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On Big Churches (And Those Who Love to See Them Fall)

Yesterday, I posted a link on Facebook to an article by Jonathan Aigner called, “Farewell, Willow Creek: Where the ‘Regular’ Churches Can Go From Here.” It was ostensibly a kind of “where now after Willow Creek” piece. It was snarky in tone and read, at times, like an elaborate exercise in schadenfreude from an angry guy who seemed a little too happy to see a megachurch fall. But I thought the article raised a few important questions, even if I tried to distance myself from its bitterness and make it clear that I wasn’t expressing my approval for all that it contained. 

As it happens, if my inbox is to be believed, not everyone appreciated the link or my attempts to endlessly qualify my reasons for posting it. Which is fine—I didn’t expect everyone to like the piece. Indeed, I tried to make clear that didn’t like everything about the piece. But I fear that whatever interesting points I might have been hoping the post might draw out were mostly lost due to the article’s tone. Those inclined to be supportive of the Willow Creek model of church felt attacked; those inclined to be critical of the Willow Creek model happily piled on.

So, I decided to do what I often do when I fear that I may have been misunderstood or when I have misgivings about whether or not I should have posted something: I wrote a long, tortuous blog post to make everything luminously clear. Ahem. Well, perhaps not. If nothing else, I tried to isolate what I found interesting and potentially worth discussing in the piece. In what follows, some of the key claims made by Aigner are highlighted, followed my own reflections on what these statements twigged in my own brain. Perhaps it will be interesting to others, perhaps it will only add to the frustration. If nothing else, at least the Internet has a few more words now, right? 😉 


Celebrity pastors cannot possibly be good shepherds to their people. Attractional worship is only entertainment, nothing more.

Like many of the claims in this article, this one seems to trade mainly in shock value. I have known and do know pastors of large churches who are good shepherds. I think the structures of megachurches make it much harder for pastors at “the top” to fulfill this role, because so much administration is often required of them. But it’s not impossible, if the right people are in place to pick up the slack. And attractional worship is only entertainment? Well how would one prove that? Is it impossible for people to encounter the risen Christ in forms of worship that this or that person might not care for?

A fast food version of Jesus can never be the real version of Jesus. The church growth movement leads to a bloated, unhealthy body of people who don’t really understand what they’ve signed up for.

I think that a lot depends on what is meant by the term “fast food Jesus.” If this term means, “a Jesus who died for your individual sins once upon a time in order to secure your post-mortem bliss” and that your task is to bask in this for about an hour once a week, well then, yes, this can never be the real version of Jesus. And this is indeed the Jesus served up by some megachurches. But not all. Some do try to present salvation in more expansive terms. Some do push toward a more holistic gospel that includes discipleship not as an added extra once the salvation ticket is secured. They don’t always do this perfectly, of course, but then that applies to those of us in small churches too, doesn’t it?

Capitalism does not hold the keys to evangelism. The Pastor as CEO idea will always fail, often with far-reaching, disastrous results. 

This one is worth pondering, I think. Should churches be modeled after corporations? Should people implicitly be trained that their senior pastor is effectively a religious corporate executive? Should churches be so dependent upon a single figure to give identity, cohesion, and legitimacy to their organization? I think this is one of the lessons that Willow Creek and other dramatic falls before it might teach us. It’s dangerous to invest so much of an organization’s hopes, dreams, identity, and meaning in a single person. No person can live up to that. And I really do think that it can set these high-profile leaders up for failure. It’s too easy to come to believe in one’s own self-importance. It’s too easy to begin to believe one is invincible. Can these failures happen in small churches, too? Of course. They can and they do. But I think that big church structures can present these temptations in unique ways.

Big churches are not good role models for the rest of our churches. In fact, their methods will ruin us, too, if we’re not careful.

I would say that big churches are not always good role models for the rest of our churches. It depends, of course, on the nature and character of the big church and on the nature and character of the smaller church trying to emulate it. I have learned a great deal from leaders in big churches even if I don’t think it’s my task to reproduce their model in my context. I think no matter what size of church we worship in, we need to constantly be cultivating the grace and maturity to say, “Christ can be encountered in more ways than I, personally, resonate with.”

Getting more butts in the seats is not evangelism.

True. The American evangelical addiction to certain metrics of “success” and “church growth” have surely, in some cases, produced a culture of consumeristic Christians whose faith runs pretty shallow and has few categories by which to consider other understandings of what “success” and “growth” might look like. But by the same token, too many small-ish, liberal-ish churches have abdicated their responsibility to even consider evangelism and treat it almost as a dirty word, reeking, as they imagine it does, of colonialism and capitalism and who knows what other nefarious “isms.” Some of us, to be perfectly frank, could use a few more butts in the seats and might consider why those butts don’t seem to be attracted to our vision of Christ and his kingdom. The customer isn’t always right, it’s true. But the customer also isn’t irrelevant.

Having said all of this, I do think there was one part of the article that expressed well the opportunity that the church has in this cultural moment, in the context of Willow Creek and beyond:

So church, it’s time to rediscover your sacred, holy identity. It was never just about filling pews. Go on about the gospel that still calls to you. Go on with your liturgy. Preach the Word, administer the sacraments. Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God, even as it becomes more novel, more strange, and more isolating. Spread the great and glorious news that Jesus Christ has brought into this world, even when your culture no longer gives it lip service.

Amen. May it be so for big churches, for small churches, and for every church in between.


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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. howard wideman #

    Since the Tower of Babel we know there’s no perfect institution. Mega church is more susceptible to corruption because they are big. Solomon became ruler of a large unified kingdom and he strayed from trust in god as his father David. Nebuchadnezzar bragged about his great Babylon and became mad eating grass like a beef cow. We need a simple faith in god and not rely on our own ego and pride 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    August 23, 2018
    • Indeed, Howard. There are no perfect institutions, populated as they inevitably are by human beings! I do think that power has always had the capacity to corrupt. We see this in the church and, of course, far beyond. The human ego is a stubborn obstacle indeed.

      August 24, 2018
  2. Richard Thiessen #

    I find it “interesting” that the moral failure of a leader has become a platform to critique a model of Church. There have been moral failures of Christian leaders in many varied settings and styles of Church, these are unfortunate and need to be taken seriously. There are also many poor demonstrations of the Body of Christ, the Church, in many varied forms. Challenging grace needs to be practiced by ALL.

    August 23, 2018
    • Grace does need to be practiced by all. And of course we must acknowledge that human sin makes its way in all kinds of institutions and settings and styles. But I think it would be naive to not at least ask questions about what possibilities and temptations for sin our structures make more or less likely. Questions are rightly being asked of the structures of the Roman Catholic Church in light of the horrendous sexual abuse scandal in Pennsylvania right now—questions about the celibacy of the priesthood, hierarchical power structures, etc. This is entirely appropriate. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask questions about how power is concentrated and structured in our churches might contribute to (not determine) the moral failings of those in whom this power is concentrated.

      August 24, 2018
  3. The Rev. Jeffrey A. Kisner, PhD #

    Thank you for writing this, Ryan.

    August 23, 2018
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Show me Christ, and I will come. If He encounters me there and validates your claim, in spite of my sin, your sin, their sin, all sin, I can never leave, for He is the only true antidote to self and to sin.

    Small church or large church is non determinative. “Is Christ present here?”, is the only question that matters.

    Show them Christ and they will come.

    August 25, 2018
    • Well said. Show me Christ, and I will come.

      August 26, 2018
  5. Paul Johnston #

    “It is easier to strain a camel”….American style capitalism, pervasive throughout the west, as a model for,”church” is an anathema to Christian culture. Everyone who subscribes to this approach is not of the Holy Spirit. Don’t just read the word, call upon the Lord for discernment. Ask that you might feel the word in some small way as the Holy Spirit does. If your heart does not break and you do not encounter a sense of shame regarding your attachments to wealth and material goods, you and I encounter a very different Spirit, when we pray.

    Born in a stable, no place of His own to even lay His head. Owned no property, itinerant wanderer and healer. Raged at a house meant for worship turned into a place for moneylenders. Referred to those who professed to know Him, while they remained attached to all the material privileges their status provided, as a, “brood of vipers”. Asked potential followers to give up all that they owned to the poor and to follow Him. Sent His followers out to the world with but one set of clothes and a pair of sandals. Told them to accept whatever was given them in return. Inspired his first followers to surrender all that they owned to one another and redistribute among the community as there was need……..or Joel Osteen needs a yaught….which kind of church does the Holy Spirit call us to be?

    August 25, 2018
    • I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Joel Osteen doesn’t need a yacht? 😉

      You make your point powerfully, Paul.

      August 26, 2018
  6. Ian Lawson #

    Thank you Ryan. Provocative as usual! Let’s be careful not to spiritualize church size. Church size is relative. On the Canadian landscape churches of 1000 are considered large. But compared to an American “mega church” 1000 is small. Then compared to some churches in Korea an American church of 5000 is small. Let’s not allow the diabolical sin (envy) to compromise our souls. I believe that on the Day of Judgment we will be held to account for our personal obedience, or disobedience, not for some arbitrary measure of success. God is looking for our faithfulness.

    August 25, 2018
    • Thanks, Ian. Your comments about the relative nature of the word “big” are instructive. I hope my reflections on this topic this week haven’t been interpreted as “spiritualizing church size.” I absolutely think that human sin (including envy) can and does move through all different sizes of church. I wish it were not so, but empirical evidence provides regrettably abundant evidence. But, again, I do wonder about the amount of power that some ecclesial structures concentrate in a single person or position (I’m writing this on the heels of a tour through the morning papers with the most recent revelations of the cover-ups and scandals in the Roman Catholic Church). I think this does present unique temptations in the church. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good, faithful Christians who serve the body of Christ well in large institutions with very hierarchical power structures. But maybe it’s harder. I don’t know from personal experience, having never served in a large church. But I am quite convinced that the temptation of power and status and adulation to corrupt is about as close to a human universal as you could hope to find.

      August 26, 2018
  7. mike #

    I thank God that I am alive today to witness God systematically dismantle,piece by piece,the facade of Organized Christianity. A new paradigm is evolving, the American Jesus is dead.

    August 25, 2018
    • The American Jesus may be dead (or dying), and this is almost certainly a good thing. But I don’t think this is even remotely the same thing as suggesting that “Organized Christianity” is dead (or dying). God help us all if that is the case.

      August 26, 2018

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