Church Education Trust

 Chapter 3: The Mega Church movement. (MCM)


3.1 Introduction.

An American Mega Church is usually Protestant and on average has more than 2000 worshippers in attendance on any given Sunday.  The Mega Church Movement is not only a reaction to a failing and declining traditional church but is a pro-active attempt to contextualise the gospel message in such a way that it could become relevant to a 21st century post modern American world.

The MCM’s ecclesiology is a concerted attempt to develop churches in a post modern world and has been the object of critical analysis, which has engendered misunderstanding, misrepresentation and misinformation.Mega Church Pastor, Rick Warren[1] categorically states in defence of Saddleback theology and the wider Mega movement “that every theology has a context”.


To analyse any Mega Church without understanding the context that gave it birth is to do an injustice to it.  Mega Church leaders are contextual theologians and in their church services there is no socially and politically neutral theology; in their struggle for life and death their theology chooses their place of ministry.


The MCM`s contextual approach is neither socially or politically neutral, for it takes sides with its community in caring, understanding needs and progressively desiring to help. Its contextualised approach is one that affirms that God in Christ through his body the church, is moving in love toward its recipient community.

The church in general has much to learn from the MCM`s experience in contextualising its message while becoming relevant to its community.  Often narrow attitudes to the movement cloud a positive understanding.


Thumma and Travis[2] have devoted eleven chapters of their book to deal positively with the myths and mistaken impressions about the MCM. They suggest that many of the distorted views are in general the result of ignorance of the MCM.  Their book “Beyond Mega Church Myths” [3]provides ample evidence of such positions.

Warren[4] in his book “The Purpose Driven Church” clearly indicates his frustration with the “myths that make us miserable.”[5] He deals with “inaccurate assumptions sometimes out of envy, sometimes out of fear, and sometimes out of ignorance”.Some of these myths are listed, reflecting how the Mega Church is generally understood by traditionalists.

Some traditionalists have suggested that Mega Churches only care about numbers, grow at the expense of smaller churches, choose between quantity and quality and compromise the message of the gospel in order to grow numerically. Others have suggested that if one is dedicated enough the church will grow; Warren reflects that it takes more than dedication for a church to grow; it takes skill.  Some have suggested that there is “a special key”[7] to church growth, as if church growth is caused by one single factor.


However many Mega Church leaders would suggest that church growth is a complex matter. It is important that the real reasons for the growth of the MCM are not lost in a sea of myths and superficial analysis.  Warren comments that “every theology has a context”[8] and one will not understand Saddleback or any of the Mega Churches until one understands their context and how they ministered into that context.

The MCM is a genuine attempt to reinvent the church, rethink the evangelical position in a post modern world and to reform, so as to be contextually effective. In search of a balanced approach and a serious academic study of the development of the new paradigm churches, Donald E.Miller, Professor of Religion at the University of South California, a man who comes from a professed Liberal Episcopalian Church background, has written a book, entitled, “Reinventing American Protestantism”.[9] 

He spent five years researching into the growth of the Mega Church Movement in general and Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship and Hope Chapel in particular. His findings re-enforced the belief that unlike many of the traditional churches, Mega Churches in general, were attempting to firstly reconnect with first century Christianity through biblical discovery, while using the medium of 21st century American culture as the vehicle of promoting the gospel message.

Miller contends that America is experiencing a “Second Reformation” through the Mega Church Movement.That reformation is radically changing the way these new paradigm churches challenge church structure and radicalise worship attitudes by reinventing the ways that one can successfully worship so as to be reconnected with that which is sacred.

New paradigm churches in Miller’s assessment are fast becoming post-denominational and radical in their approach to culture, making them extremely relevant to a post modern American world.  His balanced views and conclusions will be used in this chapter to give objectivity to this process of analysis.The greatest barrier to the gospel in a contemporary Western culture is the church’s inability to be relevant in a post modern age.


The early church was seen as revolutionary but the 21st century church in the West, generally is seen as being tired, boring, irrelevant and reactionary. The MCM developed a response and reaction not only to the methods of message delivery of the traditional church in general but to its declining state.


These new liberated Christian communities came into being where people and their needs became a priority.The new communities of the faithful reacted against the irrelevancy, inequalities and inequities of traditionalism. The MCM represented a new experience of church, and of the Christian community.

Theologically they were delivering a new ecclesiological experience, a new and relevant way of doing church in a post modern world. Miller[10] grasped the fact that the new paradigm churches designed worship services that appealed to non church goers.  This was a significant move away from traditional views on worship.

The concept of seeker friendly worship services would have parallels with Saddleback[11] worship forms.These growing churches did not want to be classified as charismatic, evangelical, fundamentalist or Pentecostal. Miller suggests that these new paradigm churches understood their existence as part of the “apostolic network”[12] as reflected through their understanding of the teaching found in the Acts of the Apostles.


There are 1250 Mega Churches[13] in North America, growing faster and stronger than many denominational churches.  Already they are considered as the third largest religious group in the USA with a 7 billion dollar turnover; they make up 0.5% of all religious congregations but house 33% of all who worship in Christian churches on any given Sunday.[14]  No two Mega Churches are the same; all have similarities and distinct differences caused by the context into which they are found doing church.

Primarily, each Mega Church, because of its missiological and contextualisation process, constructs what may be termed as local theologies..Rutti suggests “that we need an experimental theology in which an on going dialogue is taking place between text and context”. [15] Miller suggests that the great challenge of this second Reformation is to bring into being new paradigm churches, “unlike Martin Luther, is challenging not doctrine but the medium through which the message of Christianity is articulated”.[16] 

This is a key observation by Miller and as we will note, Saddleback clearly argues that it is not in the message where the problems hindering church growth are to be found but the method of delivery of that message to a 21st century world.The MCM`s positive contribution is one of balance, as we will see, between text and context.

The MCM is viewed by many as a refreshing new church model which although born in modernism, has been able to contextualise itself in such a way that it is learning to grow quickly in a post modern age.  Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger comment on the “emerging church movement” (of which the MCM is not a member) by suggesting:Emerging churches are communities that practise the way of Jesus within post modern cultures.


This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus (2) transform the secular realm and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.[17]


In many ways the definition that Gibbs and Bolger attribute to the “emerging church movement” is not all that dissimilar to many of the positive characteristics that can be identified in Mega Churches like Saddleback, Flamingo Road Church, Willow Creek and the Crystal Cathedral. For the sake of clarity, churches may emerge and become Mega Churches but Mega Churches are not emerging churches; they are fully formed with a distinct ecclesiology. This will be reflected[18] in the discussion when Saddleback as a Mega Church is examined.                          

[1] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, New York, Orbis, 1997, 425.

[2] Scott Thumma & Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths, San Fransisco, USA, Wiley, 2007, 1-3.

[3] Scott Thumma & Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths, 1-3.

[4] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 47-71.

[5] Warren, TPDC, 47.

[6] Warren, TPDC, 47.

[7] Warren, TPDC, 60-61.

[8] Warren, TPDC, 27.

[9] Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1997.

[10] Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism, 2.

[11] Miller, RAP, 2, 174.
[12] Miller, RAP, 2.
[13] Scott Thumma & Dave Travis, Beyond Mega Church Myths, 1.

[14] Thumma & Travis, BMCM, 1f.

[15] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 427.

[16] Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism, 11.
[17] Eddie Gibbs & Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern

     Cultures, USA, Baker Academic, 2005.

[18] Reflected, see chapter 4, Saddleback as a Megachurch.

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©2008 Church Education Trust