Big box churches

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Springtime was in full theatre as we travelled back from Virginia on a Sunday morning recently after a week’s break. Viewing the redbud, dogwood and lilacs providing the backdrop for lush green meadows was as much worship as meeting with the saints in song, scripture and sermon. We turned off the radio and drove in silence, soaking in all the beauty.



Inspirational as it was, something else about the landscape struck me on another level as we traversed through the rolling hills of Virginia and Pennsylvania before crossing the border into southern Ontario. It was the parking lots of the various churches in which worshippers were gathered.



Small Presbyterian, Baptist and United Methodist churches, neatly tucked into the foothills, had half-filled parking lots, while the large mega-churches, such as Fellowship Bible Church just outside of Winchester, Va., had every parking space filled, some with motorcycles and RVs. A sprawling complex of buildings, including a family life centre and a fully equipped children’s outdoor gym, filled several hectares of land. It had a striking resemblance to a shopping mall.



A quick data check on this religious enterprise showed a paid staff of 40 and an annual budget of $5 million. The reviews detailed a warm welcome to visitors under the auspices of an “assimilation committee” that saw to it that each new person went away with a full “information packet” and a loaf of freshly baked homemade bread.



Distracted from my mesmerization with the splendour of nature momentarily, my mind wandered to the wonder of religious commercialism in the 21st century, symbolized by the big box churches such as Fellowship Bible. I wondered what it was that drew the faithful away from those small, struggling churches to the dazzling sanctuaries. Was it the sounding of a prosperity gospel interspersed with nationalism, the elaborate praise bands, or the multiple offerings of “ministries,” such as financial planning and parenting support groups?



As my friend Dave cynically commented when hearing my ruminations, “Go to Row 7 for forgiveness, take a number and proceed to the end of the line for a premium package of apocalyptic end time scenarios.”



With declining attendance in some of our own Mennonite Church Canada congregations, it is easy to have mega-church envy. In some cases, we are borrowing what we perceive are the healing remedies of this model to stop the bleeding. Our cousins, the Mennonite Brethren, have successfully adopted the Willow Creek prototype and built a huge facility called Willingdon Church in Vancouver, attracting 5,000 congregants weekly.



Is this what it takes to grow our churches? Are these the new Great Commission tools with which to take the gospel “to every tribe and nation” in our multicultural society? Are we hopelessly stuck in an outdated notion of smaller communities of faith, holding to a standard of adult conversion, the “cost” of discipleship, and the sharing of bread and wine with each other throughout the week, while being change agents for peace and justice in a world torn apart with violence and greed?



When did the paradigm shift from spiritual “commitment” to spiritual “consumerism” occur? From going to church to give something of myself, rather than going to get my personal needs filled—in effect, purchasing my well-being (shalom) from a full inventory of self-help goodies rather than getting the same by being part of an intimate group of Christ-followers?



After three decades of selling the mega-church model around the world, Bill Hybels, the founder and promoter of Willow Creek Community Church, outside of Chicago, is not so sure it is a spiritual success. In a recent public apology to a leadership summit, he said: “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people—taught people—how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”



After doing a survey of his flock, Hybels admitted that the data suggested “they weren’t helped [spiritually] all that much.” These age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading and relationships, he said, ironically, do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

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I've just stumbled upon Dick Benner's piece on this subject and found as I was reading his comments on this subject, to my surprise, he included Willingdon Church, in Burnaby B.C., as a big box church and furthermore, suggested Willingdon took as its model, Willow Creek, the very large church in Chicago.
I suspect Mr. Benner has never been to, nor seen Willingdon and I doubt he's ever talked to anyone from or in that church.
Obviously, I cannot with these few comments give you a detailed view of something as large as Willingdon Church today; nevertheless, it is somewhat offensive to paint large churches with the broad brush of commercialism without doing a little homework.
My wife and I have been members of Willingdon for 30 years and I've just recently retired from leadership having served for nearly all of that time as a lay-leader.
During this time we’ve seen this church grow from a small group of ordinary Christians of around a hundred souls, who heard God call them to go out and give the gospel to their neighbors, into what it is today.
When we arrived in the early 80’s, the Sunday morning attendance was approximately 600. As far as I recall becoming a large church was never anyone’s goal. Our motto was and still is, “To know Jesus Christ personally and to carry on his ministry.” As more and more people experienced what it was to know Jesus personally, and were being fed sound Biblical messages, the number of people attending increased.
Soon people groups who didn’t know English well, Vancouver/Burnaby is a very cosmopolitan metropolis, started coming and brought with them those who could translate English into their native language and so today the doctrinally sound Biblical messages are translated into 9 languages at last count.
As leaders, our constant scramble was to keep providing a seat for all these people to sit down in to hear what God was saying; becoming a mega-church just happened.
My wife and I attended a thank-you dinner just this week for all the volunteers who make all this happen. Ushers, parking lot attendants, elders, choir and orchestra persons, etc. We were informed there are somewhere around 1500 of us, all volunteers.
May I invite Mr. Benner to visit Willingdon, stay a weekend and visit the 5 services we need in order to allow everyone who wants to hear the message to have a seat. Please spend a day or two, to see what God is doing in this community. Although I’m an octogenarian now, I’ll volunteer to give him a personal tour.

George Goertzen MD CCFP (retired)

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