Megachurches Reconsider

I came across some news in the past week that referenced two of America’s most well-known and broadly influential megachurch pastors: Bill Hybels and Rick Warren.  Both have led their respective congregations to great numerical growth and are widely sought after speakers and thinkers.  Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life” has almost achieved canonical status in some evangelical churches, and Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church has set the pace for all seeker-sensitive enterprises.

How interesting, then, to read the headline Mega Church Leader Recants Methods.  Though the article’s title is rather overblown, it includes the following:

Bill Hybels, pastor of one of the largest mega-churches in America, recently commissioned a survey of his congregation to ascertain the effectiveness of their programs in promoting spiritual growth. His conclusion was, “Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking would really help our people grow and develop spiritually… wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.”

This by itself should be enough to stop many American pastors dead in their tracks.  If Willow Creek is seeing some cracks in their foundation, what does this say about the many that have admire and subsequently adopted parts of their model?

But that’s not all.

Rick Warren spoke to a group of Assemblies of God ministers recently, and tellingly offered the following advice:

“You don’t need to change any of your Pentecostal practices.”…Urging the ministers not to abandon their use of spiritual gifts, he said, “What you do need to do [instead] is explain them. Do not compromise what God has called you to do; simply make it explainable.”  While reminding AG leaders that healthy churches focus on five purposes (worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism), he suggested that Pentecostal church “health” also means a sixth focus: “to be Pentecostal.”

Doubts at Willow Creek and Warren’s beating of the Holy Spirit drum at a Pentecostal pep rally give me hope.  Hope that there continues to be a space for the unexpected wind of the Holy Spirit to breathe through all of Christ’s Church.  Yet there is cause for concern.  The article about Warren broaches the topic of Pentecostals selling out their birthright to become acceptable to broader culture.  How ironic and tragic it would be to do so at a time when deeper things are needed most.  Whether or not we Pentecostals have done so to be more seeker-sensitive/evangelical is a topic for further debate (and you can read my dissertation if you really want to know more about that), but it is a fact that in many corners we may be putting the Holy Spirit on the shelf for us only on “special occasions.”  The Holy Spirit is too messy, we think.  Too unpredictable.  Who would want to put up with all that?

How different than the life and ethos of the early Pentecostals.  How contrary to the passions of the Charismatic Movement that enlivened the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic world in the 1960s and 1970s.  How diametrically opposed to the contemporary growth of Holy Spiritist faith in the global South.

To borrow a phrase from Rick Perry, “Oops.”

Pentecostalism’s place in the world communion (and more importantly, pentecostal practice and experience throughout) must be a vital part of any discussion of contemporary Christianity.  Not as a denominational movement, but as a Christian one.  But, as always….how will this work?

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