I’m 4th generation Lutheran. My mother was Lutheran and my father is Baptist. Mom won. Although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of the largest mainline protestant churches in the USA, Lutheran congregations generally aren’t massive. The church I grew up in probably had a membership in the 100’s and an average Sunday attendance of around 60 people. The Lutheran congregation I am currently a member of posts similar numbers. I’ve always liked this about my Church, but didn’t fully appreciate it until I got to college.
Like many young adults living on their own for the first time, college was an opportunity to explore, and Sunday mornings were not exempt. In fact I very rarely attended a Lutheran church while in college. Instead I took full advantage of the plethora of churches Atlanta, GA had to offer including megachurches. A megachurch is defined as having a membership of 1000 or more; a far cry from the 100 member Lutheran church I’d grown up in. Sanctuaries weren’t always traditional tabernacles but converted sports arenas and convention centers. Preachers were Pastors on Sunday morning and CEOs managing a major corporation every other day of the week. Worship was a major production with lights, cameras, and cue cards to boot. Church was definitely mega.
While only 10% of America’s Christians attend megachurches, when you’re there – the grandeur of megachurches creates this illusion that all of the country’s Christians are worshiping in that one place, at that one time. The experience can be quite daunting and frankly overwhelming for a small church-going believer like me. Consequently, I’ll probably never be a member of a megachurch and here’s why:
- The parking lot shuttle. Megachurches have mega attendance. You’ve got to park all those cars somewhere, and the main parking lot closest to the church does not have the occupancy capacity to accommodate all members. As a result you have to park in a lot not so close to the church and be shuttled in. It’s like trying to get from your car to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom every Sunday. No thanks. I can arrive at my itty bitty church at 8:57am and be in a pew by 8:59am for a 9:00am start.
- The overflow room. The overflow room is where you’re sent if you’ve arrived at church too late to be seated in the main sanctuary. No matter when I arrive to my tiny church, I likely will never have a problem finding a seat. Likewise, if I wanted to watch church on a screen I wouldn’t get dressed and come all the way to church to do it; I’d stay at home and watch church on TV in my pajamas from the comfort of my bed.
- Praise and worship. I once sat through one song that lasted 45 minutes at a megachurch. ONE SONG. Now don’t get me wrong, I love praise and worship and I sing in the choir at my church, but 45 minutes??!! Let’s break that up, aye? I’ll spot you 10 minutes per song and if the choir catches the Holy Ghost and the spirit so moves, tack on an additional 5 minutes for each. But 45 minutes? Not to mention, service is likely going to carry on for a few extra hours now. Jesus has left the building by then. He’s sitting out in the parking lot waiting on the shuttle bus back to Heaven.
- The production. On one occasion I was denied a seat in the front of a Mega-Church sanctuary. Why? Because I didn’t have on a suit and tie and service was being broadcast live; the people sitting up front were the most likely to be on TV. They instead sat me in the far back corner where I was guaranteed not to ruin the shot. To add insult to injury, there was a moratorium on movement during the service because it doesn’t look good to have people roaming around when worship is being filmed. What if I have to go to the restroom?? At my small church I can wear what I want without fear of being put in timeout. And I can worship freely without fear of peeing on myself; I really like the idea of not peeing on myself as a 31 year old man.
- The fellowship. I’m originally from Houston, TX and currently reside in Chicago, IL. Since, my church family has undoubtedly been my family away from home. If I’m unable to make it back to Houston for the holidays, I’m likely at a church member’s home in Chicago celebrating with their family, because their family is my family. Moreover, an intimate church family makes for a fellowship that holds one another accountable. I attended my girlfriend’s megachurch often in college, and each Sunday the same person would look me in my face and ask me if I was worshiping with them for the first time. And each time I would wince thinking, “you don’t remember me from the 4 previous times you asked me that?” It’s just virtually impossible to be in relationship with 1000 different people. I could never come to church and no one would notice I was missing at a megachurch. Whereas at my church, if I’m not present just one Sunday without first letting someone know that I would be absent, I’d have text messages and phone calls from members checking on my wellbeing and questioning my whereabouts. This might sound like an annoyance for some, but for me it’s comforting to know there are a group of believers who can call you by name and care enough about you to hold you accountable in your faith walk.
- The Mega-Pastor. Megachurches often have very popular, very famous and well known Pastors who are highly sought out by other churches all over the world. That sounds pretty cool. Until you arrive at church on Sunday morning only to learn that the Associate Assistant Deacon Pastor will be preaching because your Pastor is the guest Preacher at a different church every Sunday for the next month. I can count on one hand the number of times in my lifetime that my Pastors weren’t in their own pulpits on Sunday at my little church. I just like to know that I’m getting a consistent word on Sundays that will speak to my spiritual needs. So pardon me if I want to hear MY Pastor preach at My church on Sunday. Silly me.
- The Mega-Pastor and Me. The size of the church I grew up in, and the church I’m a member of currently, has enabled me and others to have a personal relationship with our Pastor. My Pastor is not only my shepherd but he’s also my friend. When I moved to Chicago for school, the Pastor at the church I chose to attend was the first person to invite me to lunch after service. He went on to make sure I enjoyed at least one free meal a week for as long as I was a student. He’s even my documented emergency contact when needed. This type of relationship is what I require in my faith walk. When I’m sick, I want My Pastor to visit me in the Hospital and pray for my healing; not someone who is 16th in line and volunteers with the “sick and shut-in” ministry. When I’m married I want my Pastor to be able to bless my union from an authentic, personal place in his/her heart. When my child is baptized I want my Pastor to have performed the act with the first-hand knowledge that he/she is a child of children of God. When I die I don’t want the generic script that 2 other dead people got earlier in the week. I want my Pastor to be able to eulogize me with personal comedic stories of times we shared together. Joel Osteen is the Pastor of the largest congregation in the USA, with an average weekly attendance of 45,000 members. I’m going to take a wild guess and say he doesn’t know all 45,000 people by name.
All things considered, I prefer little churches that do big things over megachurches that do mega things, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.