A number of years ago, my wife and I were members of a large New England church; a “megachurch.” Now, it’s very important that I differentiate between a “large” church and a “megachurch” as it’s more than simply number of people in attendance each week. This church is what I would consider to be the latter. Some telling characteristics included:
- It was unashamedly modeled after Willow Creek.
- It was decidedly seeker-sensitive.
- It was contemporary, even cutting edge.
- Copies of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life were never in short supply in the church bookstore.
- Every ministry had a cool name and an even cooler slogan.
- They had exquisite coffee.
You get the picture.
After about four years, my wife and I were growing weary, and wondered if maybe it was because we were over-committed in our serving. Maybe it was because of the constant pressure to give more. Maybe it was the slavish devotion to experiential worship. Maybe it was the lack of true biblical counsel that was needed to help us deal with our sin-soaked lives. Maybe it was the pervasive spiritual starvation we experienced because of lack of biblical teaching from the “platform”. Or, maybe it was a combination of all of the above.
After four years, we had had enough, and we wanted out. However, we didn’t want to simply cut and run. After all, we had dear friends at this church.
We had history.
So, I approached one of the pastors and talked with him about my feelings. I expressed my struggle with feeling cold and dry, and my desire for more. I expressed to him our sadness over leaving the Sunday morning worship service feeling completely empty and unaffected. At first, he listened intently and compassionately, but very soon, his kindness turned to scorn.
“Y’know, Sunday morning isn’t all about you,” he said. “If you’re feeling spiritually empty, that’s not the pastor’s fault—it’s yours. You need to learn to become a self-feeder.”
By the end of the conversation, I felt broken. Somehow, I was in sin, but I couldn’t figure out what my sin was. I just felt a weight of sorrow and a profound sense of uneasiness. I felt like I had been kicked in the soul. Thankfully, within a few months of leaving, we were able to heal at a Bible church about 40 minutes away. And while our new church was certainly not perfect, we felt at ease. We were nourished and cherished, and we were able to serve joyfully, falling deeply in love with God and His people.
I recount this story because it is the story of countless believers who are spiritually abused and spit out of American megachurches.
“Stinkin’ Selfish” Saints
Recently, popular Pastor Andy Stanley caught fire for his rantings during a sermon at North Point Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In the wake of the event, he has apologized and asked for forgiveness from those he hurt. Most of his apology was directed at other pastors and ministry leaders who may have been offended by his comments. I believe that Pastor Stanley feels genuine sorrow over what happened. I believe that he is being honest when he says that this kept him up at night. If this were an anomalous incident of impassioned yet misspoken sentiments, I likely would not have felt the need to write this article.
Over and over again I’ve heard, “He’s apologized! Why can’t you forgive and move on?”
The reason I cannot simply “move on” is because this single event goes far beyond a 3-minute rant. When I heard Andy Stanley attack Christian parents for wanting to leave their megachurch and fellowship with a smaller congregation, I was immediately transported back in time. Not only to the event of our leaving our megachurch, but to every instance in the last decade when I have heard megachurch pastors bullying their people and others, saddling them with a yoke that Christ’s church was never meant to bear.
I can almost hear the same argument and insults playing on repeat, in staccato blasts, booming from hundreds of stages by hundreds of pastors. And they all chant the same refrain, “Don’t you dare leave and damage the brand. If you do, you’re selfish and you hate Jesus Christ!” Let me be clear, this does not bother me one iota as a pastor. In fact, megachurch pastors insult small-time pastors like me all the time. I’m used to it. In fact, my favorite in recent years has been Andy Stanley’s deliberate, published, unapologetic tirade against expository preachers. So, verbal slams against my ministry don’t really bother me.
What infuriates me with a white-hot blaze is when influential and popular pastors abuse the flock of God. When they attack the church and berate them, saddling them with burdensome commands, I am filled with righteous indignation! When I see hirelings, who care nothing for the sheep (John 10:13), exploit Christ’s bride for the sake of building their own kingdoms, I weep bitter, angry tears.
Bullying Christ’s Bride
When a megachurch enlists the people of God to give, share, and serve, but has no intention of caring for them, my blood boils. Why? Because they wound them deeply and leave them for dead. And that is detestable to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Speaking of believers, Jesus warned “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) Further, I dare you to read all of Matthew 23 and then try to saddle God’s people with extra-biblical requirements! Or examine Jesus’ scorn for those who would build their religious empire on the backs of poor and dissuaded people. (Mark 12:38-44)
Space does not permit me to exhaust the biblical texts that deal with God’s hatred of the mistreatment of His people.
This is why I’m so bothered by similar comments to the ones made by Andy Stanley. While I acknowledge that he’s sorry for this particular incident, I wonder, will megachurches change the way they care for believers? Will they nurture them and minister to them? Will they preach Christ and the whole counsel of God to them? I hate to be cynical, but I highly doubt it.
I’m reminded of Peter’s words to church leaders:
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:1-4)
Dear friends, we simply cannot endure a legalistic yoke placed on the church; one that was never placed on her by Christ. To all the beloved saints of God, cling to the Lord Jesus Christ and run like Joseph from Potipher’s wife from churches that do not minister the Word to you.
Hear the words of Jesus when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Find a good church who preaches Christ and stay there ‘til you are called home.