Monday, January 19, 2009

churchapreneurs: they are killing the church

From a certain view-point churchapreneurs seem to be experiencing great success. Mark Chaves, of the University of Arizona, comments on the churchapreneur, mega church phenomenon saying, "Something is happening that is leading more and more people to shift from smaller to bigger congregations within all denominations, liberal and conservative." What substantiates that observation is the whopping number of new mega churches that have sprung up in the U.S. over the past 18 years. In 1990, there were approximately 350 mega churches and as of 2008 there are more than 1250. Not only are there more mega churches, the average weekly attendance at these churches is steadily increasing, to the tune of over 2,000 attendees on average per church. Not only are the church numbers great, but book sales are off the charts as well. From the Purpose Driven Life to Your Best Life Now, churchapreneurs are selling more non-fiction books than anyone else. High profile schmoozing is on the rise as well. Disgraced former New Life pastor Ted Haggard was courted for weekly phone-conference calls with President Bush, and now, Rick Warren is giving the invocation at the presidential inauguration, T.D. Jakes (openly modalistic heretic, but man can he grow a business, err church) is preaching private sermons to the Obama's on inauguration day, while Joel Osteen has been drafted by team Obama to write more speeches on "hope and change."(okay,I made that last one up) So, from a numbers point of view, business seems to be booming; from a sales point of view, the cash is flowing; and, from a cultural reach point of view, churchapreneurs are in the spotlight. Business couldn't be better!

From another view-point however, things are not as glowing as they seem:

First, churchapreneurs are literally killing the church numerically. Though at first glance the numbers seem to indicate real kingdom growth is occurring as the number of mega churches increases and attendees climbs, on a second look, the numerical growth is not actual kingdom growth. The so-called growth is not by conversion, but transfer. A couple of different sets of data confirm that. One, George Barna points out that at the same time the mega churches have been been experiencing a meteoric rise, there has been an overall net loss in Christianity since the late 1980's. Two, a recent USA Today article, claims that the number of the number of "unchurched" continues to hover around 30% (a number which is unchanged from the early 90's), while the number of people who say they never go to church is on the rise and varies anywhere from 16% in Gallup surveys to as high as 32% in an Ellison Research survey conducted this year. The numbers indicate that these growing businesses are not expanding the Christian market base at all, rather, they are simply stealing customers from other churches as Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis concludes, "The mega church story is not really about growth, it's about shifting allegiances." (same article) If trends continue, the success of the churchapreneurs will actually be, that though their own businesses grow, there will actually be fewer churches, and fewer Christians in the U.S.

Secondly, churchapreneurs are killing the church by destroying divine standards for worship. Thumma and Bird, in a recently released survey of mega churches entitled Changes in American Mega churches:Tracing Eight Years of Growth and Innovation argue that one of the hallmarks of churchapreneur churches that makes them so spectacularly successful is their commitment to high standards for worship. But high standards for worship are not measured by greater conformity to Biblical requirements for worship, rather, they are measured by man-made standards such as "worship teams and bands characterized by electric guitars, drums, and keyboards" and "willingness to experiment and innovate with worship and the style of presentation." Just how critical conforming to human standards of worship excellence is for growth, is confirmed by the fact that 93% of mega churches incorporate contemporary worship and include electric guitars and drums. Apparently, market research available to these churchapreneurs indicates that they can steal the affections of a whole group of customers who are currently in churches where only a piano and hymn-books are used; and they are wasting no time tapping into these frustrated church members whose musical tastes are more suited to Anne Murray than to 19th century revivalist Fannie Crosby tunes, by hauling out guitars, drums, and projectors to facilitate singing lyrics off of a wall. Make no mistake about it though, this change in worship style is a calculated business decision, not a principled change in style based upon careful investigation of God's commands for worship. When this generation of Anne Murray music lovers passes off the scene, heaven help us, because who knows what new style will replace it; but you can bet, a new generation of savvy churchapreneurs will be there to identify the trend and to capitalize on it.

Thirdly, churchapreneurs are killing the church by destroying its credibility. Even from within their own church growth ranks, critics are now nervously pointing out the degradation that is occurring as slick salesmen are dominating the ranks of mega church world. In his newly released book, Stealing Sheep: The Church's Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth, William Chadwick, with biting cynicism parodies the principles of churchapreneurs:
The McChurch has replaced the traditional home church and its relational values. Fast-food Christians pull up to ecclesiastical drive-through windows, order their McGroups, consume the experience and then drive off, discarding relationships like burger wrappers on the highway of life. Savvy church growth pastors quickly learned that significant growth can occur if a church learns how to market its burgers to capture the appetite of this roving crowd.

This is an especially indicting critique as it comes not from a conservative fundamentalist, but from one who has been on the cutting edge of church growth since the 1970's. William Chadwick, by his own admission, has studied under the "who's who" of the churchapreneur world, including the likes of C. Peter Wagner, Lyle Schaller, John Wimber, Rick Warren, Charles Kraft, Eddie Gibbs, Roberta Hestenes and Bill Hybels. Yet, as Chadwick assesses the mega church scene he laments the fact that it has created a credibility crisis. Instead of being scene as sincere, Jesus-loving, soul-winning servants, mega church leaders are increasingly being perceived as businessmen lacking in principle and ecumenism. But its not just high profile insiders who are taking note of this lack of integrity, its now a topic of discussion among the secular academia. University of Colorado Historian, Paul Harvey, highlights the apparent lack of integrity inherent to the mega church phenomon when he says, mega-churches are “faith institutions reinventing themselves to meet the consumer-like demands of worshippers.”

As you pause and reflect upon the assessments presented above, its worth revisiting the definition of the term churchapreneur: a churchapreneur is a pastor of a local church who views his church as a product to be marketed and sold. Again, we trace this mentality back to its source, Bill Hybels, and to the poster hanging outside of his office at Willow Creek Church which aptly summarizes the churchapreneur mentality: What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value? Churchapreneurs are businessmen, and the product they sell is not Christianity, but self-help spirituality and a bland religious experience. If the true church is to restore its credibility and to reverse the devastating consequences churchapreneurs have inflicted upon both the church world and upon the perceptions about the church maintained by the non-Christian public at large, we must repudiate their selfish, unbiblical, commercial impulses and practices, and submit our doctrine, practices, evangelism, and worship to the Lordship of Christ as mediated through the inspired word of God.

In our next article we will outline a Reformed response to churchapreneuers as we bring our series to conclusion.