Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Mega Church Bubble Is Bursting

The Tennessean (with pretty good religious coverage) had a big article in the Sunday, November 20, paper on the mega church bubble -- wondering if it might be bursting.  You can read it all for yourself.  It is not earth shattering news but the solid reporting of what happens when churches and the pastors who lead them become so intertwined that the church cannot exist without the pastor.  We have see it often enough.  The Crystal Cathedral is but one current example but it does not take much to see how applicable are the lessons of Schuller and the deterioration of his once thriving evangelical empire.

I remember hearing of Rex Humbard and his Cathedral of Tomorrow from Akron, Ohio.  A one-time itinerant preacher, he became one of the best-known television evangelists in America.  At the height of his popularity his Cathedral Of Tomorrow program was seen on more than 600 stations. In the 1950s he dedicated his $4 million domed Cathedral of Tomorrow  -- a huge, plush 5,000-seat circular sanctuary complete with velvet drapes, hydraulic stage and a 100ft-long Cross suspended horizontally overhead, studded with thousands of light bulbs in red, white and blue.

Humbard's weekly broadcast (Cathedral Of Tomorrow) mixed preaching and music, the principal performers being his wife (an accomplished gospel singer), their children, a 48-strong choir and the immaculately-groomed Cathedral Quartet. Humbard himself, in a sharp business suit, would contribute folksy songs on his guitar, preach a sermon, offer prayers and utter blessings along the lines of "God bless you real good".  By 1994 it was all gone and the Cathedral sold.  

He was but one of many who saw the rise and fall of fortune upon their evangelical empires.  The Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggert, Oral Roberts, and so many others found failure either through the moral weakness or the inability to pass on what was a personal appeal to children or other successors.  Whether local, regional, or national, the problem is the same -- church and preacher have become one and the same.  How does a mega church transition to other leadership?  It is not something I worry about but I can guess it is on the minds of the Rick Warrens, Bill Hybels, Joel Osteens, and J. D. Jakes of this world.

Yet while the media is readily pointing out the failures of those once invincible churches and preachers, some church bodies are thinking that their model is still worth following.  Not a few in Missouri are building mission starts with the same grand vision of satellite campuses and a dynamic leader whose charisma and personality are copied from place to place in an attempt to start out big (instead of beginning small and working your way up).  It makes me wonder if we will not be left with the same kinds of empty shells of the visions and plans of these energetic leaders whose legacy may be more personal than churchly and their shoes pretty hard for anyone to fill.

In the Twin Cities, one of the largest Lutheran congregations in America will be working on translating what has largely been the fruit of one man's leadership on to those who now take his place.  With his father, Paul Youngdahl built what became the nation's largest ELCA congregation, but his ministry remained very personal. It is this personal nature that makes it hardest for a successor to build upon the legacy of Youngdahl and continue the Mount Olivet miracle.  At 6-foot-7, Youngdahl not only was a towering figure on the basketball court but his skill as a leader made him a towering figure in the church.  He leaves some mighty big shoes to fill after personally serving this parish since 1968, as senior Pastor since 1974.  Many will be watching to see if the transition will be successful.

Although the parish I serve is fairly small (250-300 in worship attendance), I wonder how difficult the transition will be when I am no longer here.  I have already begun my 19th year here and, unless a surprise from God comes, will probably finish my full-time service here.  That could mean that this parish would have the same Pastor for nearly 30 years.  This is not a problem for me but it might become a problem for those who cannot imagine another Pastor serving them.  But the issues faced here are minor in comparison to the problem of sustaining multi-million dollar budgets, maintaining hundred million dollar campuses, and keeping thousands of seats filled each Sunday...

How easy it is for us to displace Jesus and put ourselves center stage.... And how hard it is for us to separate ourselves from our egos...  Lord, keep us from becoming our own worst enemies and working against what is Your Church and Your work!


Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

The next time I sing the first stanza of "Built on the Rock" I won't be thinking just of Gothic churches and flying buttresses.

I've seen first hand the fallout from cults of personality in Lutheran churches and others and it isn't pretty. It doesn't necessarily have to be a mega church either, it can happen in small rural congregations too. I take no small amount of comfort in knowing that as far as being a pastor is concerned I am not irreplaceable. What a pitiful cornerstone I would make!

Anonymous said...

While the mega church is usually
built on the personality of the
preacher, it is not able to pass on
the baton to the founder's son.
Schuller, Roberts, Hagee, are good

However, the big news in the 21st
century is the "success" of the non-
denominational churches. There is
no longer a demand for doctrine,
instead people want fellowship.

John said...

I believe that one of the things that sunk The Crystal Cathedral is that the son was never truly the senior pastor. The old man never left.

Should pastors leave the congregation when they retire?

Anonymous said...

"hydraulic stage and a 100ft-long Cross suspended horizontally overhead, studded with thousands of light bulbs"

LOL, you mean like this one at the 2010 LCMS youth gathering?

George said...

That's why I strive to be an average pastor, so the next guy won't have too much to live up to! :)

Seriously, it's absolutely something that pastors need to think about -- what is it going to be like for the next pastor? If you manage to win all the people onto your side, that isn't actually that helpful...

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

John, it is generally recommended that a pastor not remain in the congregation after he retires. When I was a circuit counselor we encouraged a minimum of 1-2 years of vacancy after a long pastorate, simply to give the congregation some time to adjust and prepare. The reaction to the retirement of a long serving and beloved pastor can be similar to a death. The pastor moving on makes the transition easier for all concerned. I know of wan intance where a pastor retired after over 20 years in the same church and continued on as a member there, but he had determined on his own to absent himself from the day to day activities of the church for over a year as well as refusing to accept any requests to do weddings, funerals, baptisms etc. from this congregation after he retired. That I would say was an exception. It is a blessing for pastors that once they retire they generally don't remain in that same congregation, I have seen how difficult it can be for others such as teachers staff, music directors etc. who serve for decades in the same congregation and then retire only to come to church the next sunday and endure for better or worse what their successor is doing.

Sue said...

My congregation had a pastor serve for 46 years! I was only 4 when he left and don't remember him, nor was I old enough to know what the transition was like. I know he made a huge impact on our congregation. A very old school German Lutheran.

Interesting post - you put into words what I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Anonymous said...

Rex Humbard, forerunner of the "cavernous megachurches of today" according to this NY Times article:

Who knew that Elvis Presley was a fan of Humbard's and that Humbard preached at Presley's funeral.

Janis Williams said...

Megachurch. The alternative word for catholic?

I'm from the world of megachurch - a converted Baptist. It seems to me there is a possible answer to 'bereavement' in a parish which has had the benefit of a long term pastor. I think it is in the pastor and people working together before his retirement to call a young man to pull in yoke with the senior pastor. I realize there are those of you saying, "It's not feasible monetarily for most congregations." However, if the future indicates there will be more bi-vocational pastors simply as a financial necessity....