When I was in college I became an intern at one of America's largest churches. When the internship ended three years later, they hired me full time for an additional two years. I enjoyed my five years serving that mega church. I was exposed to innovative ideas and saw how those ideas could be put into practice if a church had the financial and manpower resources to make them happen. I also had the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the most visionary Christian leaders in the nation at that time. Their ideas and passion continue to impact my ministry more than 20 years later.
However, as I moved through my time in that church, I had a growing uneasiness about the size and scope of how mega-churches operate. That local church could only do the things they did because of the unique mix of personalities of the senior pastor and key staff members. That mix is not easy to reproduce. They were also dependent on endless amounts of money that their popular pastor raised from a growing television audience. Televangelists are not nearly as popular today as they were twenty years ago. They were also dependent on a lot of "feeder churches" in the surrounding area that kept supplying the people that made the rapid growth possible.
There came a time when I realized that the mega-church was not for me. That does not mean that I am "anti-mega church." I continue to think that mega-churches have a vital role in doing very unique things that smaller churches are unable to do and denominations and para-church organizations are not in a position to do. However, I realized back then, and continue to believe, that there are inherent weaknesses in mega-churches that sheer size makes almost impossible to overcome. In many ways small and medium sized churches are healthier than some mega-churches.
One of the challenges that mega-churches face is overhead. A small church often has a building that is paid for. If that small church is also a historic church, it may have trust funds designated to keep the building in good repair. This significantly lowers the percentage of the budget that a small church must devote to physical overhead and allows small churches to weather economic downturns more easily. Mega-churches, on the other hand, seem stuck in ongoing cycles of building expansion, normally funded through borrowing.
An article in the December 17 issue of World magazine pointed out that many mega-churches with mega-mortgages are now in financial trouble. While part of those difficulties are simply a result of the current economic situation, perhaps a larger issue is that those mortgages paid for buildings that were simply too large and expensive to begin with. World magazine reported that "since 2008 more than 200 churches and other religious organizations have faced foreclosure." The article goes on to say that "in the decade before 2008, church foreclosures were rare, averaging less than 10 per year." These foreclosures "tend to take place with larger churches, larger sums of money, and greater attention by the media."
Many of those mega-churches have declared bankruptcy as they made their way to eventual foreclosure. Some, such as the Crystal Cathedral in Santa Ana, California, had as much as $50 million in debt. The idea of a church declaring bankruptcy and walking away from its obligations is more than a financial decision. It speaks to the wisdom and spirituality of leaders who led such churches into these huge amounts of debt. It reminds me of 1 John 2:15 "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." Leaders of all sized churches would do well to consider this truth as we lead our churches to expand. Growth is good if it is laid on a good foundation. But growth fueled by worldly ideas will produce exactly the results that we are now witnessing.