First published on Christian Converser
So CCNZ will have a series of posts looking specifically at megachurches, in light of the ongoing controversies. This has included, in NZ where this blog is authored, the leaders of a Wellington based megachurch having stood aside for a period of review in the wake of negative publicity, and subsequently resigning from the church leadership altogether. An article, “The Media and the Megachurch”, has also appeared in the Stuff website and in some of their printed newspapers. The current level of media interest has been cited by some church leaders quoted in the article as a negative influence, however if people are questioning their church’s direction as a result of media conversations, then it must also be asked how substantial their faith actually is. Mature Christians generally understand that their faith can be challenged in all sorts of contexts, so having this coming from the news media is hardly unusual. This is especially important to consider in light of whether megachurches achieve their size and growth through some kind of special ability in presenting the gospel message, or whether these fellowships have followed a particular model of presentation that appeals particularly to specific demographics that has produced the growth. A percentage of growth can be attributed in some cases to the public persona of senior leaders in some of the churches.
Out of the article itself, it is interesting to see reference to various church groupings within NZ that are held to be some form of megachurch. If we stick with the standard definition of a megachurch as having something like 2000 members then in that context, some of the churches listed are megachurches, and others are not. C3 Church in New Zealand is not a megachurch, as all of its fellowships are autonomous, although there are several fellowships in Auckland that operate across multiple sites. It is probably correct to state C3 in Sydney, Australia is a megachurch, but little is known about how the churches there are structured. Grace Vineyard in Christchurch is a megachurch, also having six or seven campuses across Canterbury. In Christchurch there is also South West Baptist, which is numerically close to being a megachurch but has only one campus, and notably, open leadership, a quality that is commonly lacking in megachurches in general. In terms of what is commonly held to be part of the megachurch label, the culture of churches such as these is often difficult to discern even for their members, as the vast majority have a closed leadership and limited engagement and participation with their rank and file members at a strategic level. So whilst it is stated in that article that some large churches have rejected a megachurch label, numerically they fit with it, and especially insofar as the majority of them are organised as a single organisation with multiple campuses, especially in the case of some of those which have campuses all over New Zealand, they fit the numerical definition of what a megachurch is.
It is the belief of CCNZ that the most desirable leadership model for any church is an open one, in which there is full engagement and participation with the ordinary membership and the leaders. This type of leadership is common within a number of mainline denominations such as Baptists and Presbyterians, and to a somewhat lesser extent in the Anglican and Methodist churches which both have a more episcopal leadership structure. It is also the structure adopted by many public corporate entities where shareholders are given specific rights to vote for the directors of the entity, which are the general equivalent of the senior leadership or trustees of churches, or the equivalent terms of mainline churches (e.g. Anglican vestry or Presbyterian session). The contradiction that most megachurches and, in fact, most similar smaller churches that are derived from Pentecostalism have, is that they proclaim the priesthood of all believers, yet maintain a strict hierarchy of leadership by appointment from the senior pastor, which generally follows the assumption of that senior pastor having an apostolic calling to found the church and complete authority over all aspects of church leadership and management. This is a major factor in the leadership problems that have developed in various megachurches, in that the senior leader is elevated to a superior position and that in effect, an organisational structure is created that is wholly dependent upon that senior leader to continue functioning. The lack of accountability in apostolic-type leadership structures is one of the most major failings.
Returning to the question of the substance of megachurch theology, as noted above, the leaders of some NZ churches quoted in the Stuff article have been citing the challenges of current media publicity. There are two aspects of this. One is whether the churches have treated their members well and given them a sound theological basis of belief that will withstand criticism or other challenges, and the other is whether the church is following sound theological beliefs and practices overall. There is obvious overlap between the two, but this paragraph will focus mainly on what theologies megachurches tend to follow overall. There is no question that there are some specific theologies that are applied by megachurches that are particularly focused on mass appeal and numerical growth, and the question is whether this kind of focus results in less attention being paid to sound theological foundations than would normally be expected in the Christian community. For example, the label “seeker sensitive” has been widely applied to some megachurches, and this refers to specific practices that are designed to provide a greater appeal to non-Christians. Other specific theologies such as dispensationalism (“end times”) claim to be able to relate modern day events to the Bible and this is of concern when these teachings are incorporated into outreach efforts, as for example has been seen up and down the nation with some particular megachurches claiming that Covid or the war in Ukraine are examples of end times events that prove dispensationalist beliefs they have incorporated as key teachings. As noted in a previous post, the teachings in particular of C Peter Wagner through the Wagner Leadership Institute have overshadowed the development of megachurches particularly in the United States and he is well known for expounding church growth strategies and the New Apostolic Reformation model of leadership, which has generally failed to have significant impact even in the US. Many of Wagner’s other theologies such as those on spiritual warfare tend to be more on the fringe of church doctrine outside the US and probably a great deal of his teaching in general falls into the more specific American cultural theocratic spectrum of belief that is generally characterised as branches of dispensationalist thought. Pentecostalism historically challenges many traditional theological beliefs and tended to exalt the apostolic calling and anointing of a particular leader to a higher level than theological knowledge, especially formal study and qualifications. This has largely shifted in favour of formal processes of academic study and related leadership credentials across major churches in more recent times.