Willow Creek Community Church, a large megachurch in the Chicago area, sought to attract seekers and the “unchurched” several decades ago by creating an environment in which they could say: “This is not your ordinary church.” The church’s minister, Bill Hybels, performed a neighborhood survey prior to organizing the congregation. He went door-to-door asking residents what they disliked about church and what they would want in a church. From this, he constructed a “user friendly” worship service with sermons oriented to practical life and devoid of appeals for money, religious jargon and “heavy guilt trips.” Fast-forward 35 years, and a recent article in Time reports that “Hybels has been meeting privately for the past year with LGBTQ congregants to learn to better understand their stories.” His massive religious organization is not alone in the gradual acceptance of unscriptural lifestyles because changing times warrant a more inclusive message in order to continue to attract crowds.
Willow Creek is just one of hundreds of megachurches that have sprung up in a movement over the past 50 years. While there are without doubt many sincere Christians and godly leaders in this movement, the question I would like to consider briefly (given this short format) is whether this great gathering of souls to many large, suburban campuses answers to the Lord Jesus’ thought and words on the matter of gathering believers.
The Holy Spirit’s testimony in John’s gospel as to the Lord Jesus’ mission in this world is that that He “should die for that nation (Israel) . . . but that also He should gather together in one all the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:52-53). Christianity and the church are here alluded to, though not mentioned, the Lord Himself being the gatherer. In Matthew, having introduced the church by name, He assures His disciples that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The passive voice in the phrase “are gathered” points to an external gathering power. Elsewhere in another context, Jesus says “he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matt. 12:30). In these passages we note that He has been, and still is, at work gathering believing souls to Himself in the power of the Spirit, and if we desire to have fellowship with Christ in that work, it must be according to the principles in the Word of God, which He always honored. Otherwise, our attempts at gathering may have the effect of scattering.
Megachurches are most often the product of one highly gifted, charismatic leader. How many Christians are drawn away from fellowship with those whom the Lord Jesus has gathered to Himself on the ground of truth, and are attracted to such a leader, whether by force of his personality, or by the “social vortex” that his organization has created?
In ancient times, the masses were drawn to the likes of Joseph, Moses, and David, no doubt some of the greatest leaders in history, and it was according to God’s mind in all of those cases. But there is no earthly answer to those great leaders during the church age, and I will contend that it is so by God’s design. The Lord Jesus Christ is alone worthy to have “the gathering of the people be” unto Himself now, and in that coming day of His glory in this world (Genesis 49:10). Christ is the one pictured and previewed in those leaders of old, and not the charismatic megachurch leaders we’ve seen rise to prominence in our day.
The Apostle Paul was God’s “chosen vessel”, but he distinctly lacked charisma and was allowed of the Lord to suffer difficulties to keep him from glorying¹. It was Paul that warned the Ephesian elders of the scattering effect, not only of “grievous wolves”, but of men arising from among believers to “draw away disciples after them” by speaking perverted things². Would not Paul have considered it a perversion of the ministry the Lord had given him, should John Mark or Demas have left him to start their own movement by taking counsel with sinners for the purpose of learning how to most effectively gather both the saved and the lost into great assemblies headed by themselves? Preach a clear gospel to the lost in venues and forums appropriate to that, as many thankfully have and still do, but assembling for worship and ministry pertains to saints, not sinners.
The Lord Jesus assured his disciples that He would sometimes gather saints to His name in numbers as few as two or three, and not merely for casual fellowship. All administrative authority to bind and loose is given to even a small assembly gathered in the Lord’s name, for that gathering represents the whole church of God, “the pillar and base of the truth”³. If that great Head of the Church is content to bless and sanction even only a few in many places throughout the world who cling to the truth, ought not you and I be content to have it so?
(Some background material was taken from “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena”, by Scott Thumma, PhD)
¹ I Corinthians 2:1-5; II Corinthians 12:7-11 ² Acts 20:29-30 ³ Matthew 18:17-20; I Timothy 3:15 JND