Recycle or Produce?

A few years ago, at the evening session of a Christian conference I was attending, the host introduced the guest-speaker, a megachurch pastor, as the greatest thing since Al Gore invented the Internet. In fact, after that introduction, many were left feeling like a bunch of apostates for not sharing the same sentiment towards our guest-speaker.

After that superb introduction, the pastor pulled a PDA out of his coat pocket and began to rattle off some statistics on the growth of megachurches in America. According to his statistics, megachurches were the way of the future; growing twice as fast as anyone ever thought they would. Majority of the conference attendees, mostly pastors of 50-60 member churches, reacted to every piece of his statistics with shouts of praise and “hallelujahs” and who could blame them?

Having been conditioned to believe that pastoring a large church would bring them legitimacy and recognition, which to them, were equivalent to having God’s favor and power, a majority, if not all, of the pastors sitting there dreamed of having a megachurch. So, swelling with pride, they relished hearing how quickly these churches were popping up all over the land, which left them with a glimmer of hope that whispered in their ears, “YOUR church could be next…”

I couldn’t stomach more than a few minutes of the man’s talk and left the auditorium. As I was getting out of the door, a friend who was among the audience text me the following: “Isaiah! Peace, peace, where there is no peace.” referring to the prophet Isaiah rebuking the false prophets of his time for prophesying of a coming peace that would never come. We both felt that the speaker’s message of megachurches being the way of the future for all and any pastor had several faulty premises. Not once did the speaker refer to evangelism as a way to build megachurches.

In her New York Times bestseller, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation”, Christine Wicker says:

…As for those splendid megachurches, the pride of the evangelical world, they’re dinosaurs and don’t yet know it…Megachurches soon will be like Old West ghost towns, one former megachurch leader said. People will be taking tours of them as examples of a bygone era.

I taught a class on evangelism and discipleship at a Bible college for five years. Many of my students hoped to become pastors of large churches. These students’ philosophy of pastoring mostly focused on what I call, “Christian recycling”—finding the quickest way of drawing Christians from other churches to theirs. The sad and most frustrating part of dealing with this megachurch fascination was that very few of the mentioned students had hardly ever considered evangelism as a means to grow a church. But then again, why should they have? These young men and women were fed a cooked up data that lolled them into believing that someone else must be doing the evangelism since the number of the evangelicals in the US is growing by leaps and bounds.

According to Christine Wicker, if evangelicals really had the numbers they say they have and were growing the way they tell us they are, they would be unstoppable. Christine believes there are three sets of figures when it comes to the number of evangelicals in America:

1. The numbers that are provided by the evangelical organizations such as the Southern Baptists and National Associations of
Evangelicals (NAE) brings the total to 54 million, 25 percent of the adult population.
2. The numbers according to the membership figures from churches belonging to NAE total to 23.6 million.
3. When we look at the numbers church planners really count on, Sunday school or small-group attendance, the total drops
down to only 8 million, a far cry from 54 million that my students were fed to believe.

I know some people might be offended by me using phrases such as “cooked up”, “fed to” and so on. However, I speak from experience.

“How many are you running now?” as if I was a cattle rancher, was a common question I was asked when I pastored. The larger the number the more respect you had so keeping count of attendance is very important for any church, especially, a megachurch. At any megachurch there are ushers who are in charge of, literally, counting heads whenever people meet at the church. I can’t tell you how often I heard these ushers tell me something like:

Last Sunday the pastor told me to change the head-count to a much higher number because from the pulpit he could see there were more people in attendance. But, I know there weren’t that many people at church that Sunday.

I have seen churches double and triple count their attendance to reach a much higher specific number—usually, around the magic number of 10,000 if it’s a megachurch.

A few years ago at an annual convention of a large evangelical denomination, I heard the report of the denomination having planted something like 235 churches that year. HOWEVER, very conveniently, they neglected to say that, in the same year, they had closed down over 200 churches, which left the denomination with a net increase of only handful of churches.

Because of the megachurch phenomenon of our days, the evangelical leaders make it sound as if we are racking up victories the Church never dreamed of, yet, on any Sunday, at majority of American churches, mega or small, over 90% of the attendees are transferred Christians—those who left one church to attend another. I have spoken at churches where 100% of the members were originally from other churches.

My church was different. We worked among Iranian Muslims and Jews. Unlike
Christian background Americans, hoping to find a church they could call home, these Jews and Muslims did not get up on Sunday mornings, going through the Yellow Pages asking each other, “Where would you like to go to church today?” Through years of friendship and trust building, 90% of our members were introduced to Christ by the believers at the Iranian church. My church did not have the opportunity of growing through transferred Christians. Our only means of growth was evangelism and that’s why the church grew ever so slowly. If I remember correctly, in the Great Commission, Jesus did not say, “Go into the whole world and recycle Christians by convincing my followers to leave their churches and attend yours because you offer a better youth or singles’ ministry.” But He commanded us to make NEW disciples.

Being so over taken by a capitalistic attitude of “bigger is better”, the church has lost her bearing and true mission—going into the whole world and making disciples for the Master. In any industry, if you are not producing, you will go out of business and the church is not any exception. It is time for the church in America to get out of recycling business, which might be good for the ecology, but sucks for the Kingdom and start producing.