Anabaptist Megachurches

Greg Boyd for ReKnew has written up a great article on whether a “megachurch” can be Anabaptist. Anabaptists, like me and Greg and my church The Meeting House, tend to emphasize church as smaller community, so how do we justify when our churches grow into the hundreds and thousands of people? Here’s the heart of Greg’s answer:

Ironically, those who argue mega-churches can’t be Anabaptist churches are assuming, in the process of raising this objection, a non-Anabaptist definition of church as a weekend gathering. If the leadership of Woodland Hills thought that our  “mega” weekend gathering was “the church,” the objection would indeed be valid. But we don’t think this, precisely because this would be a very non-Anabaptist position to assume!

We rather view our “mega” weekend gathering to be nothing more than that – a weekend gathering.  It’s a large event that provides us with an opportunity to teach the Gospel and to begin to make disciples by drawing weekend attenders into our much smaller house churches. The event, therefore, isn’t the church, but simply a means of building the church. In this sense, it would be more accurate to see Woodland Hills as a network of house churches that happens to have a “mega” week event than it is to see us as a mega-church.

– See more at: http://reknew.org/2013/10/can-you-have-an-anabaptist-mega-church/

I’m completely on the same side as Greg (and The Meeting House and others) on this question. Yes, if we mean megachurch to be top-down-controlled and all about the weekend gathering, that isn’t Anabaptist. But what about a simple network of Home Churches that have decided to get together once a week for worship and teaching? What exactly is the problem there? I could almost reword the question to say: is it size that Anabaptists are opposed to and/or is it the top-down structure and/or the reducing of church to a weekend gathering? I would argue for the second and third, but not the first (Greg primarily focused on the third but I think would also agree with me on the second).

In a following discussion, I basically heard two other stances. One argued essentially that Woodland Hills isn’t practicing what they preach, but didn’t really disagree with the general idea that there isn’t anything wrong with a large weekly gathering as an aside from the real church of small groups. Fair enough; I’m engaging here with Greg’s thoughts, not with what they practice, as I don’t have any experience with what they practice. I was definitely surprised, though, to find that at least one other seemed to think gathering in groups of more than 30 is in and of itself wrong – not just that it wasn’t “church” but that it is actually bad – and I had a really hard time understanding that. It’s that idea that I question here.

Size = Celebrity Culture?

The general complaint from other Anabaptists that I’ve seen is primarily one of fear of hierarchical celebrity Christianity instead of embodying the doctrine of a priesthood of all believers. I don’t want to completely dismiss that fear and I am definitely not saying it isn’t a valid concern. North America has seen our share of celebrity megachurch pastors. We occasionally see that kind of Bruxy worship at The Meeting House, although I also see a lot of deliberate attempts to limit that: he only preaches about 70% of the time, Home Church is constantly emphasized as more important than just listening to him, there is a constant deliberate effort to build others into leaders, decisions are made by filtering up from the Home Churches instead of down from Bruxy and the others at the top level, etc.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that the potential for one-sided power structures is primarily a function of the number of people who listen to the preacher. It is more noticeable when it happens if it happens to a larger group of people, for sure, but it is actually more likely? I grew up in a church that many weeks had 15 people present, and this was before the Internet so nobody else listened to the sermon. But I can guarantee that the pastor there had way more control over the church than Bruxy has over The Meeting House. He used his control humbly and wisely, but the denominational tradition had a stronger pastor/congregant distinction. I could also cite a campus ministry I was a part of that had a lot of problems, even though they were maxed out around 100 people a week, hardly “mega” status. Those also did not have anything to do with Anabaptism so it’s not like they saw it as a theological inconsistency, but my point is that the inequalities between leadership and everybody else are much more a function of system and church ethos than of size.

The 80/20 Rule

With that out of the way, and presupposing that you already understand the value of small groups and making that the priority with 80%-90% of your energy and money, why do I still like having that 10% or 20% of our energies diverted to a larger gathering? Dan Kimball, to the best of my knowledge with no association to Anabaptism, talked about this 80/20 rule: 80% of discipleship growth happens in small groups and 20% in larger worship and teaching, so 80% of our efforts and money should go into small groups and 20% into larger worship and teaching gatherings. I agree with this approach, but let’s dig deeper into what that 20% can offer as a valuable aside from the core church experience.

An Invitation Place

Having a large gathering provides somewhere to invite curious non-Christians to learn more. Very few people are brave enough to just show up in somehow’s house to talk about a God they may or may not even believe in. Good for those who are, but I don’t think we should start out with an assumption that they have to enter a small group context that they will probably think is going to be uncomfortable for them. If I pretend for a moment that I was invited to a small gathering of Hindus in one of their homes to discuss and worship with them, I’d probably not want to do that. That’s just too big of a step for me and I think for most people. If I was invited to a temple where I knew I could blend in with 500 others, I’d be a lot more likely to take the opportunity. It doesn’t matter if the Home Church is actually going to force a new person to sing and bear their soul and be judged for every decision – the point is that most won’t even try because they think that’s what will happen.

Resources

I also see value in larger groups because we can share resources far more efficiently. Instead of owning a guitar for every 12 people, we can own a guitar for every 500. So you’re spending about 1/40th of the cost on just that one item. Add all the other instruments. Add the supplies needed for child care. Keep extrapolating for pretty much anything you want. When we read that the early church shared their resources, I don’t see any reason to believe that their sharing could only go up to 30 people or that they could share with more but only if they never actually all met together at once.

Resource sharing also includes being able to spread the gifts of people involved over a wider group. For example, I really appreciate having corporate musical worship. In my small group of 8-12 young adults each week, we don’t do musical worship. We do other great things – wrestling with tough ideas, pray for and with each other, offer practical help through life’s struggles. And while I consider those to be the highest priority, like other Anabaptists, I definitely think there is something to be gained by having music, something that God’s people have done since long before Jesus. That means we need somebody with those skills. We could force somebody to learn it, diverting their energies from something else, or we could just worship with others so we can appreciate those gifts together.

Teaching Guidance

Similarly, we have the benefit of one of the best teaching pastors in Canada, I think most people would agree whether a member of TMH or not. If Bruxy (and the others) were to decide that they did not want more than 30 people to encounter their teaching, I have no problem saying that a lot of people would be missing out. Of course, the teaching in and of itself does not go that far – we need a community to help us integrate it into our lives – but can we really say that we don’t want people to have access to the best teaching possible? I’d much prefer this model over only being allowed to listen to whoever is the best teacher out of our group of 12, especially since whoever would do that would probably have to quit their job to do adequate preparation.

Sense of Greater Community

Lastly, it’s really good to be reminded occasionally that you are a part of something much bigger. If we aren’t allowed to gather with more than 30 people, it is very easy to forget that there are others out there who aren’t like your group but are still faithful Christians. It doesn’t even matter if your 30 or less group is pretty diverse; you will still be missing out on something, and you’ll still inevitably end up thinking that your way is the obviously correct way. It also can get really depressing to reduce Christianity to 30 people or less who aren’t allowed to join forces.

Most of the most powerful experiences in my life came in groups larger than 30, in part simply because of being a part of something bigger. At Urbana (’06 and ’09) I worshipped, took communion, and heard from a variety of teachers with more than 10,000 others. The communion in particular was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Once a month in Kingston I went to Praise N Power which got up to about 150 people. Just last month I went to an All Sons and Daughters worship night with about 600 people. I appreciate every Sunday being able to worship and learn with about 500. Even most of my previous Sunday morning communities were well over 30. No, some of those things weren’t referred to as “church” but Greg’s exact point is that their Sunday gatherings aren’t “church” either – they are a valuable supplement to church. The no-gatherings-over-30-people rule would deprive me of all of those experiences with a lot of brothers and sisters.

Wrapping Up

I completely agree with Greg and other Anabaptists that “church” is small groups doing life together. I agree with him that the majority of our energies should be spent there. I agree with him that this does not mean that spending some time and energy on larger gatherings is inherently a problem. It would be a problem if you make those gatherings your priorities. It would be theologically inaccurate (at least according to Anabaptists) to think of that as church. But a larger gathering is not automatically a problem and I think is actually beneficial when in their proper place for the reasons I’ve outlined above.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

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  • Steve Jones

    Really interested in this question Ryan. In fact so interested I’m doing a 6 year MPhil/PhD on this very question with the Anabaptist Study Centre in UK – is an Anabaptist Megachurch an ecclesiological paradox too far? So I’m sure I’ll be in touch at some point… God bless, http://www.steve-jones.org