Recently, I visited some friends in a major midwestern city. They attend a large Lutheran Church which is part of our association, LCMC. It's a nice big church. Plenty of people to volunteer and help do good things for Jesus and also pay the bills. They have mission projects, local ministries, and contemporary worship. They are in a fast growing suburb. But my friends are unhappy and have started attending the local (Baptist) multi-site mega church.
The conversation was fascinating to me and epitomizes the quandary that the Church in North America is in these days. My friends like the Lutheran church because it does good work in the world and the community and is mission minded. They also like that it's grounded in what they consider to be a good theological tradition. They like that the church offers Bible Studies and opportunities to grow spiritually. Sounds like a great church, right?
So why are they unhappy? Well, the pastor changed preaching styles and they no longer feel fed by his messages. He's kind of gone off on a bummer reflection tour, looking back over his life and tying up loose ends. He's also leading the worship which has changed styles and they don't really like the new genre. They also realized that despite attending this church for more than a year, they have no strong relationships there.
What's the pull of the "new" mega-church satellite? They love the worship. My friend says it's like going to a performance. They even have a smoke machine. It is so incredibly tight and professional and it's all songs that you like and are on the radio, week after week. Worship never, ever, let's them down and never leaves them feeling empty.
Then, there' s the fact that most of their friends are leaving their churches, too, and hanging out at the same mega church. So they now have friends at this huge church that they know from other places in their life.
And, here's the pinnacle of it all for me: the new church doesn't ask them to do anything except give money and they don't really feel they have to do that much, either. Sure, the weekly bulletin handout asks people for a deeper level of commitment but since the church is so big, no one can guilt you personally into service and no one will guilt you from the front to serve because that would turn people away.
The conversation steered into the topic of time commitment. My friend travels all week long for his work. He's tired on the weekends. My friend's wife fills her life with children's sports activities and the local school. She feels she's committed enough with what's on her plate and isn't looking for a church to get involved in.
So I told them that they were choosing a new church based on their own preferences and conveniences and they agreed. “We’re being religious consumers,” they agreed. And it doesn’t matter to them. I think my friend desires a relationship with his church, I think he'd make a great leader. But he doesn't have time to pursue it. So he feels a bit guilty. But for most people, guilt is dead. They've moved on.
The question these days is very much, "What can the local church do to serve me?" And I'm not talking about a question that's being asked by unchurched people, I'm saying this is the question that committed Christians who grew up in the Church are now asking. In order to "maintain" our members we must provide convenient service times (which for decades have included Saturday or Sunday nights or both). We must not ask them to serve too much (maybe a couple times a year and in such a way that it is incredibly well managed and an easy in, easy out situation). We must provide a consistent worship experience that meets their tastes and their needs. Sermons have to be applicable to what is happening in that moment and they have to be memorable.
I believe this attitude is the prevailing attitude about church in our culture these days. Church needs to be a place to greet your friends, have a great sing along, and get moved by a message and be out in 60 minutes or less every week on a day of the week that suits your activity schedule.
Church, done well, has now become an "event." It's more like going to a movie or sporting event than ever before. We want to see people we know so we can feel part of something and not alone, but we're so tired from the rest of our week that we really don't want to meet anyone new. Unless it's easy and they're introduced to us by someone we already know. We don't want to serve at the church, like usher or greet or whatever because we're so busy with the rest of our life doing great things for our family that we just don't have anything left. We like it that whatever we put in the offering is part of something greater and it's always going to be enough to keep the church thriving and growing because there are other people we'll never meet who are giving a lot. We imagine what it would be like to have a relationship with the preacher, we even think we really know him through the sermons, but the truth is he doesn't know us and he never really will on a personal basis. But he understands our life and lifestyle choices completely. He's one of us. Besides, most of us listen to one or two other preacher's pod casts anyway. If we ever need pastoral care, the church will send someone we've never met whose either a retired person or on the staff. This is, after all, part of what we pay for.
Now I understand that some will say I'm being crass. I don't mean to be. I'm not mad about it, I helped to create it. I was good at it. Here's my concern: is it sustainable? I'm sure I'm not smart enough to tell you how history will view what's happening in the church right now. I think it's probably something like the death of the established church that just couldn't change with the times. But it's also the death of some other things, too. It's the death of a church culture that was more than an hour a week. It's the death of relationship with a pastor who knew you as well as your doctor or barber. (Few of us have those relationships anymore either). It's the end of church like we've known it for the last 100+ years. And that's not all a bad thing. It's just going to be different, that's all.
There are a couple of real challenges the mega churches will have to meet and overcome in order to survive the coming changes. One of the them is so much of the mega's energy has been in raising money for themselves. Big building projects and then satellite locations. At some point, we'll run out of people who are unhappy with their established churches, (people upset with the pastor, with the music or the programming). Then what?
Succession. Most mega church pastors I read about don't have a succession plan and they are mostly closer to 65 than 50. When they ultimately retire (hopefully before they go off on the self reflective sermon tour that helped to drive my friends out of their church), there will be a huge stylistic change. The next generation sounds different and won't worship or preach like us at all. It's going to be a rickety bridge to get across. If megas start to loose members because of bad succession plans, you have a scenario like that of the Crystal Cathedral. They went broke. You have to have a mega congregation to pay for a mega building (similar to what a lot of big urban churches struggle with as people move to the suburbs).
Serving. I think one of the most appealing things about going to a big beautiful church is that they don't need me for much. I can go and consume and go home. Believe me, I understand the appeal. But I think that big, beautiful churches could be doing more to push their people into mobilizing for kingdom work in the neighborhood or city. And that work is dirty, it has to be on-going and it can’t all be done twice a year in well organized, time sensitive events. Without that essential element of serving, why will anyone be drawn to a church in the future when we run out of recycled Christians? Serving answers that all important question these days, "What do you guys do?"