Our Mega Church “Experience”

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Recently my wife and I went on vacation in Las Vegas and attended a Mega Church in town.  I have visited a Mega Church before this when I was 16, but not only was this before I knew Jesus, it was before I had any interest in how the church was impacting the world.  Now that I’m a small church pastor, I am very interested in how other churches operate and what kind of impact we make on the world.  So, we took advantage of the opportunity to visit another church (an opportunity that rarely presents itself).  This particular church followed what’s called the “multi-campus” model.  In other words, they have multiple locations with one speaker that speaks to all of them via video.  These sites also have a campus pastor who handles the “in-person” responsibilities such as personal decisions, individual campus directions, and explaining the mission of the church.  In the article below, I’m going to give my personal review of what we “experienced” and even why I keep using quotations for the word “experience”.
I’m going to start with the positive “experiences” for two reasons; 1) I think we can learn more from our negative interactions so I’m going to save those for the end and 2) there were a lot more good “experiences” than bad ones.

Positive “Experiences”

1)  Their facility was huge with clear signage going up to the front door.

They literally had everything a church could need or want.  From covered parking, to solar panel power, to state of the art stage equipment and lighting, to a gym, to a Christian School, to a water slide area for pool parties after church (yes you read it right).  Small church pastors like myself only dream about facilities like these (and drool).

2)  Their worship was wonderful.

They had very talented musicians who were very professional.  There was no dead time between events or songs.  One event ran right into the other with very smooth transitions.  I didn’t see a single error with words on the screen.  I didn’t hear a single error in the way the music was played.  They were very, very practiced and ready for worship when the time came.  At our church we could clearly learn a LOT from how they presented worship.  All the staff was wearing staff shirts, from sound technicians to children’s church staff, to the pastor.  It wasn’t at all hard to make out who was on staff and who wasn’t.

3)  I loved how they presented Baptism.

I was a little uncertain how a non-denominational church might present baptism.  Because we came on baptism decision day, we got to hear their whole pitch and doctrine for baptism.  In fact, that’s what the message was about.  On three separate occasions, I was impressed with what they said about Baptism.  First, they said that if a person was baptized as a baby that they weren’t trying to “undo” what their parents did but wanted to honor that decision instead.  Because Baptism is a lot like an altar where you can look back and remember the moment when God worked in your life, it’s better to have a memory of baptism.  Second, they mentioned that if a person wanted to be “re-baptized” they weren’t going to stand in their way.  However, the water didn’t forgive us.  If a person needed to be baptized every time they sinned, you should never get out of the water.  Third, they presented baptism like a wedding ring.  Wearing the ring at the time of commitment doesn’t make you a better spouse.  Instead, the ring reminds you of the commitment you made.

4)  They had their bases covered.

Because this was Baptism Sunday, they were prepared for baptisms.  They had the baptistry pool filled for people who wanted to do that immediately.  They tore down every excuse a person could have as to why they couldn’t get baptized right then and there.  “We have t-shirts if your clothing is see through…We brought towels for you…We have trash bags so you can ride home in your car wet…The water is warm…Jesus died for you, you can get wet for him…” etc.

5)  They had an encouraging atmosphere for decisions.

When people surrendered to the Lord in Baptism, they received a standing ovation from everyone in the auditorium.  That was really, really cool.  It took me some time to discern how I felt about the way they presented baptism as a decision, but in hindsight, I believe it was on target.  From what I read in the New Testament, I’ve never seen a time when a person didn’t get baptized immediately after the decision to follow Jesus.  The two should never be separated.  So although they weren’t doing an “altar call” for decisions to follow Christ, the decision to be Baptized was the decision to follow Christ.  I have to say, I was impressed with how they presented it.

6)  They respected our time.

They got us out on time (which is something I’m sure everyone in my congregation would love for me to master).

7)  They really wanted people to come as they were.

Nothing is more irritating to me than the idea that a person has to get cleaned up before they come to the Lord.  I have had this conversation on multiple occasions with multiple people.  A suit and a tie isn’t what the Lord asks for, nor is it how you show him respect.  He wants your heart, he wants your life, not your fashion.  If you really want to know why a person dresses their best on Sunday Morning, you really ought to study about Constantine in 313 A.D.  That’s when church “services” moved from the home to the big beautiful buildings.

8)  The message was extremely practical.

One of the things we often do in church is present the gospel in “Christianese”.  We use terms that people don’t understand and almost never attempt to explain them.  This church, however, assumed that everyone was new, instead of experienced, and had never heard of things like “Baptism” or “Salvation”.

9)  Avoided False Doctrine.

As a small church pastor, it would be easy to assume that Mega Churches are large because they teach false doctrine. Why then are they so successful and we aren’t?  However, this was not the case in this church.  They put things plainly and used scripture as a reference.
Before we go into the negative, let me just say that I don’t have an axe to grind.  Not only am I content where God has me, I am not looking to tear down my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  I post these experiences in hopes that other churches can learn from them and be open to the Holy Spirit’s direction as to how a church should operate, including ours.

Negative “Experiences”

1)  They were too focused on the “Experience”.

I hate to sound as if I was biased before I walked into the front door but this is exactly what I expected when visiting a church in Las Vegas.  Las Vegas has a lot of shows.  From children’s shows, to teenager shows, to adult shows, to adult raunchy shows, they have something for everyone.  And in case you forget about the shows, just drive down the street and they have billboards and lights everywhere to remind you.  I don’t want to be unfair, but this church seemed to buy into that kind of mentality.  They even referred to the service as an “experience”.  But, from what I read in scripture, Church is NOT just an experience.  Sure, you experience things, but is that all there is?  While it’s fine to approach people as an individuals, our responsibility as spokespeople for God is to show them that their life is not all about them.  Sure they have a life, but it’s only because God gave it to them.  This is a needed message everywhere, but I would assume it’s especially true in Las Vegas.  This is the place where people are extremely desensitized to their senses because of what they “experience” 24/7.  Las Vegas has a lot of shows, they don’t need another one.

2)  No one talked to us.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that no one said anything to us.  The speaker talked to the audience from the stage.  I locked eyes with another polite person who said “hi” as they passed me on their way to the bathroom.  But other than that, no one personally spoke with us.  The signage into the building was great.  But once we got inside, we were so lost.  We didn’t know where to take our kids, we didn’t know where the sanctuary was, we didn’t even know where the bathroom was.  There weren’t signs anywhere to help either.  And to make matters worse, we walked past several people with staff shirts on who were busy conversing with each other.  Two women in particular temporarily paused their conversation with each other as we walked closer to them, looked as us, then continued the conversation.  I couldn’t imagine what we must have looked like, but I knew we were lost and if a person was paying attention to us, they could have seen that and helped us out.  We couldn’t find where to take our kids, so we just brought them into the sanctuary with us after we found it and sat down.  It was exactly what you would experience at a movie theater, the only difference is that at least the ticket person tears your ticket up and tells you which way to go.  I thought to myself, “Well, maybe someone will stop us outside the door on the way out.”  Silly me.  It was easy in, and easy out.

3)  The message wasn’t deep and had room for misapplication.

I’ve had a relationship with the Lord for a long time and know where to find spiritual nourishment outside of a church service.  I don’t need a speaker to feed me spiritually, but I’m also in the minority in churches.  Deeper application is needed for people who hadn’t been in church for a while.  As I said earlier the speaker made some great points about Baptism, however, he didn’t emphasize one of the most powerful points of all.  Baptism is more than a public profession of faith saying you’re a believer, it’s a moment when you declare your life is over and your life in Christ has begun.  As a follower of Christ after Baptism, you are submitting to others holding you accountable as a follower of the Lord.
The Baptism ceremony is your funeral. 
You are dead and no longer live for yourself.  Now you live for Christ.  Once, when I was India, I was asked to perform a baptism for a woman who had decided to follow Jesus in obedience through baptism.  I asked her several questions before I did it and the translator told me she asked that I please pray for her because when she got home her husband was going to beat her for making this decision.  In India, if a person believed in Jesus, they could live with no repercussions until they were baptized.  They just add Jesus to one of their many gods.  Once they were baptized, however, their lives were over.  Many women and children are abandoned, some are put in jail, some are killed.  This makes our excuses for why we can’t be baptized trivial by comparison.  Baptism isn’t a decision you can make for others, it’s a decision every person must make for themselves.  Probably one of the most heart wrenching things about this point was the 10-12 year old in front of us at the end of the message.  The speaker talked about how everyone should have that “altar” to look back on.  Apparently the woman in front of us agreed wholeheartedly.  Even to the point that she literally grabbed her son by the arm and drug him down the steps to have that very same “altar” for himself.  We watched as he tried to move out of her way if she wanted to make that decision for herself but she shook her head and took him by the arm talking to him the whole way down.  He was quite apprehensive, but she was bigger than him, what could he do?  I understand that these things can, have, and will happen again in the future.  I’ve even had people come to me and tell me that they wanted me to baptize all of their children at once.  It just broke my heart that the church went through with it after his mom drug him down the aisle.

4)  There was no commitment to each other.

This was the most disconcerting issue I had.  Romans 12:10-13 says,
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.   Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (NIV)
The whole time I was there, I never heard a call to be devoted to the church.  Being devoted to the Lord, sure, but not to the Church.  And truthfully, there shouldn’t be a difference between the two.  There wasn’t a call to join in service, there wasn’t a call to be dedicated to a prayer ministry.  This church had a discipleship plan but it wasn’t talked about nor was it emphasized why a person should be a part of it.  I only know about their plan because I saw it on a screen walking out.  And on the screen it was presented as Christianity 2.0, not Christianity 101.

I’m trying to be fair in this critique.  I suppose it’s going to be unfair regardless since it wasn’t asked for.  However, I hope and pray that God might use it to show people how we need to be focused on making an impact in people’s lives, not putting on a good show.  Mega churches and small churches are both in the body of Christ.  I suppose the frustration I have is when small churches are great at fulfilling the negative part of my list and feel inept because they are terrible at fulfilling the positive parts.  Our “experience” at a the mega church taught me something important.  Small churches and mega churches have much to learn from each other.  But most of all, we’ll never find a perfect church to attend, and if we do, we shouldn’t join it because we’ll mess it up.