Kelli, an unmarried middle-aged woman, says she chose her large suburban church so she could hide in the crowd. “I could come into this big auditorium and never see the same people every week,” she says.
She’s in good company. Many megachurches like hers are growing–while the majority of the churches around them are not.
“We’ve been seeing the Wal-Martization of the church. Wal-Mart moves in and the local merchants die,” professor and author Leonard Sweet said at the recent Future of the Church summit.
So, is this the emanating future of the American church? Will large churches continue to gobble up members from smaller, struggling churches–leaving fewer but larger churches? Will a few nationally-known eloquent preachers preside over the country on big high-definition screens in multi-site locations coast to coast?
Sweet, who often writes and speaks on trends that shape the future, doubts that the current growth in megachurches will continue. “They’ve preserved singles’ ministry, but that’s about it,” he said. “The megachurch has not understood the shift from performance to participation.”
Baby Boomers, like Kelli, were attracted to performance-oriented large churches. Megachurch pastors referred to such Boomers as “seekers.” But is the “seeker-sensitive” approach the winning formula for the future? Maybe not. Fewer people, particularly Millennials, are actively out seeking a churchy place to sit. More are disconnecting from any religious affiliation.
But they remain quite interested in spiritual things. “Spiritual, but not religious,” they like to say. So, I no longer use the term “seeker.” I think “spiritually open” is a more definitive term. They’re not out seeking. But they’re open to engaging in a real conversation about God. And that means, as Sweet indicated, participation. They want dialog, interaction, a safe place to ask questions and express doubts. And they rarely find that in the current large-church model.
The anonymity that Kelli sought is losing its appeal. Increasingly, people want to know and be known. Even Kelli recently wanted to know her pastor. Actually, she simply wanted to meet him, beyond seeing him in the spotlight on the stage. Her requests to meet the pastor were repeatedly rejected by the vigilant and protective church staff. So, she found a way to beat the system. She heard the pastor was planning to make a “personal appearance” to sign his latest book after church. So, she bought two copies and stood in line to meet her pastor and receive his autograph.
So, is bigness the salvation of the American church? I suspect large churches will continue to occupy a place on the American landscape. But smaller congregations will more easily and naturally be able to provide the authentic, participative, intimate community that people increasingly crave.
Does size matter? Maybe not in the way you’d think. Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren talks about church size in the new film When God Left the Building. Take a look at this brief clip from the film.