This morning, I was pondering why mega-churches in America cannot hold a candle to the size and influence of what I call "giga-churches" elsewhere in the world. Some of the factors are obvious:
• In many countries abroad, the cultures are far more relational. This is the greatest factor, but as you will read below, it is not always the deciding factor.
• The people in these churches—for the most part—cannot afford to own or operate technology. This forces them to share information more relationally, which is also a strong factor.
• The source of income for many in these giga-churches is found in the trades or by working in a factory. Most are not stressed overseeing the work of other people or computer processes that would sideline their desire or ability to lead in a church.
• Persecution. Anywhere Christians are persecuted, the believers are rarely distracted by much of anything because they have made a life or death choice to be a follower of Christ.
Here's what I believe to be the biggest factor, but one that no one has shared with me:
The lead pastors of these 100,000+ member churches are not über-innovative leaders.
Argue if you like, but I have spent time with a handful of giga-church pastors. If you were to compare their personalities to what may be true of some mega-church pastors leading a few of America’s largest churches, you’d see a strong contrast:
• Giga-church pastors abroad still lead their churches, but they almost lead from the shadows. You will rarely find them trumpeting the next-big thing God has given them for the church to do or focus on. In fact, I've seen many of them humbly share that God took them to task (again) to do what the members of their small groups sensed God calling the church to do requiring them to die to their own ideas of what should be done or developed next.
• Giga-church pastors abroad are squarely focused on member growth, not church growth. Each of these churches has a discipleship pathway for members that has become an embedded part of their church's culture. This develops members into missional believers who lead as a natural part of their spiritual maturation process.
• Giga-church pastors are not overly confident individuals. I've met them. I've talked to them. I've prayed with them. And I can tell. They are scared nearly senseless about the position in which God has placed them. This is why they pray for many hours every day. And you know what they probably say in their private prayer closet? "God, help me. I have no idea what I'm doing. I never have, really. Thank you for allowing me to lead a sizable army of your people into battle, a battle they are anxious to win on their own with my encouragement."
Now the last point above is the key. I'm sure every American mega-church pastor prays like this as well, but are their church members, by enlarge, anxious to take a bullet to spread the word of God and extend the Kingdom to as many as possible at great personal expense?
Certainly, American mega-churches have hundreds and hundreds of people who have laid down their life for Christ and will keep doing it for the rest of their lives. However, the mega-church culture in America is characterized by following a prominent man in a pulpit, not passionately following Christ in community with others and being supported in mission by one's pastor.
Is this situation the fault of the American mega-church pastor?
Yes and no. I do not believe in my heart that any American mega-church pastor wants to keep innovating the way he does or continue to make himself prominent. He probably feels he has no other choice. His people are not rising to the occasion to grasp the baton and run hard with it so he can cheer them on from the sidelines and provide small course corrections for them to keep them operating powerfully without another grand church-wide campaign.
Conversely, the fact that none of the churches over 25,000 members I have studied in America have built their churches on a foundational culture of relational discipleship gives me cause for great concern. These churches have small groups o'plenty, but they're holding tanks for the most part. Relational evangelism and relational spiritual development are not a cornerstone identifier in their small groups. The cornerstone identifier is the lead pastor's personality and innovative mind, while the small groups are in place to help members practically apply his innovations.
So, don't admire the American mega-church pastors with their amazing ideas and programs and ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat every other month. Deep down, I believe this kind of ongoing innovation is seriously limiting their churches in ways they may never understand, and it is fueled by well-cloaked desperation. Their members are consumers and haven't fully grabbed the baton and run ahead of the pastor's vision the way members of giga-churches do abroad.
In Proverbs 29:18, we find "Where there is no vision, the people perish..." Around the US, this is interpreted in a way that demands innovation on the part of the lead pastor, or shall I call it, the lead innovator. In reality, it means the PEOPLE must fully adopt God's vision for them and passionately pursue it, not the lead pastor. Selah.