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.