Editor's Note: We affirm the role of pastor in large churches as well as small; however, this post by Mark Stevens is worth discussing. We encourage you to share your thoughts and reactions in the comment section below.
This morning I came across a story about a Singapore mega-church director who has been arrested on suspicion that he used $23 Million dollars of church funds to aid his wife’s music career. Ironically, I heard Kong Hee speak at an AOG church conference way back in the late 90s. The only thing I remember of his talk was that for years his church sat at around 1000 people.
He said God was teaching him the importance of having a healthy church. Since then, the church has grown to over 20,000 people. A number I personally find incredibly hard to fathom.
In his usual loving, warm, and kind way, Jim West has provided comment on the situation. He makes the claim, “There isn’t A SINGLE mega-church pastor who isn’t either a deceiver, false teacher, or a manipulator. Not one. And you can’t name one. Furthermore, NOT ONE Christian who attends these fraudulent pseudo-churches has the slightest inkling of biblical theology. Had they, they would flee Sodom.”
A big call, especially when I know more than one well-respected scholar who attends Willow Creek. I would also say that it is bad theology to suggest that all pastors are false teachers or fraudulent. I would say no more than any other church pastor! I realize that Jim is using hyperbole; he even admits that in the comments section, but I find the attitude concerning. Just because people choose to attend a mega-church does not mean they are bereft of theology or are lesser Christians.
Don’t get me wrong; I share Jim’s concern about mega-church ministry, especially at 23,000 people. However, can we really make the claim that mega-churches are not real churches?
I have questioned and re-questioned my feelings towards mega-churches; personally, I am not a fan. I don’t think they are suitable places for faithful pastoral practice or deep spiritual formation of people in the way of Jesus. However, I cannot deny that they are a part of the body of Christ.
The problems of mega-churches whose leaders stumble and fall (and too often ruin the faith of weaker saints) are no different than those in smaller churches. They are just more magnified.
All churches are lead by sinners, just sinners with a ministry degree and ordination papers! The formation of any church, large, small, is, in my opinion, the work of the Spirit. It is the physical presence of Christ in the world, His body. As Barth argues,
“The Holy Spirit is the quickening power with which Jesus the Lord builds up Christianity in the world with His body, i.e., as the earthly-historical form of His own existence, causing it to grow, sustaining and ordering it as the communion of His saints, and thus fitting it to give a provisional representation of the sanctification of all humanity and all human life as it has taken place in Him.” Karl Barth CD IV.2
Although we might like to think that we plant churches or that our skills grow churches, I would have to agree with Barth’s argument that the up-building and formation of the Christian community in any form is the work of the Spirit. We merely participate in the ongoing work of reconciliation in the world. If we say that mega-churches, even with all of their faults and with all of our disagreements, are not real churches, then we can hardly claim higher ground. Our smaller churches are equally as flawed.
Here is where I find some agreement with Jim, “Such pastors (mega-church castors) aren’t truly pastors – they are merely functionaries, public speakers. Pastors know their flock just as shepherds know their sheep. It is no accident at all that the early Church seized on the analogy of the pastor as shepherd. For that reason, a church which is so big that the pastor can’t or doesn’t know those who come is no longer a Church as such but a group, an ‘audience,’ nothing more.”
Although I would not word it so strongly, and I certainly wouldn’t say all mega-church pastors aren’t truly pastors, I do have problems with the term “mega-church pastor.” In my mind, a minister cannot pastor more people than those he knows personally. Being a pastor is a personal profession.
When someone uses the term mega-church pastor for me, my vocation and calling is cheapened.
It is kind of like saying a person who prepares McDonald’s burgers is a chef. Don’t we think that a real chef who has spent years studying and training for their vocation might be a little miffed at being compared to someone who slaps sauce and a patty on a bun? If we are going to call ourselves pastors, then we must take seriously Scripture’s call for us to be shepherds.
"True shepherds know their sheep. True shepherds are involved and actively participate in the lives of all of those in their congregation."
True shepherds know their sheep. True shepherds are involved and actively participate in the lives of all of those in their congregation. In my opinion, the sheer size of a large church hampers the vocation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it can’t be done; I just think it is far more difficult in a mega-church (we mustn’t become dogmatic about these things). But hey, maybe I am simply jealous!?!?
I hope the saints of City Harvest Church find their way through this terrible abuse of power (if it turns out the claims are true). We must remember that, in some way, each one of us is responsible for the culture of celebrity we find ourselves in.
At the end of the day, Jesus must be at the heart of everything we do as pastors and churches. Not only in name but also in deed! We must continually question and reflect upon what we are doing and how we are doing it because as Barth also says,
“The Church confesses God as it talks about God. It does so first by its existence in the action of each individual believer. And it does so secondly by its specific action as a fellowship, in proclamation by preaching and the administration of the sacraments, in worship, in its internal and external mission including works of love amongst the sick, the weak, and those in jeopardy. Fortunately, the reality of the Church does not coincide with its action. But its action coincides with the fact that, alike in its existence in believers and its communal existence, as such it speaks about God. Its action is “theology” in both the broader and the narrower sense.” Karl Barth et al., Church Dogmatics, Volume I The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1 (2nd ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2004), 3.