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Strengths of the Purpose Driven Church and Sober Advice For Those Considering the Megachurch

I first read The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission by Rick Warren soon after it came out in 1995. I am now teaching a Christian ministry course at Taylor University entitled "Program and Curriculum Development." I require my students to read the book because of how influential this book has been. I don't want them to be in the dark at a staff meeting or conference when people refer to it. Ten years after reading the book and being involved in pastoral leadership during that whole time, it has been interesting to read the book again. There are some definite strengths of the book. But I also have some cautions for my students about the megachurch as well.

The huge strengths of The Purpose Driven Church

Here are notes from my lecture about the strengths of the book: 

Programming should be inspired by vision, moved by need and thoughtful about its approach.

  • Experiment. Warren admits that his strategy was mostly to just try things out! Emulate him in this way! p. 27-29 
  • Consistency. A family will not be healthy if it has 10 fathers but might be healthy with one. Consider committing to a place for the long haul. p. 31

Programming should be done with purpose, balance and discipline.

  • Balance p. 49, 76, 122. Left to our own devices, we will do what we are most passionate about and neglect other aspects of the biblical mandate.
  • There is a time to pray and a time to take responsibility. p. 58 There is a time to put our heads together and try to solve a problem with the brains and abilities God has given us rather than just spiritualize problems.
  • Major on the majors. p. 89 If your church is majoring on something like a choir, which is pretty peripheral to God's purposes, think about majoring on something more important.
  • No program is meant to last forever. p. 89-90. If it has stopped being useful, nix the program.
  • Need a leader for every program. p. 90. Do not start a program without leadership.

Programming should be done with awareness of reality

  • Levels of commitment will differ. p. 131-136. Program in light of the fact that you are ministering to people with different levels of commitment.
  • Pay attention to people. Yes, target people but realize that the kingdom of God is about more than one demographic. Warren targeted Saddleback Sam but admits God has led them to minister to many new targets. p. 160.

Programming should be done with hospitality and excellence

  • Emphasize hospitality - welcoming people - over attractiveness though they are similar. Warren and Saddleback are very hospitable and we can learn from this. All churches think they are friendly but most are not in reality.
  • Pursue excellence but realize that the smaller the congregation, the less you will be able to do what the world would judge as excellent and that is ok. Recognize what you can do well (160) (for example, fellowship) and yet also strive to do the other purposes well as you can (worship, discipleship, evangelism, service).
  • The importance of outreach. p. 50 Most churches never reach any non-Christians and essentially serve the believer. Warren and friends remind us of the importance of reaching the lost. "The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members" (William Temple).
  • Think like an unbeliever. p.189 Do not try to reach out by using Christian jargon like "Come hear the preaching of the inerrant Word of God."
  • Encourage people to find a place they can thrive in ministry. It is not about filling spots. p. 382 They will most likely need to experiment. I have taught the SHAPE ("spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personalities, experiences) assessment course and the most important message is for people to jump in and try something. p. 387

I critique Warren's approach in my posts
A wider target: Deconstructing and redeploying the Seeker Sensitive Service planning of The Purpose Driven Church
Why pastors should be both goal-setting fanatics and cynics
but also give some general words of caution below.

Introduction to the Megachurch

In the next sections, I do not focus specifically on Rick Warren's Saddleback Church or his The Purpose Driven Church but rather the megachurch in general.

I received the following excellent statistical introduction to the megachurch from Bill Easum's article The Exponential Church: Learning From America’s Largest and Fastest-Growing Congregations

"Twenty years ago American megachurches (more than 2,000 attendance) numbered just over two dozen. Today, they exceed more than 830, with more than 30 now exceeding 10,000 worshipper- launching a whole new category we call the "gigachurch." Since the late 1950s, the time it has taken for a church to grow large has been cut in half almost every decade. Ten of the churches started in 1990 reached attendances of 5,000 to 18,000 in one decade.What is driving this growth? The factors are many, including the migration of people to urban centers, word-of-mouth, sharpened leadership skills, churches becoming multigenerational and most recently, Web site access, TV exposure and megachurches teaching other churches through seminars, books and curriculum."

I had never heard of the gigachurch and I don't think that terminology has taken off yet but it does make sense to me to differentiate the 30 churches over 10,000 attendance from the 800 over 2,000 but less than 10,000.

Because the megachurch is big, strengths and weaknesses are exaggerated. It is great to study because it has systems for everything and they are often visible on the grand scale.

Not all people thrive in a megachurch. Consider the following.

If you grew up in a megachurch, you may intuitively understand who tends to fit there. But if you didn't, consider the following.

  • Because it is a large organization, it has to function as one. Thus business skills and larger-organization leadership skills are sought after.
  • Because the megachurch is always trying to make things better and this is visible to thousands of people on a weekly basis, it can tend to be a high pressure, result-oriented environment.
  • Because vision-casting is needed to rally volunteers and you are often known by your brief public speaking opportunities, outstanding public-speaking skills are an asset.
  • Because cutting edge technology is often used to keep track of lots of people and do ministry programming on a large-scale, technology skills are a sought after.
  • My friend writes: "Like those in big business, mega-church workers need to bring at least one towering strength to the enterprise. It's not a place for those who can do many things with average skill; it's a place for those who can do one or two things with tremendous skill. Excellence is of such high value that only over-achievers need apply. Smaller church workers can be generalists; most mega-church workers have to be specialists."
  • If you walk into a megachurch or visit a website of a megachurch and are attracted by the facility and professionalism, this may be your thing. If you have a bad taste in your mouth and feel like it seems fake, you should run the other direction because it probably isn't you.

Crucial Issues to Consider While Working at a Megachurch:

1. Think about what ministry "success" really means.

It is customary (not just in the megachurch) to equate success with the A, B, C's (Attendance, Buildings, Cash) or you can also say it as the three B's (Bodies, Buildings, Budget). How can we measure quantitatively some things that are hard to quantify (discipleship, inner growth, godly character development, true worshipfulness)? Randy Frazee, author of The Connecting Church and formerly pastor of Pantego Bible Church and Willow Creek, has tried to to create an assessment tool:The Christian Life Profile Assessment Tool Training Guide: Discovering the Quality of Your Relationships with God and Others in 30 Key Areas of 30 core competences which is a place to start.

2. Take into account the location.

Don't feel too proud of yourself if your church grows and you are in a geographical area that is booming economically and growing quickly. Don't be too discouraged regarding your church growth if you are in an area that is suffering economically. Megachurches often (but not always) occur in growing areas where there is a Target, Starbucks and new developments. In the megachurch game (a spoof on megachurch leadership) there are different levels of difficulty:

"A suburban church plant (for those who want it easy or just starting out). Or pastor an inner-city, multi-ethnic 80 year old church with 50 members and $1 million mortgage debt (for those who really want a challenge)."

3. Do not uncritically accept the idea that "quantity frequently indicates quality."

Rick Warren writes, "Health produces growth . . . Quality produces quantity" (p.49, 51). Natural Church Development, another school of thought, concludes that of the major eight positive characteristics they look for in churches, only "Inspiring Worship" is most typically stronger in large churches.

1. Empowering Leadership

2. Gift-oriented Ministry

3. Passionate Spirituality

4. Functional Structures

5. Inspiring Worship

6. Holistic Small Groups

7. Need-oriented Evangelism

8. Loving Relationships

This makes sense that people would assume that all the characteristics are stronger in a megachurch because when one visits a megachurch, people are often moved by the large-setting worship.

4. Impact is not fame or joy.

It is tempting to think that you are making a bigger impact if your ministry is famous. It is good to want to make a profound impact for God's kingdom. Go do it! You may not get noticed for it by Christianity Today but you may end up with a better family life, more joy, more friends, and more satisfaction than the famous Zondervan "____ Church" author. I'm told fame can be a pain--people who don't know you say all kinds of silly things about you and you don't know whether to respond or ignore it. Remember that "audience of One" concept (Luke 10:42).

5. Consider making biblical reflection a priority.

The megachurch is often characterized by a radical pragmatism that focuses on doing "whatever works." It can be very difficult with the weekly deadlines and pressure to thoughtfully consider the merits of a particular decision in light of biblical values. The thinking usually goes: "if it gets butts in seats, it is exposing people to the gospel, so it must be good." The megachurch may not appropriately value biblical reflection including the foundation of biblical reflection that is hopefully instilled in theological education / seminary.

6. Consider carefully how to use resources.

The megachurch often spends extraordinary amounts of money that might seem to be frivolous (the shuttle that brings people in from parking lot has video screens, etc.) Are there other ways that God might be calling the wealthy North American church to use its resources? Consider this question often.

7. Understand biblical evangelism.

The strength of the seeker megachurch is that it stresses outreach to the unchurched. I tell my students: "You're not allowed to throw stones at the seeker church unless you are committed to an equally intense evangelism approach (small groups that invite unchurched, Alpha program, 1-on-1 evangelism training, special seeker events, etc.)" However, the seeker church can also tend to get a bit over-focused on "getting souls into heaven" which may not reflect the totality of the message of Scripture.

8. Consider discipleship in the seeker church.

My friend writes: "When evangelism is the primary purpose of every Sunday's're essentially doing 'crusade' ministry on a weekly basis. And if there's one thing that stadium crusades have taught us, it's that it's easier to draw a crowd than to disciple a crowd. As I recall, a study of the Billy Graham Association showed that about 4% of the respondents at their crusades ultimately wound up assimilated into a church. The mega-church might not be doing much better. I think discipling people may only be able to be done a few at a time."

9. Consider discipleship in the non-seeker church.

Some megachurches do not have weekend seeker services and a midweek believers service. They gear the weekend worship and preaching to believers. At least the seeker churches are spending the tremendous amount of resources on reaching the unchurched. The megachurches that are believer-centered need to doubly ask whether their expenditures are justified. Are they reaching the unchurched? Are people really growing in their discipleship? Attracting believers with a good show is even less justifiable than attracting unbelievers.

10. Consider the consequences of over-valuing excellence.

Another friend writes:

"Oftentimes, one of the values of the megachurch, especially Willow Creek is 'Excellence honors God and inspires people.' It sounds nice, but the services can come across at times feeling fake, plastic and like a production. And if you are not excellent, you will not be up front very often. (Therefore, leadership development is at a minimum -- it is much easier to fly in and pay an outside guest speaker than to allow younger, green behind the ears leaders in the church to grow in their teaching ability)."

11. Consider the danger of a selfish mentality creeping in.

My friend writes:

"If not careful, it can truly breed an unhealthy consumerism mentality. Specializing in everything to cater to our every need (affinity groups, a cafe in the lobby, Sunday school programs for children that are incredible, etc) isn't always bad, but can foster a "its all about me" mentality."


For more information on specific megachurches, see the data compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research here.

See also the latest report by the Hartford Institute (Feb 2006). It is an excellent summary of the latest statistical findings regarding the megachurch. It is available as a free download here. They also have a church staff salary survey posted as well for free download at the Leadership Network. Large churches pay their pastors well!