During the 1990s, “seeker-friendly” churches began popping up everywhere. Most were non-denominational churches looking to reach those who fell between the cracks and divides that separate many of our traditional denominations. These seeker-friendly churches did well for a time. The fact that many are now struggling to pay the bills has less to do with the changing economy than it does with the changing culture.
It’s no surprise that these churches did well in the 1990s. The economy was strong and people gave charitably. The same can be said of the first seven years of the Bush administration. Many seeker-friendly churches were able to break ground with new buildings, which seated thousands of congregants. They were able to fill these big buildings with scoreboard-sized video monitors and all the latest video and computer technology. They even served gourmet coffee.
But things began to change in 2008. The economy tanked and the churches had to cut back. They hoped the next election would bring change. But hope was not enough. Men cannot always bring about that kind of change. And only God can bring about lasting change.
But the one thing that has started to change in the mega-church is the message. What once was a slightly watered-down seeker-friendly version of the Gospel is now a slightly Gospel-flavored bucket of water. And it’s not enough to quench the thirst of the masses.
As one who has traveled to twenty-two states this year I’ve had an opportunity to hear pastors in several of these mega-churches. And I’ve heard some very interesting things. Some examples follow:
1. “We encourage you to sign up for one of our Bible study classes. We don’t say we have all the answers. We may not have any of the answers that you might have. We just want to start a conversation.” Oddly enough, the church where I heard this little gem doesn’t even call itself emergent. Of course, Don Miller claims he’s not emergent but I’m not buying that jazz.
2. “This church doesn’t focus on doctrine. We focus on hope.” Well, that explains why the pastor rode up to the stage on a motorcycle. By giving a sermon standing in front of a Harley Davidson, instead of a cross, he can avoid that unpleasant doctrinal stuff about sin and redemption. Pass the Starbucks. This is going to be a good one!
3. “If Christianity is to survive in the 21st Century, everything about it must change.” You can’t be serious with this one, can you? Does that mean I should cast the first stone? Can I cast it at the idiot in the pulpit? Wait, there is no pulpit. And no cross. Never mind.
4. “There’s nothing wrong with diversity. Everyone needs diversity.” But what about people who say they don’t need diversity? Are we in danger of excluding them from the conversation?
If today’s mega-churches are anything they are diverse. They typically have large numbers of traditional Christians as well as large numbers of seekers who may not have been raised in any particular faith tradition. But these days, many mega-churches are beginning to show preference for the latter – despite their emphasis on equality and inclusion. And this may prove to be their downfall.
By watering down their message to be even more seeker-friendly, today’s mega-churches are not going to achieve their crass objective: To avoid offending people in order to keep their numbers up (read: Keep the money flowing) and eventually pay their mortgage down.
Instead, their gains with seekers and the easily offended will be offset by their losses among those who are farther along in their walks and, hence, more traditional in their beliefs. This is consequential because the traditionalist, not the liberal Christian or the seeker, is always the first one to open his wallet.
Our culture is in rapid decline as we enter the Obama/post-Christian phase of American history. People are in search of bold and fearless pastors who will take a stand against evil in blunt and uncompromising - not coded and esoteric - language. In the end, pastors who refuse to mold the Gospel to accommodate the spiritual needs of the seeker or the financial needs of the church will be the last ones standing.
I predict that many of the mega-churches of today will be the shopping malls of tomorrow. When it is time to foreclose and go packing someone is going to have some heavy equipment to move. At least no one will have to pick up their cross.