The Imperialist Church

Today I noticed in that Facebook within a Facebook that we all hated about a year ago that one of my virtual friends liked a mega-church’s local campus in her neighborhood. I’m glad that she likes it. Really. I am happy for her.

Maybe it’s a church that she can attend and be faithful and happy and bear fruit.


But, probably not.

Without getting too snarky, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. Like that nasty espresso that I had a few months ago that still makes me want to scratch my taste buds off.

That neighborhood doesn’t need another church. It’s overrun with churches as it is.

So, idea of a church planting its imperial flag in a neighborhood that has absolutely no shortage of good gospel preaching churches strikes me as the wrong sort of kingdom building. Why not Cambodia or Saudi Arabia or anywhere but in the suburbs of a major city smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt? This kind of church planting is brand exportation and fan club recruitment. Plain and simple.

Main Street #2Creative Commons License Kevin Dooley via Compfight

It’s Wal-Mart putting the Mom-and-Pops out of business. It is Darwinian survival of the fittest, only worse. We’re talking churches here, not macro evolution theory.

I know that I’m generalizing, but it reeks of expansion in the name of evangelism. Mega-churches draw all sorts of people, including people from other churches. I posit that a significant part of their membership will inevitably include people who had previously attended smaller congregations. The “mom-and-pop” churches can’t keep up with the Wal-marts.

Some studies suggest that between 3500-4000 churches close each year in the United States. 

And, from my experience, it has very little to do with the pulpit and what’s taught in it.

Instead, it’s more about programs. Truthfully, from my vantage point, it’s all about programs.

The small church that I used to pastor in the States regularly had families with children visit. Most often, because we were a small church, the families didn’t stay. It was always the same reason. There aren’t enough kids (or programs for kids).

Churches that seat thousands have so much more to offer than those that seat a few hundred, but that’s not necessarily meant as a compliment. At best it’s a neutral statement. It’s true, yes, but should churches be in the business of offering something to people as if they were clients?

I like to tell our tiny congregation in northern Portugal that what we offer people is a place to serve. We’re becoming less and less about this ministry or that ministry and increasingly more about opportunities for people to serve others. We look at the church as a place where people come to give, not to receive.

Little by little the adults are getting it, and it’s trickling down to their kids too. Almost half of those that show up for evangelism are teens, who want to be there. They didn’t come just because Mom and Dad drug them along.

But these campuses or spin-offs do have a certain draw. Most times the draw manifests itself in any combination of three areas.

  1. Music. Professional quality, performance based music draws a crowd, without question. It’s the bread and butter of the Driscolls and Hybels. Sadly, today it doesn’t even have to be music that glorifies or honors Christ. (Case in point.) A concert style atmosphere certainly draws a bigger crowd than a true worship service. Here’s one good rule of thumb. If the congregation can’t hear itself singing, it’s probably not worship.

  2. A personality. A larger than life persona broadcast on giant screen, just like in the movies. However, the sad truth about these pastors is that they will never really pastor 90% of the congregation. Now, it’s not the pastor’s fault, but neither should anyone fool themselves into thinking that they have a shepherd that leads them. They have a CEO. They have a face on a big screen that they will probably never know on a personal level.

  3. A sense of anonymity. They can blend in and hide. No one knows if they’re there on a weekly basis or not. It obviously creates an accountability problem. I know that people get plugged into small groups and Bible studies, but the dominant mentality in this kind of an imperialist church is that there exists safety in numbers. Safety to be anonymous. Safety from accountability.

So what should be done? In the least, we should junk the mindset that a church is the same as a large corporation. The two are extremely different and should be treated as such. Additionally, I believe that we should remember one thing.

Sheep are accountable to pastors. Consumers are in no way accountable to CEOs.

I have no idea how this particular imperialist church invasion will take place. Will it be a building with a huge monitor that pipes in the services via satellite from the main campus 30 minutes north? Will there be live worship with the video of a celebrity pastor, in the vein of a giant Advocare meeting? Or, will the ministry who is branching out do everything on site, transplanting philosophies and ideas while actually trying to start a church?

I don’t know, but one thing they should do is make sure not to harm any nearby ministries in the process.

  • Tricia Gillespie

    Being in the Northeast, I feel like I’m living outside of the mega-church realm. In my area, churches are dying and closing all the time and it’s not because a meg-church moved in next door. It’s because no-one goes to church, and after being in a LOT of the churches in this region, I can’t honestly say I can’t blame them all. But, that’s a different subject, maybe for another day.

    We have about 12 people in our church on a good day, but believe it or not, once upon a time, I was a member of a giant southern mega-church. There is a certain allure. I mean it just seems fun and exciting and completely different (for us) to experience all that a large church offers. In some ways, I found they have many of the same problems as the little churches…a handful of people doing all the work, others doing things only for recognition, the “put on a good show” mentality without real spirituality. I’ve seen small churches with all the same problems as the big ones.

    I’m not sure it’s the sizes of our churches that are as screwed up as our hearts. Like you said, we want to be served rather than to serve. We want the emotional high and energy of a large crowd. We want to put on a good show rather than deal with all our sin and junk inside. Sometimes we want to give people what they want instead of what they need. We elevate our good ideas to a place of Holy Spirit leading.

    God uses different people and churches for different purposes. We all have our circles of influence and we reach different people. I can imagine how difficult it would be for a small church to survive next door to a mega-church, but I always get confused by how big is too big. You know? If people are getting saved and growing the church, that’s good. My husband believes that churches should always be reproducing themselves, in the idea that sheep beget sheep, and pastors beget pastors, churches beget churches. He feels like if a church gets so big that it’s drawing a bunch of people from another community, then it should plant churches in the surrounding communities, in keeping with the local church mentality.

    I’m not sure I have any answers, other than I know that we as a church (at least in America) need some real heart-work.

    (Sorry that was so blasted long.)


    • Michael Andrzejewski

      FringeGirl, you know that we sure don’t have any mega-churches near us, either! Forgive me if I gave the wrong impression. I wasn’t saying that the only reason that churches close is due to mega-church influence. Not at all.
      I’m with you on the problems that both big and small churches have, and I’m not saying that humongous churches aren’t used by the Lord, because I know that they are. However, my heartache is with the where and many times with the how. The concept of a satellite church that projects a huge screen and personality, sometimes over thousands of miles, and pipes it into another location that has already had a mini-concert…so that they can maintain the same model and brand really bothers me. The “where” is upsetting in that I believe that we are super-saturating areas because it is easy and convenient and, Lord help me, to some degree profitable. Why hasn’t a mega-church, with all of its resources tried to really be radical and plant a church in your neck of the woods? Or somewhere similar? Completely gospel barren. Get a team together, move ’em up there, sustain them for a time and see what the Lord will do. Know what I mean? Don’t go down the street just so you can say that you’ve got 5 campuses.
      I can’t tell anyone where to go to church, but we had a lady visit us for the first time yesterday. She came to me after service and said that she wouldn’t be able to come every Sunday because she lives about 30 minutes away. I told her about a faithful church in her town, close to her home, and she just sort of said, OK. My guess is that she’ll come every now and then to our church and stay home the rest of the time. She needs to be fed, be accountable and be bearing fruit.
      Now, I’m also sorry for the 2nd diatribe of the day. As always, thanks for your comment and input. Very appreciated.

      • Tricia Gillespie

        Yes, I get what you are saying.

        “The “where” is upsetting in that I believe that we are super-saturating
        areas because it is easy and convenient and, Lord help me, to some
        degree profitable. Why hasn’t a mega-church, with all of its resources
        tried to really be radical and plant a church in your neck of the woods?
        Or somewhere similar?” This especially bothers me a lot too.

        Sometimes we plant churches in places where it’s easy to gather a crowd of churched people who come in from other churches instead of evangelizing the lost and building a church with new converts.

  • Christa Sterken

    Wow this is an interesting point of view, I enjoyed reading it. It does seem there is a shift to “what can the church offer me” that is disturbing (even though I go to a mega church at this time)

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