: Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming.
REALITY: Megachurches grow because excited attendees tell their friends.
MYTH #11: The megachurch phenomenon is on the decline.
REALITY: The data suggests that many more megachurches are on the way.
Read the article from the Leadership Network: http://www.leadnet.org/news_02032006.asp You can download the whole study from leadnet at the same site by supplying some info and agreeing to answer a survey.



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Erika Haub

posted August 30, 2006 at 12:49 pm


Thanks for this discussion, Scot. I have been wrestling with some of these questions lately, especially as one laboring in a ministry that is the opposite of a homogenous church growth model. For me, I have been seeing two different paradigms of conversion/discipleship that inform this.
The first paradigm emphasizes reaching the lost, numerical growth as significant, and a huge commitment to seeker-appeal as that which demonstrates a “we love the lost” mentality. For these churches, maximizing people’s comfort and emphasizing what is culturally normal and easy for people is seen as a good means for getting people into the church so that they can convert. Then, later on, after people have been given the chance to learn and grow as believers, THEN there is the invitation into the more costly elements of life as a follower of Christ (saying no to comfort and some cultural norms). For these churches, the methods don’t matter so much as long as people are coming through the door to hear the gospel and be saved.
The second paradigm says that the very ways that the gospel is different from the culture should be the thing that draws people into the church (different races worshipping together and enjoying meaningful relationships with one another, for example). For these churches, the method IS part of the message and there is a greater emphasis on conversion as inviting people into something alien and costly, with less of a concern for rapid growth.
I donâ??t know if anyone else has experienced this, but it seems true in many of the situations I have encountered. And I think it is where I have most seen the finger pointing: â??we love the lostâ? vs. â??we preach a costly discipleshipâ?.



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:mic

posted August 30, 2006 at 1:33 pm


Looks like some good points to an important discussion. I would personally echo the oft-stated sentiments of this being a reflection of where we have churches placed and would follow with the admonition not to let it come in the way of overall unity within the body of believers.
Here’s my further question, however. . .does this topic move toward the issue of programming strategic approaches to church? In other words, if we desire to allow churches like Willow to ‘get off the hook’ from such criticisms (valid or not) because of their unique socioeconomic makeup, then should Willow be mass producing church evangelism and curriculum tools for the wider church as a whole? I know that my own demonination is starting to promote Hybel’s new book on evangelism – yet, it will not directly impact the situational needs of most of the churches in my immediate conference.
I suppose I’m trying to say that as far as churches go, we need to be more objective in our evaluation of each other. In the context of the larger discussion surrounding Willow it appears as though staunch proponents of the church want ot have their cake and eat it too!
And if this is indeed the case, I have followed another trail in a previous and separate post (http://hereticsanonymous.blogspot.com/2006/08/quotient.html).



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John Alan Turner

posted August 30, 2006 at 2:22 pm


Scot,
There’s a strange underlying presupposition to Wells’ argument. Namely that the churches in the New Testament are supposed to be our pattern on this.
I agree with you that we don’t really know how diverse they were and whether or not the diversity was reflective of their societal context. But why are we looking to them as examples of what church should be in the first place?
Jesus had some interesting things to say to them in the first bit of Revelation. I’m not sure we want to copy their methodology.



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Mark Van Steenwyk

posted August 30, 2006 at 3:12 pm


mic…I think your point is an excellent one; we should ask whether or not it is appropriate for Willow to be producing tools for the church as a whole. One need not conclude that Willow (or any other megachurch) is evil to ask such an important question. I think the reason that so many folks like myself are irritated by the influence of Willow isn’t because Willow exists, but that Willow has such influence. To elevate the megachurch as a model is to assume that the megachurch is a better model of church. I think this is the issue for many, not the evil-ness of the seeker megachurch.
John, I don’t think that we should mimic the pattern set in the NT, but we should seek to understand the theology that informs that pattern and then seek to give expression to that theology within our own contexts.



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chad

posted August 30, 2006 at 3:44 pm


unfortunately i think you are right in your assessment of “most” American churches; that is, most are monolithic. however, should churches be started and planted that continue to reflect this cultural blemish? shouldn’t new churches try and break this tendency rather than perpetuate it?
furthermore, i don’t know if you’ve read Marva Dawn’s books Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down or A Royal Waste of Time, but her arguments against seeker sensitive churches are quite compelling…



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Brian

posted August 30, 2006 at 4:16 pm


Scot,
My thoughts here are scattered because so much has already been said.
One advantage of niche ministries is that they are easier to advertise. What they are about and whom they are designed for can be clearly stated.
While I would not say they are bad, there are inherent weaknesses to niche ministries. One weakness is that they group people who have both the same needs and the same shortage of resources. The last thing a newly divorced person needs is to be taken out of a group of married people and put in a group of other divorced people, but I have seen this happen.
A second general weakness is that they tacitly teach us that it is okay to ignore those who are unlike ourselves. This can allow partiality to take root. We forget how to relate to those who are in other niches. A significant movement in Christian maturity comes when we learn to love those who are unlike ourselves.
The homogeneous unit methodology overlooks one significant group of people – those who don’t like being confined to a homogeneous unit. That is one reason why I have never been at home in a large church.
The body of Christ is diverse by design. The dynamics of that diversity need to be given room to operate.
In short I would say as a generalization that niche ministries should operate with the intention that Christians will mature beyond the niche.



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phil

posted August 30, 2006 at 4:28 pm


Church-growth principles were derived for missions use, and only later applied to the american church. Probably because for one, americans tend to want everything for themselves, and two it works. However, in the context of missions, the homogenous unit principle is necessary and works perfectly because of the strict segregation in most of the two-thirds population window. tribes and villages are seperate, autonomous units often in conflict with surrounding tribes. so megachurches would never exist for that reason there, and the other is the intention and emphasis on church planting as means of expansion brought forward by McGavran in his church-growth principles. so to use church-growth against megachurches is out of line and quite possibly invalid.
on another note, it has been my experience growing up in suburban, some rural, mainline, and none of them mega churches, i have see more homogeny and what seems to be racial exclusivity in those churches more than the megachurches i’ve either been involved with or visited. i think the size and resources available to most megachurches allows them to actually reach broader not in the name of attendance growth, but in justice and equality. there is a reason churches grow, and just because they attract a certain type of person that may or may no be in their control. megachurches have the ability to spread further into other communities and reach people who would otherwise not attend church, and why should anyone be condemned for that?



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kent

posted August 30, 2006 at 4:28 pm


Why does every church have to look the same? Some are diverse others are monolithic. Some are niche and others are generalists. They are all churches. They do the work of the kingdom. How theologically diverse do you see churches? How often is Southern Baptist integrated with a UCC church or with a Vineyard church?
I only wish my congregation was as impactful as Willow or Salem baptist. Don’t we have better things to do with our time than criticize a church we don’t like? No thank you Mr. Wells you can keep your book, not interested.



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JACK

posted August 30, 2006 at 5:28 pm


In terms of being monolothic, I have to say, from my experience that’s a complaint far truer of American protestantchurches than American churches in general. For example, every Catholic parish I’ve ever belonged to (including some whose membership were quite large (what’s the definition of “mega”?)) were typically as diverse as their geographic surroundings. I live in a very diverse community and my parish reflects that to a tee. Heck, usually, between my pew, and the pew in front and behind me, there’s often native speakers of some 4 different languages.
So I’m curious if some of that tendency has something to do with the non-territorial concept about church membership that most protestants have. (By that, I mean, most Catholics, whether they do attend there, feel that the church they should be attending is the one in whose territorial boundaries they live.)



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Mark Van Steenwyk

posted August 30, 2006 at 5:35 pm


Jack…great insight. If a church doesn’t determine its mission geographically, then what else does it use but a “demographic?” Many, if not most, of my evangelical friends and collegues are puzzled by my church’s geographical committment to a particular neighborhood. They simply don’t understand why we don’t have a particular “type” of person we’re trying to “reach.” Part of the exciting thing I see happening within the emerging church discussion is an evangelical retrieval of the parish model.
Such a model is problematic to seeker-driven churches, since such a model isn’t based upon who shows up. My wife rather cleverly refers to our church a “finder driven church.”



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Brian

posted August 30, 2006 at 8:39 pm


Jack and Mark,
The geographical/parish issue is a great one. Thanks for bringing it up.
I would argue from John 17 that since the unity of believers is something that can be observed by the world, then there should be an assumption that believers who live in close proximity will worship together. Ecclesiastical structures that work against this need to be reconsidered. There needs to be an expression of the body of Christ where people actually live.



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Bob Robinson

posted August 30, 2006 at 9:17 pm


Scot,
Having been involved in a number of mega-churches in my time in ministry, I must say that I am in agreement with you here. It is not good exegesis to read back into the fledgling church this utopian ideal of diversity and smallness, as if largeness is evil and niche ministry is unbiblical. I seem to remember Peter preaching to a over three thousand at Pentecost.
There are good megachurches and bad megachurches. I’ve seen some match the stereotypical trappings of the megachurch “show” with little depth and little true community. I’ve seen others that are constantly seeking to change and innovate and truly disciple and serve in order to be Christ to their community.
I cannot see how “Niche Ministry” is ontologically evil. Paul said “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” What is wrong with churches doing the same? Megachurches have the ability to offer a variety of niche ministries. I know of smaller churches that had realized that they themselves had “niched” themselves, and therefore they intentionally planted a church in a neighborhood nearby so that they could reach a different demographic. I applaud this kind of church planting strategy.
We have to face the reality that local churches proclaim Christ in local contexts by people who can reach that particularity. And that’s okay.



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bill victor

posted August 30, 2006 at 11:06 pm


I would posit that there were niche churches. I believe several niche churches evolved out of the voluntary associations, which were cliques of like minded tradesmen and women.



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Brian

posted August 31, 2006 at 7:58 am


I’ll take up the other side from Bob on this one. In the western world today we have a milieu that is not envisioned by the NT writers. We can therefore expect difficulties in how we do or do not transfer what the early church did to our day. I respect those like Bob and Scot who see things as they do.
At the same time, within the NT there are already apostolic traditions that are being passed down, even cross culturally from the Jerusalem church to the Greek churches. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church about the Lord’s supper are a case in point. It would appear that the NT writers intend in some measure to establish a culture or set of practices within the churches. There are a number of well written articles on this topic at http://www.ntrf.org/. (These articles are from a house church perpsective. My own is a more toward neighborhood churches.)
Why do some of us see it as inconceivable that the NT writers might say that local churches are supposed to be small? (Yes, there should be larger gatherings as well.) Would Paul have accepted a shift from “when one member suffers the whole body suffers” to people suffering anonymously in the back row? Would he have easily given up on one loaf and one cup? In light of the “equality” of 2 Cor. 8:14 would he have accepted having the richest Christians in history spending vast amounts of money on real estate and bricks for their church buildings? I’m far from convinced that he would have. I suspect that we are sometimes a little too quick in saying “that was just cultural.”
A great deal of good is being done by believers in various mega churches. I commend them for their labors in the Lord that are done in faith and good conscience.



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J-Marie

posted August 31, 2006 at 8:44 am


“I think megachurches are great but are they making disciples and keeping people from feeling like a number.”
I think individuals place too much emphasis on the Church being the one to be responsible for spiritual growth, I mean yes they are, but I feel the individual’s responsibility it much more than that. Sometime’s you need to be your own discipler and find the available resources & tools to grow….(yes, the Holy Spirit and the like….)
I think you can allow yourself to become a number, or you actively seek community. The newcomber has to take an active role in this.



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JACK

posted August 31, 2006 at 10:19 am


J-Marie:
You raise a fair point in your first paragraph and one I commonly hear. However, I think it also needs to be understood that that represents a very specific type of understanding of what the Church is. That’s a view only possible with certain ecclesiological perspectives. For others, that distinction drawn between Christ and His Church is just not possible.



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Matt

posted August 31, 2006 at 11:58 am


Scot,
Very good discussion here. I would agree that it is American Churches that are mostly homogenous, not mega-churches. But, what is the catalyst? Is it that American churches have this problem, therefore mega-churches are just a larger representative of it? Or is it that mega-churches have assumed the position of mentor to all churches, since they are seemingly successful based on numbers, therefore the smaller churches are taking their cues more and more from the larger ones?
Also, I am of the opinion that the churches do match their communities diversity in this sense: African-American churches remain homogenous; so do white churches; so do Hispanic churches…in other words, our culture is divided up into these groups that do not naturally socialize together (for the most part), and our churches represent this. I say naturally because I recognize that there is forced diversity all around due to politically correct movements.
I don’t believe this is how it SHOULD be, I believe this is how it is. I do think though, in regard to a vision for the church, that it should be the trailblazer for a different kind of society that is richer in ethnicity than the culture that surrounds it.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 31, 2006 at 1:26 pm


Matt,
Definitely megachurches do not establish the segregated church; that has characterized the American church since the beginning.
They may aggravate if they exclusively target singular groupings of people.



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Peter Bremen

posted September 1, 2006 at 6:00 pm


>”Iâ??m wondering what you think of the following:
>
>Is monolithicism a problem in megachurches or a problem >with most American churches? As I read Smith and >Emersonâ??s book(Divided by Faith) and then the book that >followed from that (United by Faith), I am struck by the >fact that most American churches are racially, >ethnically, and economically homogenous. In fact, the >numbers are staggeringly frightful. 9o% of churches are >90% non-diverse. I measure progress here by whether or >not the local church is like its demographic location or >unlike it. Iâ??d like to see stats that show megachurches >are worse than non-mega-churches in this regard. Are >they?
>
>In other words, do megachurches reflect church culture >or a megachurch particularity when it comes to this >problem of being monolithic?
>
>On top of this, Wells has a problem with the niche focus >of megachurches â?? that they target a kind of audience, >and they do so in light of McGavranâ??s principle.
>
>Here are some questions for you:
>
>Are niche ministries a bad thing? Sure, if the â??churchâ? >itself becomes niche, then there is a problem â?? but >that â??niche churchâ? (as Iâ??ve already said) is >characteristic of the American church. Still, I hold out >hope for the value of niche ministries. I like those who >minister to athletes and to businessmen and womenâ??s >Bible fellowship and 20somethings ministries â?? I like >this. Why? Because it tailors the gospel into a context.
>Do we really know that the early Christians didnâ??t have >some niche ministries? In fact, we donâ??t. We donâ??t know >how they did lots of what they did. I suspect they >preached to anyone who would listen â?? if it was all men, >theyâ??d preach to men; if it was all women, theyâ??d preach >to women; if it was mixed, theyâ??d preach to mixed >crowds; if it was a bunch of philosophical types at the >Areopagus, theyâ??d tailor the message to them.
>Are these megachurches learning about this? What Iâ??m >seeing at Willow Creek is a growing awareness that the >church is too monolithic. So, what are we seeing? The >growth of Casa de Luz, a ministry to Latinos. A close >association with Salem Baptist in Chicago, a >predominately African American church. A pastor who has >put his reputation on the line for racial >reconciliation. And Willow has knocked down Axis (its >20somethings ministry, which cleary was a niche >ministry) and is forming more of a multi-generational >church. It has an active ministry to the poor, and >plenty of poor folks attend Willow.
>Wells makes other points, and Iâ??ll look at them in >another post, but this one has focused on the homogenous >unit principle as underlying the strategy of >megachurches. It seems to me that this problem may not >be a problem with megachurches so much as it is with all >churches. In fact, Iâ??m seeing signs at Willow Creek that >it might be paving new ground for how to end the >homogenous unit principle.”
The only megachurch I ever attended (if 1,500 is “mega”) was racially/culturally diverse. It may even have been the only megachurch in that area (Montgomery County Maryland, suburb of Wash.DC.) Actually, it grew fast from 600 to 1,500 while we were there, and built a facility designed for 2,500.
With regards to your questions, Scot, it is noteable that the suburbs of Wash.DC are rather culturally diverse… well at least in the area of this church. I guess. I think that we were mostly pretty well-off folks, though. So, you had professionals who were Oriental, African-American, probably in propertion to the population. But you probably did not have as many lower-middle or lowerclass people as a segment of the population… well how would they get there anyway – commute from far away?
Down the road was a Chinese Bible Church. I was glad that was there; I wanted to go – but not my wife. Oh well.
With regards to niche ministries, I am sure glad they are there. Immanuel’s Church had alot of small niche ministries within it. Why wouldn’t most megachurches have niche ministries within them or on their periperies? I think the only reason we came to a church THAT big was because the senior pastor who did most of the sermons was so interesting to listen to… and the music was so excellent. Otherwise, we really preferred the small home-meetings … which we also had as part of that organisation. So, to us, it was the best of everything. The big building became a sort of culture-and-entertainment center for us: concerts, drama.
With regards to “seeker-friendly” I hope it is relevant for me to say that there are different kinds of seekers and each will be reached in their own way. When I was a teenager, my mother sent me over to a “coffee-house/rock music” thing at the Meth. church, but I walked out in five minutes…could not stand it. But the quiet homely little Wesley-center meetings in which we talked, saw a movie called “The Parable”, and had a nice Christian teacher lead this tiny group for a few seasons. Got New Testaments “Good News for Modern Man edition” handed to us for Christmas… this helped me. During that time, I got saved while reading the Bible alot. I did not attend church. I guess you could say that the college and youth outreach of that time was a niche-evangelism which worked for me.
Church-meeting which goes on into maturity should not target any particular class or age-group. Maturity implies the overcoming of differences. But in my opinion, “church” in this context is really a small group which breaks bread from house to house. The big open preaching meetings are not “church” in my opinion. Those open meetings work well when targeted … because who, after all, is going to go listen to something that is culturally not in their frame-of-reference [language.]
So, moreover, judging by my experience, I would say that mega”churches” which target one or more niches are fine as long as they also nurture small homegroups which form the real churches. Among the more mature of these, I am sure we will find diversity of culture/race/age.
Peter
Peter



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Peter Bremen

posted September 1, 2006 at 6:14 pm


Addendum to my #39.
Sorry I somehow left all that long quote of the original post on there.
I feel my memory and my post are somewhat muddled. Sorry. I think Pastor Charles at Immanuels and the original brothers concept and life upon which this church grew, was one of diversity and of reaching every group in every way possible. It became bigger than 1,500 more or less by accident, it seemed to me.
And my silly comment about professional people – well there were people of all job classes there, but I just had the impression that the lower classes were not represented somehow. There was a youth niche ministry but it was not punked out.
I would be surprised if a megachurch felt it had to be targetting a niche. Why not target a collection of niches and have mini-ministries within the one megachurch which each specialises in the niches?
Peter



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Peter Bremen

posted September 1, 2006 at 7:16 pm


Thanks, Scot, for your post on this subject.
I am embarassed at having written so many words.
I must add to what I have said, that, actually my wife and I were saddened when our beloved Immanuel’s church graduated into a mega-church by building a gargantuan building which could hold 2,500 in one meetinghall. We had loved it when it was one, and then two services of 400 each. When it was smaller, we were acquainted with the parents of the children in our sunday school. But, in the new building it was like an institution or a big city in which we hardly even saw the parents of the children in the sunday school. The pastor also commented that he thought the place was too big.
Oh, and there was outreach to the poor and some rather poor folk attended. I was rather one of them because I was a laborer.
Sorry to run on.
Peter



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Steve May

posted September 2, 2006 at 12:16 pm


I find a few things interesting about this passage, and I would certainly like your thoughts on it, Scot.
First, Paul doesn’t appear to mention Jesus by name. He appears to refer to him only as “the man he [God] has appointed.”
Second, we know Paul’s Christology, so I’m curious why the divinity of Jesus wasn’t mentioned, much less made its acknowledgment requisite in the listener’s response.
Third, his appeal to repent, which connotes behavioral change for listeners today, appears in this context to refer merely to thinking a new way about the nature of God. Or am I wrong? Did the Athenians hear Paul’s words and assoctiate repentence with adopting a new behavior?



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Anonymous

posted September 2, 2006 at 7:12 pm


The Anti-Manichaeist » Blog Archive » The Economics of Churches?

[...] Bob Robinson at Vanguard interacts some with Scott McKnight’s blog-review of David Wellsâ?? critique of megachurches, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. [...]



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jazztheologian

posted September 3, 2006 at 7:05 pm


As the pastor of a fast growing, multi-ethnic, intercultural, interdenominational mega-church I can attest diversity and growth are not mutually exclusive.
jt



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Craig Comerfrord

posted September 4, 2006 at 2:51 pm


I’m a little startled to read so many marketing terms applied to churches.
The Gospel isn’t limited to the racial group of the evangelist, I’ve the feeling that the “mega-church” phenomenon has a lot more to do with TV crime series than reality. Having lived in California for 5 years, my “church experiences” were very ethnically mixed. However the churches I frequented were not “seeker sensitive” by and large.
In fact I think the term is a misnomer: it seems more about a “people-just-like-us” type of ministry.
Here in France, our church happens to be next to a short term housing project for illegal immigrants. With a core leadership of 6 french, italian and north africans, we now count among us a huge african contingent and enough russian expats to create a prayer group by itself, if that was really our intention.
The richness in cultural diversity we’re experiencing is such that we no longer see each other’s color or ethnic origin. We’re, not really seeker friendly in the sense that we do not temper the presence of God in our meetings for fear of unsettling visitors.
On the other hand people new to the church regularly experience the presence and the love of God for themselves. They’re drawn up short: confronted.
I’d like to think that it’s closer to Jesus’ model becausee it’s not about management nor recruitment, only a simple demonstration of God’s active love where the rubber hits the road.



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