It’s been a while since I’ve written on this site, so what better way to get back into it by addressing a controversial sermon.
Recently, while on Facebook, I saw a link to an article criticizing a Christmas eve sermon preached by Pastor Perry Noble, a pastor of a mega-church in South Carolina called NewSpring, which boasts more than 25,000 regular attendees per week. I honestly had not heard of either Noble or NewSpring before, but the article was both interesting and concerning: The author alleged that Noble basically rescinded the Ten Commandments and turned them into “promises,” basing his argument on the notion that there is no word for “command” in Hebrew. Apparently, this was told to him by a Jewish friend. In the sermon, Noble goes through each of the commandments, changes them to reflect promises to people rather than commandments, and ultimately makes an offer to “say yes” to Jesus. While that is obviously not a bad thing to ask, the premise of the offer was that Christianity is not this stale, rule-based religion that many mean Christians make it out to be because, lo and behold, the Ten Commandments aren’t even commandments.
This whole argument from the Hebrew, of course, is flat wrong. A bit incredulous that a pastor of such a large church could make a mistake like this, I went online and found the sermon and listened to it, and sure enough, the article was right. Evidently, Noble never finished seminary, and while finishing seminary is not a pre-requisite for ministry, the lack of training shows. Still, a seminary degree is not necessary to do a modicum of research. It’s surprising that a church of that size would not be able to give Noble access to basic Bible software; heck, Google could have solved that for him quickly.
To be fair to Noble, after a bit of resistance, he finally acknowledged his mistake and apologized, though he still tried to insist on the “promise” angle. Granted, no teacher is perfect, and I know full well that I’ve said things while I’ve taught that later I wished I could take back because they were unclear or maybe even inaccurate. Unlike Noble, I or most teachers do not have such a large public platform and are therefore spared the embarrassment of having our mistakes called out in front of everyone on the Internet, so that fact should give us pause. Nonetheless, Noble’s mistake became the basis upon which to share the Gospel, and it was so off base that now his whole message sounds completely misleading. It is therefore still a problem that he did not just come out and say that the whole thing was a mistake, but how could he? After all, he said God told him to preach the sermon.
This, however, would not be the only concerning thing I read about NewSpring. Curious about the church, I read some more, and I found that the author of the above article is a Christian college professor named James Duncan. Duncan is a frequent critic of NewSpring, and apparently that eventually drew the ire of the head of security at the church. That person, along with the help of a few others, harassed Duncan and his family to the point of even sabotaging a potential adoption. The story is so absurd that it’s almost unbelievable; what’s even more unbelievable is that the entire church staff knew nothing of it. This not only is demonstrably false (many staff members followed the fake twitter handle), it would be a major breakdown of communications if Noble never heard of any of this. The church has never apologized or accepted responsibility for the behavior of some of their staff, though they did fire the main perpetrator.
I understand it’s a very large church and staff, and it is not possible for Noble to control everyone or know every detail of what is going on. Still, this kind of culture that is reactionary to criticism and disagreement (Noble himself is not known to handle criticism well) is similar to the problematic culture that flowed from Driscoll at Mars Hill. What is telling that even with the reality of the bad sermon or this ridiculous church staffer, there are several goers of the church who doggedly defend it. It also does not seem like the attendance of the church has changed.
All of this made me wonder: Why is this church the one with tens of thousands of attendees? Why don’t these people go to other much smaller churches where there are pastors who preach the Word well and have solid training? Why not other churches where they would quickly reprimand a staff member for that kind of behavior the second they saw it?
The Appeal of the Mega-Church
Several years ago, I heard Austin pastor Matt Carter state that the Church in America would NOT grow through the growth of mega-churches because “we’ve already tried that and it doesn’t work” (paraphrased). This might sound a bit odd because Carter’s church, Austin Stone, is the largest in that city and definitely classifies as a “mega-church,” but I think pastors like him and Chandler understand the general and long-term problems with churches that size dominating Christianity in this country. The problem is not so much the size itself; rather, it is the reasons for people choosing to go to such a church and consequences of that size.
There are many people who go to a mega-church due to sound reasons, such as accurate biblical preaching, emphasis on evangelism, strong biblical principles, etc. My sister goes to The Village, a mega-church in the Dallas area, and is active in community service with the church and in her home group. However, there is no doubt–and I am aware that the more self-reflective mega-church pastors know this–that many go to mega-churches because it is simply the easy thing to do. The pastor is normally someone who is a gifted public speaker (this is not the same as a biblical preacher), the praise bands are usually incredibly good, and the church often has resources for all sorts of cool and comfortable things: Coffee shops, Internet cafes, pools, elaborate plays, nice retreats, etc. The service time itself is normally a pretty engaging and fun experience, quite unlike smaller churches who have only a moderately gifted musician leading praise and a pastor who isn’t an exceptionally talented speaker. For more flashy churches, their praise time might even sound like full-blown concerts and they’ll have props all over the stage and high production videos.
None of these things are bad in and of themselves, though one may have legitimate gripes about the resources spent on some of them. The problem comes when these become the reasons why people pick a church. Of course, most people wouldn’t admit that these are the reasons, but it’s frankly made clear in their actions. At mega-churches, it is easy to disappear in the crowd; if you so wish, you can go on Sunday morning, receive an hour and a half of cool entertainment, and jet without anybody knowing. People basically become free loaders and go along for the ride. It is worse in more compromising mega-churches because they have watered down the Bible to make sermons more appealing to listen to, with some jumping right into prosperity or post-modern teaching. For people who go to those churches, it is quite clear that they have little concern and/or knowledge of biblical values and truth.
What’s lost in this is the commitment required of church members to Christ, the Bible, community, and evangelism. The continued growth of mega-churches of such individuals makes it more and more difficult to have accountability and discipleship. Much of the growth comes from people leaving other, smaller churches who cannot compete with the presentation of the mega-church. It is not always wrong to leave a church for another, but again, the reasons often have more to do with a consumerist attitude than a concern for biblical principles, community, and right governance.
Looking for the Right Things
Please don’t misunderstand this post as blasting all mega-churches. Many mega-churches grew to their size through no plan of their own; all they did was preach the Gospel and reach the community, and people came. That should be commended. Still, even they have to fight constantly to avoid letting their church be a place for people who want to come and merely get entertained. What really is at issue is the heart of many Christians: What do you look for in a church? Do you evaluate messages more on the skill and charisma of the speaker or his faithfulness towards Scripture? Do you care more about the style and quality of music over the church’s efforts in missions and evangelism? Do you look for community that is cool and fun more so than community that is committed to growing in Christ and challenging one another towards that goal? Would you rather listen to sermons that tickle your ears or that communicate biblical truth? Do you look for youth/college/young adult groups that have lots of programs and activities rather than those that emphasize discipleship? For many Christians, it may even irk them to be asked such challenging questions, which would be telling about what they look for.
When Christians look more for flash and ease rather than biblical substance, the mega-churches grow and grow… while Christianity as a whole does not. They become evidently undeterred if a pastor preaches prosperity crap or if he presents outrageous interpretations due to a severe lack of careful study. It may look impressive to boast something like 15,000 members, but when much of that comes at the expense of biblical truth, true community, and smaller churches, then that sort of “kingdom building” is merely a retreat into bastions of watered-down “Christian” culture. It is imperative that mega-churches care less about their brand and more about training up sound disciples, and it is also imperative that Christians learn that church isn’t a place for them to have everything provided for them but it’s a place where they encounter God, his Word, and his community of believers.