Just How Consumeristic is the Megachurch?


“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others...not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

“Commitment isn’t a real value at a megachurch.” 

“Easy in, easy out.” 

Is the megachurch full of consumeristic Christians? Do megachurches fuel a consumeristic attitude?

How should we understand the interplay between the megachurch, commitment, and consumerism?

 

Wait, Why the Perception?

On the one hand, this perception exists because of a sad reality: There are megachurches trying to drive consumerism.

Yup, there are large churches that will do whatever it takes to drive attendance as high as possible. 

But I also think this perception exists because it’s an unavoidable perception

When an organization reaches a certain size and scale, it just begins to be perceived a certain way. It comes with the territory. 

For example, when Amazon was just selling books online, I thought it was a genius and helpful alternative to Barnes and Noble. Today? I think they’re a genius, evil empire trying to stamp out every retail store in the world. 

Why do I think this way?

Nothing has fundamentally changed in Amazon’s mission to digitize the purchase experience. But there’s something about their size and scale today that makes me perceive the store differently than its former years. 

In the same way, when we see beautiful buildings on a large campus, children’s ministry check-in systems with easy to use database software on computers, the on-campus cafeteria, and the high level production of a Sunday service, we can believe the megachurch has changed the mission of the Church.

But has it really?

 

Battleship or Cruise Ship?

I always imagined the megachurch to be more like a cruise ship than a battleship. 

If a battleship is all-hands-on-deck, I would’ve pictured a megachurch to be a bunch of people gorging out in spiritual meals, floating around comfortably at events, as paid staff worked overtime to keep everyone happy. 

And of course, I thought smaller churches operated like battleships with much higher levels of engagement (volunteering, small groups, etc.)

But if I’m honest (and to my surprise), I’m not sure if there is that much of an engagement difference between bigger and smaller churches. 

According to a research report called “The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches” by Scott Thumma and Warren Bird (the largest national representative study of megachurch attendees conducted by any researchers as of 2008), there wasn’t that much of a difference in churches.

According to the study on megachurches, 45% of attenders never volunteered at their church, 41% didn’t participate in a small group of any kind, and over 30% gave very little money. This meant that while many came to the worship services, there was a significant portion of the body that didn’t commit to more. 

But doesn’t that mean over half of the attendees were engaged? And does this seem that much different from a smaller church? I spent most of my life in smaller churches and the experience is proportionately comparable.

Thumma and Bird conclude that “…megachurch attenders are not radically different people from those who attend Protestant churches of all sizes.”

I’m not saying this is a good thing.

I’m saying that both small churches and megachurches are battleships struggling with cruise ship mindsets

 

In the Same Boat 

“But if you change the church model, you can fight consumerism can’t you? 

Yes. There can be more organic and intentional touch points to drive people towards engagement. 

No. Consumerism goes far deeper than models and sizes. 

In “The Essential Church Podcast” Brady Boyd and Andrew Arndt, pastors at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado (contemporary styled megachurch north of 10,000 members) discuss the dynamics of big churches versus small churches with Glenn Packiam, pastor of New Life's downtown campus (smaller congregation with more liturgical services). 

As they discuss Arndt's previous ministry context, which had some similarities to Francis Chan’s house church model (“We Are Church”), he shares how they aimed for a more intentional model and yet Arndt says, “Even we who made a self-conscious attempt to avoid the perils of consumerist Christianity could not avoid the perils of consumerist Christianity….”

While some go to big churches to consume the comfort of anonymity, others go to smaller churches of immediate opportunity and greater relational access, precisely for the exact same consumeristic reason.

Consumeristic attitudes exist in churches of all sizes.

This is because consumerism is deeper than a church issue, it’s a human issue. 

 

Turning the Ship Towards the Gospel 

This is why the gospel must be front and center regardless of church size.  

The gospel is the only thing that can change the heart and redeem a model for all its strengths and weaknesses. 

If you’re the pastor of a small church, preach the gospel to your people more than preaching about community and relational intimacy.

If you’re the pastor of a big church, preach the gospel to your people more than your vision or the outreach opportunity.

Whether you attend a small or big church, preach the gospel to yourself so that consumerism loses its power, while selfless contribution begins to give rise from your life.

And the gospel will be the life-giving engine regardless of a ship’s size.