I am haunted by the Crystal Cathedral. I cannot get it out of my mind. It is the nightmare of every second pastor, or every pastor who follows a personality pastor. I suspect it is on the mind of many at Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Bible Church following his recent announcement to step down as pastor. While I haven’t kept up with what’s happened since Francis Chan stepped down as pastor at Cornerstone Community Church, I suspect they are asking similar questions right now. Are these churches built on the personality and ego of one pastor?
I would guess that these examples are on the mind of pretty much every megachurch pastor. I tend to watch a lot of sermons by megachurch pastors (there aren’t many small church pastors with videos of their sermons online) and have noticed more and more how the teaching office of these churches is being diversified. Alongside Bill Hybels (Willow Creek) is now Darren Whitehead. Alongside Michael Slaughter (Ginghamsburg UMC) is now Nick Cunningham. Alongside Mark Beeson (Granger Church) is now Rob Wegner and others. Alongside Rob Bell (Mars Hill Bible Church) has been Shane Hipps. Alongside Robert Schuller is, well, Sheila Schuller Coleman. OK. Maybe not every church is diversifying the teaching office, but I think that in general megachurches are starting to see the crystal light at the end of the tunnel.
Another way big churches diversify is through satellites and multi-campuses. Willow Creek has seven campuses. Ginghamsburg has two. Granger has three. Then there’s LifeChurch.tv, whose number of campuses is hard to nail down since it has such a strong online presence (I recently heard about a new United Methodist church plant in Ohio that is using LifeChurch.tv videos exclusively for their teaching on Sunday morning), but currently has fourteen listed on their website.
All of this has got me thinking: I know we’re not supposed to compare churches, but when we do, why do we always compare our local church to a megachurch? Why am I generally asking the question, “Besides the name, why isn’t Sycamore Creek more like Willow Creek? Why aren’t we making an impact on that scale?” When I ask that, my church looks kind of pathetic and puny.
But what if I thought about comparing the West Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to Willow Creek? Or how about just the Lansing District of the West Michigan Annual Conference? Suddenly the perspective changes. Now we’re talking about a church with fifty-two campuses in the greater Lansing area and some seriously well-trained campus pastors, and while the conference and district are in decline and losing members and attendance every year, it’s highly unlikely that they will have such a dramatic disappearing act as a megachurch like the Crystal Cathedral. We’re way too diversified for that.
None of this is to say that we don’t have a lot to learn from the megachurches of today. Perhaps one thing we could dream about is having a focused vision that is also big enough to point all those fifty-two campuses of the Lansing District in the same direction every week. What would that look like? It might look something like Adam Hamilton’s vision for a few excellent regional teaching churches providing resources (videos, ideas, themes, images, etc.) for those fifty-two campuses. But that would require all those campus pastors (and their leadership) swallowing their egos. And now we’re right back in the same mess that got the Crystal Cathedral where it is today.
I am haunted by my ego.
Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.