Are Megachurches Wrong? Analysis of David Wells’ Critique

Scot McKnight has posted about David Wells’ critique of megachurches. Wells writes in his new book, Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2005),

“Did the early church separate itself out into units of the like-minded in terms of ethnicity, class, and language as these megachurches have done?... when we set out with a methodology which we know will create churches that will be culturally, generationally, economically, and racially monolithic and monochromatic, something is amiss.”

To this, Scot writes, “Do we really know that the early Christians didn’t have some niche ministries? In fact, we don’t. We don’t know how they did lots of what they did. I suspect they preached to anyone who would listen — if it was all men, they’d preach to men; if it was all women, they’d preach to women; if it was mixed, they’d preach to mixed crowds; if it was a bunch of philosophical types at the Areopagus, they’d tailor the message to them.”

A commenter (Craig O’Brien) offered this interesting study from Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research (article found at Leadership Network):

The wide-ranging survey includes data on the many attributes that together define the nature and impact of megachurches in our society. Collectively, the results debunk 11 of the most common beliefs about megachurches, namely:

MYTH #1: All megachurches are alike.
REALITY: They differ in growth rates, size and emphasis.

MYTH #2: All megachurches are equally good at being big.
REALITY: Some clearly understand how to function as a large institution, but others flounder.

MYTH #3: There is an over-emphasis on money in the megachurches.
REALITY: The data disputes this.

MYTH #4: Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about Christianity.
REALITY: Megachurches generally have high spiritual expectations and serious orthodox beliefs.

MYTH #5: Megachurches are not deeply involved in social ministry.
REALITY: Considerable ministry is taking place at and through these churches.

MYTH #6: All megachurches are pawns of or powerbrokers to George Bush and the Republican Party.
REALITY: The vast majority of megachurches are not politically active.

MYTH #7: All megachurches have huge sanctuaries and enormous campuses.
REALITY: Megachurches make widespread use of multiple worship services over several days, multiple venues and even multiple campuses.

MYTH #8: All megachurches are nondenominational.
REALITY: The vast majority belong to some denomination.

MYTH #9: All megachurches are homogeneous congregations with little diversity.
REALITY: A large and growing number are multi-ethnic and intentionally so.

MYTH #10: Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming.
REALITY: Megachurches grow because excited attendees tell their friends.

MYTH #11: The megachurch phenomenon is on the decline.
REALITY: The data suggests that many more megachurches are on the way.
Having been involved in a number of mega-churches in my time in ministry, I must say that to lump all megachurches into one big boat of unbiblical ecclesiology is too simplistic. It is not good exegesis on Wells' part to read back into the fledgling church of the First Century some sort of utopian ideal of diversity and smallness, as if niche ministry is unbiblical and largeness is evil. I seem to remember Peter preaching to over three thousand at Pentecost (no, I wasn't there, I read about it in Acts!). This may not directly represent ecclesiology, but it certainly minimizes the arguments in the Emerging Church that megachurch preachers are somehow less effective.

I have seen good megachurches and bad megachurches. I’ve seen some match the stereotypical trappings of the megachurch “show” with little depth and little true community. I’ve seen others that are constantly seeking to change and innovate and truly disciple and serve in order to be Christ to their community.

I cannot see how “Niche Ministry” is ontologically evil. Paul said "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." What is wrong with churches doing the same? Megachurches have the ability to offer a variety of niche ministries.

I also know of smaller churches that had realized that they themselves had “niched” themselves, and therefore they intentionally planted a church in a neighborhood nearby so that they could reach a different demographic. I applaud this kind of church planting strategy.

We have to face the reality that local churches proclaim Christ in local contexts by people who can reach that particularity. And that’s okay.

Sidebar: What's fascinating about Wells' critique of megachurches is that this is what the emerging church has been saying all along. Yet, Wells' critique is in a book that is subtitled, "Christ in a Postmodern World," and we have already witnessed that Wells has not warmed to many of the EC's ideas for proclaiming Christ in this Postmodern World. It seems, however, that there is more in common here. The EC needs to be fair in its critique of megachurches the same as Wells does!

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Ted Gossard said...

Grand Rapids would not be as rich minus a number of the megachurches here, in my opinion. Some of them have the resources and will to do good works in the city. And really seem to be reaching folks who might otherwise not attend anywhere. And does seem to seek to get them integrated into a church life.

As for niche, I agree. Except I do think it's a good witness when we can have a multi-ethnic and cultural church, such as is true with some. Yet I do think churches can be taking a bum rap for this.


DLW said...

Well, from what I recall from discussions on ecclesiology, the argument for small churches is due to the view that Paul argued for the importance of decentralization in local churches and that such tends to only be possible in house-churches of 30 or less.

From my albeit limited experience, it seems that many megachurch leadership structures reflect the organization of Corporations. Leaders often care about their job security a bit too much and may inspire rivalry(perhaps like that between Piper and Boyd in MN, though I would say Boyd has been persistently better at turning the other cheek towards Piper and the Pipettes(my term).)...

I fail to see how coordination between local smaller churches would not facillitate a variety of niche ministries.

I think the problem is that our economic system discriminates against doing house churches well. If we had a National Health Care system so that everyone had reasonable health care, regardless of earnings, and a Basic Income Guarantee, it would be easier for Christians to have smaller house churches with a couple of the members choosing to work only part-time so they can dedicate more of their time to study and ministry.

I also think that if we taxed oil closer to its true cost, we'd see a return to more local churches and fewer megachurches.


Marc said...


I bet most people drive to house churches, and I also wager that most house churches are mono-cultural. I actually think that Bob's analysis is dead on. Sure there are mega churches that are personality driven, but Xenos Christian Fellowship (www.xenos.org) in Columbus, Ohio is surely not that way. You cannot even figure out who the big cheese is over there, and they grew to be so big (3,500) BECAUSE they used a house church model. Plus, it looks like many of the leaders get their income from employment that is not connected to the church at all (there is at least one doctor and one dentist in leadership over there). My only beef with them is that all of their leaders are white guys.

DLW said...

Hi Marc,

You tend to drive less with house churches, and, of course, one family doesn't drive at all.

As for whether they are monocultural, I think it's easier to deal with diversity in a setting where there are fewer people and less centralization in leadership. This is what permitted Chris Rice and Spencer Perkins to form an inter-racial fellowship that was the basis for their book, "More than Equals".

I didn't know about Xenos. I checked them out. They've had an interesting history.

I gotta say that I believe decentralization does matter and that a lot of the concentration strikes me as possible more economics-driven...


DLW said...

Bob, I don't think Peter's message to 4000 some people sets the precedent for ecclesial organization that you argue for it.

There is no reason that decentralized local churches cannot find ways to coordinate a variety of niche ministries and public speakers for large audiences.

The issue seems to be how much of the way we do church is economics-driven or stuff we inherited from the Constantinized Church of Europe?


Bob Robinson said...


My point about the number Peter preached to is just this: Some over at Jesus Creed have argued that a preacher can't be affective preaching to such multitudes. Biblically, we've seen that it was effective.

Now, of course, this has little to say about whether or not a pastor can effectively pastor a megachurch, its just that he may effectively preach to a large crowd.

In order to effectively pastor that many people, I think that megachurch should be broken down into sub-congregations, thus the opportunity for "niche ministries" within a megachurch.

DLW said...

So here's my thought: Yes there are differentials in the ability of people to preach. I would not be a very good preacher. But does that justify megachurches?

Way I see it, preaching has as a key ingredient rhetorical ability and rhetorical ability has been long over-rated over the course of Christian history. Augustine was made a church leader with less training than he probably shd have had as a result of his rhetorical ability not too long after his conversion. What matters more is delving into the Word and how people internalize the message and make it shine in their lives.

At the end of the day, the megachurch you describe seems more like a parachurch than a local church. If the real action is happening at the sub-congregation level then one needs to ask whether the megachurch's structure is driven by Economics or the empowerment of the local sub congregations.

I think that there is a need for parachurch organizations, but there justification must be in how they serve the local churches and that we shd bear in mind the Catholic Social Thought criterion of subsidiarity and socialization in their organization.

my apologies for being a bit persistent on this point...

Marc said...

Hi dlw,

Going back to the Xenos model, we see a "both and" approach that I really reasonate with. I was going over to a soley house church model, but like Bob, I was impressed with the fact that the first church there ever was, was indeed a megachurch that probably was broken down in subcongregations like Bob suggests. This is Xenos' model.

Plus, I have learned that MOST of the staff at Xenos are unpaid. This is especially true of the house church pastors who pastor 30 to 60 member churches in their homes and work 40 hours a week and have families too.

Further, Redeemer Presbyterian looks like another model that is working and is doing some pretty interesting things in NYC. And of Tim Keller is an excellent communicator of God's word. And what is exactly wrong with that? I rather like good preaching, but I like good pastoring too. And I am sure that we both know many good preachers who cannot pastor, and many pastors who cannot preach. I think that the model we see at Xenos solves this problem.

DLW said...

Hi Marc,
I doubt that the passage Bob quoted deals with the first "church" ever. I don't think the word church was used for specific communities until later.

I also would be wary about venerating the "first Church" in Jerusalem as they did not obey Jesus's command to go and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. They stayed in Jersusalem and eventually laid the seeds of the Judaizers that Paul later opposed. It took persecution and the acts of "nobodies" to advance the kingship of God beyond Jerusalem.

It's also noteworthy that the first church were called "brethren"(in NASB) and were a gathering of one hundred and twenty persons. To be among a brethren, I think connotes more like a smaller group, whereas church tends to refer to the whole.

Compare a NASB search of Brethren and Church of Matthew-Acts.

So I'm not quite certain of the biblical accuracy of Xenos's model.

My key point is that I fail to see why more hierarchy is needed to permit people to exercise their gifts of pastoring and/or preaching but that it seems that part of the existing rationale for such is more Economics and it would be better if our system made it easier to sustain more smaller churches.


davidcwelker said...

interesting analysis on megachurches... certainly some things to consider.
*enjoying your blog.

Marc said...


I am not trying to baptize the Jerusalem model that we see in Acts 2, I am just saying that I don't see a problem with a large church. For that matter, I don't see a problem with house churches either. I just agree with Bob that we should not be too quick to suggest what God likes best, or what model is best for discipelship and etc.

TBH, I think it is highly problematic for most house churches to be able to truly be multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-racial by dent of the fact that a house church has to be located in a certain community and neighborhood which usually will be predominant with a specific racial or ethnic heritage. So I just don't see how a house church in a predominant white neighbor is going to attract a lot of non-whites.

DLW said...

Marc, at the end of the day, I think what matters is the proper discernment of whether there is a definitive biblical precedent for the notion of house churches.

From my study of church history, it seems that concentrated leadership associated with bigger churches have long been a critical source of problems that have harmed the witness of Xty...

And, as stated before, it seems that part of the justification of bigger churches is more economics-driven than purpose-driven.

You wrote:"TBH, I think it is highly problematic for most house churches to be able to truly be multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-racial by dent of the fact that a house church has to be located in a certain community and neighborhood which usually will be predominant with a specific racial or ethnic heritage. So I just don't see how a house church in a predominant white neighbor is going to attract a lot of non-whites. "

Well, obviously de facto segregation and the likelihood of having a multiracial composition of house churches would be bound together.

However, getting back to my earlier points, if we had a national healthcare system and got rid of the current morass of income tax exemptions and replaced it with a Basic Income Guarantee, another consequence would be that regional inequalities in housing values would be seriously reduced, as well as racial differences in income. This would contribute to reducing de facto segregation and make it more likely that local house churches would be inter-racial.


Marc said...

I dunno dlw, de facto segregation is a lot more complex than you suggest. There is no easy fix or silver bullet. Plus, when middle class blacks move into white neighborhoods, many whites see that as a signal to move out.

And again, I like the house church model, I just don't have an either/or perspective when it comes to church. I am okay with mega churches as long as they don't have dumbed down sermons and and have thought through how to connect people into cell groups. And I do like the model at Xenos. Finally, I think that mega churches are here to stay. We even have pomo/emergent megachurches now (e.g., Mars Hill Bible Church in Seattle, and Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids).

Anonymous said...

You're right that de facto segregation is complex, but that doesn't mean having nominally mixed megachurches will promote racial reconciliation.

small house churches promote decentralization which in turn promotes honest power-sharing which promotes true reconciliation.

The issue hasn't been whether megachurches are "here to stay" but whether they are biblically justified or perhaps often economics-driven, with some potentially dangerous unintended consequences for the Church as a whole...

Marc said...

But the Xenos model suggests that a megachurch does not necessarilly have to be top down or unbiblical. Again, it is essentially a collection of house churches and it seems to be working. It addresses each of the concerns that you listed. Further, you have not really demonstrated how megachurches are unbiblical.

Anonymous said...

I don't know Marc.

I'm not against associations of house churches, but from what I read, it sounded like the story at Xenos is a bit more complicated than that.

If megachurches are truly parachurch organizations that facilitate local churches then I'd be the last to say they are antibiblical.

It sounds like Xenos is a better model.


Marc said...

Okay, the Xenos model aside. Why are megachurches "necessarilly" anti-biblical? And let's suppose that we are talking about megachurches with strong cell group ministry during the week, are giving to the needs of the poor, etc.

Anonymous said...

This post is so disgustingly bias, written by men who get there paychecks from these megachurches. Jesus said it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to go to heaven.

Whats that to say about the rich church which is supposed to reflect the gospels of Jesus Christ? Remember, leaders are held to an even higher standard.

Do you really think if Jesus came back and walked in one of these churches with quadruple 72' TV's he would be happy? He would be turning over tables calling us Pharisees. Not to mention every single time we build one of these mega-churches we get closer and closer to Catholicism.

The end does not always justify the means and just because there's more people filling the seats does not mean more seats are being filled in heaven.