We, the leaders of the modern phenomenon known as the church growth movement, or megachurch movement, wish to correspond with the leaders of the past, namely the Old Testament prophets, Jesus Christ, the apostles, the reformers, and the revivalists, about some differences between your methods and ours that are becoming increasingly apparent. We cannot help but acknowledge that you did a commendable job in advancing our heavenly Father’s Kingdom. We are especially inclined to admire your accomplishments given that you labored under such difficult circumstances and without the knowledge of our modern methods. How you built such great and enduring walls for the King without the contemporary straw and mortar that we find so helpful is a puzzling mystery to us.
Our motivation in writing to you is twofold. First, we would like to obtain your official blessing on our new methods. We are sure that you already approve of them and perhaps are envious of our great success as you sit in glory watching us reap a tremendous harvest for the Kingdom of God. However, we feel that an official sanction from the leaders of the past is warranted. Second, we have spent many months examining your methods, and we feel that in light of our modern advances a few of the numerous mistakes and errors that you unfortunately fell into must be pointed out.
We do not consider ourselves superior to you. It is only by our methodology that we have surpassed you older saints. By the providence of God, we were born on the cusp of this progressive and superior methodology. While we greatly respect the methods employed 2000 years ago by our Savior, Jesus Christ, we flatly reject the use of His methods in today’s culture. We desire our ministries to glorify Jesus, not necessarily by following His example or by using His methods, but, instead, by reaping a large harvest for Him using our contemporary methods. Our hearts overflow with thanks to God who has graciously shown us a better way to live and minister in these turbulent times.
It cannot be denied that ours is an important movement in the annals of church history. In 1970 there were only 10 megachurches in America. Today there are over 800 such churches. Last year brother Bill Hybels in Illinois had over 100,000 church leaders attending his church growth seminars while brother Rick Warren (of Purpose-Driven Life fame) had 250,000 leaders attend his seminars. Please note also that our dear brother Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church in Texas is soon projected to have 30,000 in weekly church attendance. We have managed to grow our churches aggressively, by the grace of God, in an era of declining church interest and blossoming secularization. We could not have achieved such success without much help from those who came immediately before us. More about them will be discussed later.
Our movement has been dubbed “the seeker-friendly movement.” This title sums up our criticism of the ministries of all those to whom this letter is addressed. As we read the Bible looking for corroboration of our methods, we have to conclude that God is doing a new thing among us. One of our brothers, the “Pastor of Greater Arts” in Rick Warren’s megachurch, was recently quoted in a newspaper saying, “Don’t forget, Christ used user-friendly language. He spoke to his followers in parables” (The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 30, 2003). We thought this idea might serve as some type of Biblical precedent for our approach of broad appeal and inclusivity. Then someone pointed out that in the 13th chapter of Matthew, Jesus stated that the reason He spoke in parables was so that people might hear Him, yet not understand Him. This idea sent our search for Biblical justification back to square one. Therefore, we must conclude that there is no Biblical precedent for what we are doing. Nevertheless, we know that our methods are right, and we will boldly let our rising numbers speak for themselves. Hence, pragmatism remains our chief principle: if it appears to work, it must be right.
It is evident to us that in today’s culture your archaic methods could never produce the results that we have achieved. We cannot bear the thought of proclaiming to this generation words such as the following spoken by Isaiah:
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat of the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword. (Isa. 1:18–20)
The above verses violate another one of our key principles: we never imply that someone is guilty of sin. After all, it is the Holy Ghost’s job to bring about conviction of sin. Since the Holy Ghost convicts of sin so rarely in our churches, it would be highly presumptuous for us to take upon ourselves this role.
We have uncovered many of our guiding principles through the use of modern marketing techniques that have confirmed that unchurched people and backsliders are offended at direct and plain speech such as Isaiah’s above. God’s ministers must not make anyone feel uncomfortable. We want people to have fun in church. We do not want the atmosphere to be unfriendly or offensive. Neither doctrines nor Biblical standards have ever saved anyone, but church involvement has led many people to the Lord for salvation. We have, therefore, made the wise decision to sacrifice the better for the best in doing away with all doctrines or Biblical standards that would seem to inhibit church growth.
For example, take the Biblical view of the self. The Bible teaches that we should esteem others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). You men of old, whether from Bible times or from later centuries, uniformly thought of yourselves as mere dust before an infinite and holy God. The modern theory of self-esteem, which has become highly popular in the church over the past 40 years, has no place in Scripture. Neither is there any evidence in church history of such a notion. Yet the idea that one must have a positive self-image in order to be happy and healthy has so permeated the church that one would be considered mad if he were to question it. Even though this idea has no basis in Scripture, no basis in church history, and you men of old believed the exact opposite of this modern doctrine, we gladly embrace it since the notion of positive self-esteem has such power to attract people to our churches. How repulsive to the unchurched would Ezekiel’s words be today, “Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall clothe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations” (Ezek. 32:31)?
As you can see, we are committed to removing anything from the church that has the potential to injure a sinner’s self-esteem. Our beloved brother, Robert Schuller, who served as a keynote speaker at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) last year and who was a pioneer in helping develop our philosophy of ministry, has represented our position well when he said, “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition” (Christianity Today, Oct. 5, 1984).
In addition to removing anything offensive, we have added numerous things to the life of the church that are very attractive to the carnal mind of the lost. A notable newspaper summarized our approach with the following:
Gone are traditional religious dogmas, rituals, and symbols, replaced by uplifting songs and sermons. Congregants are taught that — through God — they are victors, not victims. The messages are encouraging and easy to swallow, and no one is called a sinner. It’s ‘Jesus meets the power of positive thinking’ … There’s none of that old-time religion; none of that hell-and-damnation, fire-and-brimstone preaching … The idea is to be inclusive and inoffensive … Pastor Joel Osteen’s sermon [was] given like a motivational speech … There’s no talk of controversial subjects, such as abortion or homosexuality … [The megachurches] have more of a rock concert feel … Organs have been replaced by electric guitars, hymns with rock-and-roll tunes. Nowhere is there a cross or a candle, and the language is contemporary, with not a ‘thee’ or a ‘thou’ … Worked into a frenzy by the 10 piece [rock] band and 300-member choir, dozens of slick music videos and, yes, the wave, congregants were enraptured. (The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 30, 2003)
Compare the above description to accounts of Jonathan Edwards’ infamous and shameful sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” We cannot countenance such preaching as this,
The devils watch them [the unchurched]; they are ever by them at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back. If God should withdraw his hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls. The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost … The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Under Edwards’ despicable, old-style preaching scores of people were smitten by a glimpse of their lost and sinful condition to the point of utter brokenness manifested by much weeping and wailing. How this must have wrecked the congregants’ self-esteem, which, undoubtedly, was already made fragile by his frequent use of negative language. We are certain that Edwards often spoke of human depravity, hell, the dangers of sin, the necessity of repentance, and other such topics that have no place in our messages. We are also certain that he never would have allowed his congregants to perform “the wave” in church. Perhaps this is one of the reasons his parishioners fired him. He was forced to move his family to the wilderness village of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to pastor a congregation made up mainly of poor Indians. As you can see, Edwards’ approach was certainly wrong. We find that the converse of our chief principle is also true; if it appears not to work, it must be wrong. Oh, what a triumph God is working through us over the archaic methods of yesterday!
By God’s providence we have been able to choose from a wide variety of worldly entertainment that did not exist in prior ages. The rise of rock-and-roll has been the best thing that has happened to the church in centuries. We have been able to harness the wide appeal of rock-and-roll in its various forms and bring multitudes of rock fans into the church to “rock for the Lord.” This leaven has so thoroughly leavened the whole lump that our services feel more like a rock concert than a church service. Imagine the energy and spirit of a Rolling Stones concert brought into God’s house and used to reach people with our message of empowerment. Glory to God for this great modern tool, rock-and-roll! Where would we be without it? Our preaching alone could never draw in so many unchurched people.
You older saints must be starting to see the advantage of our approach. We do not pretend to have discovered this inclusive and pragmatic method ourselves. We must credit our forefather, Emperor Constantine, for first utilizing this method in advancing God’s Kingdom in the 4th century. Constantine could rightly be called the father of the megachurch movement. By mixing a generous portion of the world with the ministry of the church, he was able to appeal to the unchurched and “resonate with the spirit of the age” as we are trying to do. It was Constantine who first employed the method of bringing into God’s house those things that the unregenerate world found to be irresistible attractants. The church grew by leaps and bounds when he brought pagan idols into the church, gave them Biblical names such as the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter, and encouraged the pagans to pray to them and worship them. We must reverently offer hearty praises to God who has enabled us to enlarge and strengthen the church just as in the days of Constantine.
Instead of barring pagans from church fellowship, Constantine cleared away all obstacles to their full participation. Christianity very quickly changed from a small, penurious, and persecuted band of disciples to a popular, wealthy, and commodious fellowship. The following quote from a historian will buttress our view of Constantine,
All at once, the profession of the Gospel became fashionable; crowds of merely nominal converts presented themselves at the baptismal font; and many even entered the clerical office who had no higher object in view than an honorable or a lucrative position. Ecclesiastical discipline was relaxed; and that the heathen might be induced to conform to the religion of the emperor, many of their [pagan] ceremonies were introduced into the worship of the Church. (Paganism Surviving in Christianity, by Abram Herbert Lewis, 1892)
Constantine’s great innovations have been roundly criticized by Protestants, but we see the wisdom of his policy of inclusion. Of course, Constantine’s methodology required a relaxation of Biblical standards, the very thing that we have tried to promote ourselves. There is little recorded about the music of that period, but we are sure that if rock-and-roll had been around, Constantine would have changed the lyrics a bit, brought it into the church, and used its appeal for the Lord.
We would now like to discuss several examples of the more egregious methodologies employed by those to whom this letter is addressed. To begin with, most of what is recorded about the ministries of the Old Testament prophets we find quite embarrassing. The manner in which the prophets communicated with their fellowman was often vitriolic, non-pragmatic, and harmful. Let us consider the ministry of Elijah as an example. We find that the words he spoke to Ahab, Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal were very negative to say the least. We believe that slaying 450 of Baal’s prophets was very unappealing to the unchurched of his day. After God’s fire fell on the sacrifice at Mount Carmel, we believe it would have been better to turn the event into a BBQ and invite the prophets of Baal to join in. Perhaps Elijah could have hired a Zidonian band to play festive music so that Baal’s prophets and Jezebel would feel welcome. Elijah could learn much from the saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Using such methods as Elijah’s, it is no wonder that many of God’s ancient prophets were killed in the prime of their ministries.
We greatly dislike the words recorded by Ezekiel when God told him that the priests “shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek. 44:23). We believe in letting the people decide for themselves what is right and wrong. We feel that constantly barking at this or that would offend many people and drive them away from church. You will hear no barking at sin from our pulpits. If the sheep are driven away from church by offensive preaching, they will surely fall prey to ravening, grievous wolves. Our approach can be summed up by a quote in the media from brother Joel Osteen, “For years there’s been a lot of hellfire and damnation. You go to church to figure out what you’re doing wrong and you leave feeling bad like you’re not going to make it. We believe in focusing on the goodness of God” (FOXNews.com, Feb. 3, 2004).
We also take exception to the methods of John the Baptist. We are opposed to everything about his approach. He obstinately refused to conform his manner of dress, his diet, or his doctrine to the prevailing trends of the time. We are sure that if he had donned soft raiment and had preferred sumptuous snacks rather than grasshoppers and honey, his appeal would have been broadened, particularly with the 20-something crowd of his day.
His preaching ministry seems to have been very offensive and “preachy.” He said, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand … O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance … And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 3:2, 7–8, 10). He should have known that the unchurched dislike such authoritative, “holier than thou” styles of communication. Perhaps a trendy church skit or an evangelistic chariot wash would have produced better results.
While John the Baptist did not lack enthusiasm for the cause of Christ, the fact that his public ministry lasted only six months ending with his imprisonment and decapitation illustrates his faulty methodology. Just imagine the harvest that John the Baptist could have won had he softened his message a bit and been more positive. If he had taken our approach, he could have been one of the greatest ministers of the gospel in all of church history. It is true that John the Baptist was commended by Christ, but we cannot help thinking how much greater he could have been used if he had not been so disengaged from the culture and “preachy” in his ministry. Surely, John the Baptist could learn from our example of accommodation, diplomacy, and peaceful coexistence with unchurched men such as King Herod.
The earthly ministry of our Savior is not without regrettable examples of offensive methods. It is somewhat surprising to us that Jesus chose to emulate the old-style methods of those who preceded Him rather than our modern and efficacious style, which He undoubtedly foreknew. The way in which He spoke to the religious leaders could hardly be considered inclusive or diplomatic. Also, the incident with the moneychangers and the whip represents inconsistent behavior from One who spoke of being “meek and lowly in heart.” Again, Jesus went so far as to publicly imply that a particular unchurched woman was a dog and not worthy to receive spiritual bread (Matt. 15:26). The 6th chapter of John records perhaps the most tragic event in the earthly ministry of our Savior. While trying to inform His hearers about obtaining eternal life, Jesus represented the way as so difficult and narrow that many, many of His followers turned back “and walked no more with him” (v. 66). This same narrowness can be seen in the 19th chapter of Matthew when the rich young ruler inquired of Jesus the way to eternal life and was sent “away sorrowful” by the stringency of Jesus’ words.
Given the fact that Jesus ministered in the style of Elijah and John the Baptist (Luke 9:18–19), it seems obvious to us why His three years of incessant labor produced the rather smallish church of 120 souls at the day of Pentecost. It is certainly commendable that Jesus healed the sick and fed the multitudes. However, we believe that Jesus could have done a great deal more to engender goodwill with His targeted market. His ministry’s unappealing narrowness was sadly conspicuous on the day the people cried, “Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas”!
To the Apostle Peter we would like to address the matter of Ananias and Sapphira. Peter should have found a less confrontational approach to dealing with this well-intentioned couple. Had they not given a sizable portion of their wealth to the work of the ministry? Diplomacy and inclusivity would have proven much more positive than the caustic and accusatory language spoken by Peter. The fact that Peter was the human agency of their swift demise must have done irreparable damage to his reputation as a minister of our longsuffering and gracious heavenly Father. We can only imagine what harm was done to the spread of the gospel when, to quote from our beloved NIV, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events … No one else dared join them” (Acts 5:11, 13). We are sure that this regrettable incident with Ananias and Sapphira kept many compromisers, liars, false professors, hypocrites, and covetous persons out of church fellowship. These are the very people we have had stupendous success bringing into God’s house. It is not recorded, but we are sure the Lord must have been grieved at Peter’s unloving dealings with this misunderstood couple.
There remain numerous examples in the New Testament of objectionable methods, but time would fail us to decry them all thoroughly. However, we must mention one other matter from the life of the Apostle to the unchurched. We find Paul’s demeanor and attitude toward those without the church to be reprehensible. Please consider some of the scandalous things he wrote:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? … Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. (2 Cor. 6:14–17)
And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. (Eph. 5:11)
Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. (1 Tim. 5:20)
Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. (2 Tim. 4:2–4)
A striking difference between us and the Apostle Paul is his seeming indifference to numerical success. He seemed content to focus his ministry on building a pure bride, even if numerically small. This evidently required that Paul have the battlefield mindset of a soldier, which is much different than our own mindset. We dislike the fact that he was always fighting and contending. A variety of verbs are used to describe the ministries of Paul and his associates in the book of Acts. They were ubiquitously found disputing against, reasoning with, speaking boldly to, preaching to, persuading, exhorting, declaring, and warning their hearers. We believe that this kept them from entering into peace and rest such as we have. We believe that by not fighting with the world, we have discovered the green pastures and still waters about which the Lord spoke in the Psalms. It is not surprising to us that Paul’s polemical ministry caused him to spend a great deal of time in prison. Perhaps God was trying to speak to him there about changing his methods.
We could write for many more pages about the deficiencies of those who ministered before AD 1950. Certainly the reformers such as Tyndale and Luther were wrong in their approach in the 1500s. John Bunyan was obviously off track since his dogmatism caused him to be locked up in the Bedford jail for over a decade in the 1600s. We condemn the offensive manner in which the likes of George Whitefield, John Wesley, and scores of other fanatics preached repentance in the open air to the unchurched in the 1700s. Perhaps the worst example of such old-style fanaticism was exhibited by William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army, in the 1800s. It gives us pangs of nausea when we contemplate the shameful and embarrassing tactics that those here listed used in the name of our mild-mannered and gentle Jesus.
By looking at a description of Whitefield’s preaching. it is plain to see the unchristian tone of his sermons. Bishop J.C. Ryle said that Whitefield was “perpetually telling you about your sins, your heart, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the absolute need of repentance, faith, holiness …” (Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, by J.C. Ryle, p. 51). Let us look at another example. Note the profusion of negative language in this excerpt from a John Wesley sermon:
Thou ungodly one who hearest these words, thou vile, helpless, miserable sinner, I charge thee before God, the judge of all, go straight unto Jesus with all thy ungodliness … Go as altogether ungodly, guilty, lost, destroyed, deserving and dropping into hell … Plead thou singly the blood of the covenant, the ransom paid for thy proud, stubborn, sinful soul. (Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, by J.C. Ryle, p. 93)
And what were the effects of these unchristian methods on the hearers? We could demonstrate our point using numerous examples from the lives of the men listed above, but let us look at one account from the journal of George Whitefield:
Most were drowned in tears. The Word was sharper than a two-edged sword. The bitter cries and groans were enough to pierce the hardest heart. Some of the people were as pale as death; others were wringing their hands; others lying on the ground; others sinking into the arms of friends; and most lifting up their eyes to Heaven and crying to God for mercy. (George Whitefield, Vol. 1, by Arnold Dallimore, p. 487)
The damage done to the hearers, particularly to any unchurched people that might have been present, can be clearly seen in Whitefield’s own account. Thus robbed of their self-esteem, many of Whitefield’s hearers were driven into mental illness. In fact, a complaint was made to Bishop Benson that 15 persons were driven mad by Whitefield’s first sermon, which he preached at his ordination. With such deleterious effects as these, it is no wonder that Luther, Tyndale, Bunyan, Booth, the early Methodists, and many others were so bitterly opposed by the more mature and pragmatic church leaders of their day.
Though we reject nearly all “great” men from previous centuries (except Constantine), there are many truly great ones who came immediately before us upon whose shoulders we stand. We could not have had such wonderful success without pioneers such as Harold Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the other founders of neo-evangelicalism whose bold stance against the intolerant and mean-spirited fundamentalists paved the way for our movement. Their example of diplomacy, their repudiation of separation, and their willingness to adapt church standards to the changing American culture cannot be overstated. Also, the efforts of Bill Bright, Chuck Colson, and the other signatories of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) helped prepare America for the burgeoning of ecumenical activity that has modified the spiritual climate in favor of rapid church growth. The modern Bible translations such as the New International Version (NIV) have also played no small part in our success. Interestingly, we find that very, very few of the adherents of the archaic King James Bible are in support of our methodology. We must thank men like Robert Schuller and James Dobson for their tireless efforts to make pop psychology acceptable in the church. Pop psychology has proven to be extremely attractive to those whose ears seem to itch for a positive message.
Lastly, we must acknowledge our indebtedness to Anton LaVey, an important pioneer in spiritual matters. In the 1960s LaVey founded the Church of Satan. He also authored the Satanic Bible, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies all over the world. Under his leadership the Church of Satan grew to 10,000 members worldwide, which clearly makes it a megachurch. We are somewhat envious of LaVey for his success in recruiting some of Hollywood’s biggest stars such as Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jayne Mansfield, both of whom were involved in the Church of Satan. We have been earnestly praying for someone like Madonna or Howard Stern to join one of our churches that we might see them continue their careers “for the Lord.” How, you may ask, was LaVey able to build such an influential and large church for Satan? We believe that the two quotes below may give a hint as to the reason:
We established a Church of Satan — something that would smash all concepts of what a “church” was supposed to be. This was a temple of indulgence to openly defy the temples of abstinence that had been built up until then. We didn’t want it to be an unforgiving, unwelcoming place, but a place where you could go to have fun. (Anton Szandor LaVey, History of the Church of Satan by Blanche Barton)
LaVey came to genuinely believe that his message of aggressive self-interest was a way of individuals to achieve freedom and happiness in their lives. He saw Satan, not as a tempter of mankind, but as a spur to human self-improvement. (http://www.satanic-kindred.org/tribute.htm)
These two quotes reveal that the philosophy of “ministry” utilized by Anton LaVey is strikingly similar to our own. We must mention that there are numerous irreconcilable differences between LaVey’s beliefs and ours, yet these differences seem to be peripheral. At the core, his philosophy of ministry and ours match up very closely with the obvious exception that we serve God rather than Satan. We are thankful to Mr. LaVey for his ironic contributions to our great work.
As you can see from the cogent arguments outlined in this piece of correspondence, the conditions under which you labored were wholly unnecessary. Your toiling, your deprivation, and your strictness were an unfortunate tragedy. Not only did you suffer needlessly, your efforts were dreadfully hampered by the faulty methods that you employed. Most thankfully, God has enabled us to forge new paths that are not so straight, nor narrow, nor toilsome, as those upon which you older saints were obliged to tread. In heaven we look to receive honor and glory commensurate with our accomplishments for Christ. Until we arrive there, we bid you enjoy the meager fruits of your flawed labors. When we join you in the Celestial City, our brilliance will surely outshine your tarnished glory. We will undoubtedly be given the seats of honor in the presence of the King as a result of our superior methodology.
Steering Committee Members
Megachurch Association of America
- Frank Chase
Dr. Frank Chase is a practicing general surgeon in South Carolina. He and his family attend Covenant Free Presbyterian Church in Lexington.