Meanwhile, the Roman church of the time exhibited signs of corruption,
selling indulgences and supposed relics of our Lord and His twelve disciples
for money. Our Lord inspired Martin Luther to appear at just the right time.
The Roman Church’s reaction included reforms that together became known as the
The post-reformation (Protestant) Christian churches tried to adapt a
variation of the Roman Church’s model of maintaining denominational and
confessional control (Radner), but to some extent they were also drawn to the undenominational
evangelical vitalism of the first century megachurch. Up to the time of the
French Revolution, orthodox church trained scholars such as Johann Arndt
(1585-1621) and Philip Jakob Spener (1635-1705) picked up the mantle of this vitalism,
advocating for continuing evangelical reform, as follows:
(1) From a senior position in the Lutheran Frankfurt Church, Spener promulgated
the Collegium Pietistis as the
foundation of his reform movement, the Pia Desideria (“Heartfelt Longings”). W.R.
Ward describes this “reviving” as a return to the “early Christian custom of
lay congregational meetings of 1st Corinthians 14(-16).” Undenominational
preachers began to focus on the Holy Spirit of Christ within each believer, and
the believers’ calling as individual missional disciples of the Lord; e.g.,
recharging the Great Commission of Matthew 28.
(2) As part of a renewed focus on centuries-old apocalyptic
interpretations by approved church scholars, Apostle John’s AD 70 basis for Last
Things and Peter’s End of Days thesis began to prevail. Mystics and their mysterion continued to appeal to the
laity; this made it hard for orthodox leaders to confine evangelical beliefs
and practices within the confines of the Collegium
(3) Eucharistic worship moved beyond obligatory attendance in a large
gathering led by the hierarchy. Worship outside the cathedrals, led by lay
disciples, challenged Spener to move farther in this direction that he was
(4) Thousands of small groups came into being. According to W. R.
Ward, “From August 1670 forward meetings took place twice per week with Spener
introducing the discussion with prayer and devotional or theological readings.”
In a short period of time, due to the inability to control the growth, small
groups effectively moved the church out from under the Pietatis and made it a wide ranging, undenominational self-governing
Note how closely these practices match with the practices of the first
century Christians and the pillars of a vital megachurch. An additional three
centuries passed before the rise of the Evangelical megachurch as we know it
today (500 to 2000 attendees or more), but this 16th Century Holy
Spirit-led lay movement inspired by Luther, Calvin, Arndt and Spener would
alter the nature of the evangelical ekklesia
Mega-Church Today: “Saddleback DNA”
The “Saddleback DNA” meeting was open to all pre-conference attendees;
thirty of us took the opportunity to hear from key staff members about the nuts
and bolts of their community building efforts. Many thanks to Saddleback’s
Senior Pastor Rick Warren, Senior Associate Pastor Tom Holladay, and Steve
Gladen, Pastor of Spiritual Maturity, for their hospitality and leadership.
“Grow the church from outside in, rather than from inside out,” is the
evangelism strategy of Saddleback staff and laity. As Rick Warren noted,
outreach is, “worldwide, in 59 languages, to 176 countries. Our churches must
look like heaven.” Saddleback defines structured stages of connection and
Christian spiritual maturity, and supports believers’ progression through “one
level of commitment at a time.”
The Saddleback DNA Primer frames
it in this manner: “Build a healthy
church by focusing on one level of
commitment at a time.” Current staff and church members target their Southern
California neighbors as their first level of focus, the community. Rick Warren, his staff and the church members are
praying for and loving ALL the people in the communities they serve, through
Saddleback community evangelism and direct service.
The church’s second level of focus is the crowd of attendees at weekly worship services.
The crowd gathers each weekend at the main Saddleback campus and the seven
satellite campuses spread out through Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles Counties.
Rick Warren noted that as of the Exponential conference date the “crowd”
consisted of 14,000 worshippers at the main campus and 16,000 worshippers at
the seven satellite campuses. “For the first time we have more worshippers at
the satellites than the main campus.” The worshippers at the “temple court”
(Acts 5:42) thus number 30,000 weekly.
Evangelism on these campuses occurs as “bridge events” bring worship
services to the “crowd”; many attendees hearing for the first time the Gospel proclamation
of Jesus Christ who loves them and wants a relationship with them.
The third level of focus is the congregation,
composed of weekly crowd members of the church, graduates of DNA Class 101. For
each believer, this results in a thorough understanding of, and covenant to,
“being our Lord’s disciple within the Saddleback Family.” Class 101 believers
are then encouraged “continually meet together to pray with one purpose in
mind” (Acts 1:14) in close fellowship (Acts 2:42, 44), meeting in small groups,
in homes “with great joy and glad hearts” (Acts 2:46b).
Between 2012 and 2013 Saddleback increased its “congregation” by 3100 members.
This increase is equivalent to adding one first century mega-church per year
(Acts 2:42, 47). Rick Warren added, “It’s significant that our evangelical church
is 33 years old and still growing” (e.g., at the original mega-church rate).
One only has to visit Saddleback Church, or Imago Dei Community in
Portland OR, to see the “working class” and “younger generations” attending
worship, emerging from what Ross Douthat calls the “Christian Penumbra”.
The fourth level of focus is the committed,
graduates of Class 201, where spiritual maturity, led by the presence of the
Holy Spirit, is proclaimed to each believer as a personal and living aspect of
God’s Maturity Covenant. Tom Holladay notes, “there is a 25% drop out of the Class
101s.” No one judges the members of Class 101 who simply continue attending and
tithing at the basic level of 101 covenanting. But the 75% who advance to Class
201 are taking an important step. (Small micro-churches sometimes fail to recognize
or have a discernible process where their members move forward to this level of
discipleship and spiritual maturity.)
According to Tom Holladay, “Class 201 is where a member crosses the
line and says I am going to be a growing Christian the rest of my life,” (Ephesians
4:14). Rick Warren describes this vital, non-negotiable spiritual component of
faith development as follows: “Christian spiritual growth is intentional (Ephesians
4:13); personal (II Corinthians 3:5,18); relational (Hebrews 10:24-25); and
incarnational (Philippians 2:12-13, Galatians 2:20). Not imitation nor
isolation: but insulation in the world, but not of the world – a new track, for
Acknowledging that 25% of the members who complete Class 101 do not
step up to the maturity covenant level and enter Class 201 is significant, and this
is the first time I have seen this issue not only honestly acknowledged and confronted.
However, Saddleback does not make discernible distinctions between the 75% and 25%.
Together they are 100%, with faith in eternal life with Jesus Christ (John 3:36),
with a continuing atmosphere of love and acceptance towards and from the Presence
of the Holy Spirit, in sermons, small groups and participation in events like
the Exponential Conference.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is a necessary precondition for growth
in a believer’s evangelical faith. The Saddleback organizational structure is
designed to sensitively present this message to large numbers of believers, framing
and continuing to witness to the Holy Spirit not only to its own members but
also to its neighboring smaller churches; those Holy Spirit led to seek revitalization.
Saddleback’s classes after level 201 support the church in achieving, in
addition to its well-documented quantitative growth, its qualitative goals of
evangelization, faith encouragement, spiritual development, and shaping for Ministry
and Missional covenants.
At this juncture in the Life Development Process, Steve Gladen explains:
believe every member is a minister so we help our members discover their god
given SHAPE (spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, experiences) and
help them find a place to serve to express those gifts.”
would say Ministry (Class 301) is to those is those within the church, while Mission
(Class 401) is to those outside the church, commissioned and sent out to fulfill the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20).” Ministry may be via current ministry opportunities that
already exist, or new ministries that spring up from small group members and/or ministers’
suggestions. [As an example from another megachurch, Imago Dei in Portland annually
supports a certain number of new ministries suggested by members through a program
called Missional Grants.]
The Saddleback DNA program, with 8414 small groups (as of Feb 23, 2014),
represents a full flowering of the small group movement originally launched by
Spener in 1670.
Steve Gladen further described how the congregation meets in homes,
offices and church locations each week, led by lay leaders and/or hosts. According
to an outside audit conducted every two years, small groups average 8.2 members,
giving Saddleback a continuing weekly reach of 69,000 (39,000 people over and
above the large group of weekly “crowd” attendees of 30,000).
While a simple majority of those in small groups also attend physical
worship, those who do not will be, on a weekly basis, in a personal
evangelistic relationship with someone who does attend worship. They may also participate
by viewing live streaming of services in their homes or viewing podcast
versions of services. A master tape of the weekly Saturday night service,
including its sermon, is distributed overnight for use by satellite worship (and
small group) locations that are not video synched to the Lake Forest main
As characterized by Tom Krattenmaker, "small groups antennae", (1000s at a time) aggregately embedded into local, national and worldwide concerns and needs, can bring a Holy Spirit driven vitalism to fulfilling the Great Commission; hardly correct, as in the case of Saddleback, to refer to 60,000 plus people per week, giving real oxygen to mission, as a "refugee camp" (a pejorative label given to megachurches by Mike Breen).
Support for the
Revitalization of MicroChurches: The Fourth Awakening
Rick Warren uses the term “micro-churches” to describe churches that
have fewer than 200 members. Saddleback reached out to members of small churches
in attendance at the Exponential Conference by distributing 1800 “40 Days in
the Word” starter kits under the theme, “Love the Word, Learn the Word, Live
the Word.” Although given
megachurches are leading the way, this “one level of commitment at a time”
approach can work for a church of any size.
Tom Holladay emphasized that the Exponential Conference was about
Church Health (in authority and structure), not just Discipleship or Planting
(as important as these are for an individual church). According to the Saddleback DNA Primer, ”A Disciple making
church, large or small, has supernatural power (Acts 2:1-4), offers life changing
truth (Acts 2:14,16,19), uses everybody’s gifts (Acts 2:14-18,21), includes
loving ALL people in ALL languages (Acts 2:5-8,11); and uses generous sacrifices
in Ministry and Mission.”
The Source of
How dare I suggest that any megachurch be given the same status as Gerizim or Jerusalem? The key term is given. (John 4:7-30; see this article.) Jesus Christ,
our prime author and mover of apostolic authority, has dismissed both Gerizim
and Jerusalem. According to Jesus, the place where we worship Him is the one
that proclaiming His “spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24). Any church where the
“whole structure, being joined
together, sufficiently grows into a Holy Temple is a dwelling place for God, His
saints and members in the Presence of His Holy Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Apostolic authority, originally given to Peter and John, has passed to
those Holy Spirit-driven, Gospel-centered megachurches, specifically because of
their structured Holy Spirit organizational process, discernible levels of confessional
strength and unwavering commitment to Scripture among the faithful. (Hebrews 10:22-25)
These ecclesial entities make it clear how apostolic authority is given and passed through to pastors,
elders and lay leaders within a growing Evangelical community:
+ Structured Holy Spirit governance (I John 4: 1-2, 13)
+ Sanity and sobriety in prayer (I Peter 4:7)
+ No continuation in habitual sin, but good works (I Pet 2:11-12)
+ Defense of Faith in Missional works (I Peter 3: 15, 17)
+ Growth in Grace and Knowledge of Jesus Christ, giving Him Glory now
and to the day of eternity (II Peter 3:18)
The undenominational megachurch is the 21st century result
of a creative bundling of Christian spirit resources drawn from denominations
and their derivatives: Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran entities, Protestant Reformed entities,
Wesleyans, Anabaptist offshoots, Latter Day Saints, Emergents, Slow Churchers, selected Christian academia
and para-Christian groups.
“Conventionally, denominational diversities and schisms have been
characterized as occurring due to differences in doctrine when just as
obviously (to some scholars) such schism occurrence is a matter of
organizational form and culture." - John Sutton and Mark Chaves
Existing accounts of denominational diversities and schisms focus on
preservation and control of organizational authority as opposed to apostolic
authority. For more on the argument that evangelical apostolic authority in
America has been shredded by warring parties, see Apostles of Reason by Mary Worthen.
Additional Thoughts On Apostolic Authority
Any discussion of authority must be
tempered by the reality that not all megachurches have standing, or can
withstand a fall from standing. For example, the actions of a pastor who
is seen to be erring in public test the ethos
of the pastor’s community, requiring providential doses of mega-grace:
Jesus told His first followers that communities of
believers can survive storms that buffet their earthly leaders. He urged them
to stand firm. Both Jesus and Paul warned that believers will be hated by the
world because of its hate for Jesus. Moreover, where law enters, offense can
abound. But where sin abounds, grace all the more abounds for the faith
communities and small groups of believers who stand firm as Christ commanded
unto the salvific End of Days.
This is why I argue that evangelical megachurches possess a special place in God’s
vision for bringing Jesus’ message, ministry and mission into the world. The
clear Gospel proclamation, the Holy Spirit presence in large congregations, and
the Holy Spirit guidance given to a critical mass of small groups, can provide
sufficient ballast for a spiritually mature megachurch to weather the worst of
No discussion of apostolic authority can afford to ignore the Catholic Church, so let me ask, to what extent could a group of Catholics compose a megachurch? My definition of "megachurch" includes strong roots in each church's community and the freedom to respond to the moving of the Holy Spirit with few or no denominational concerns. For example, in Los Angeles, where both my wife and I were born, the magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels serves an Archdiocese of over five million Catholics. I would argue these five million, served in 287 parish churches and communities throughout the Los Angeles Archdiocese, lack both the independence from Rome and the cohesive community focus to be called a megachurch.
However, if a Catholic Archbishop or any other bishop or priest were to preside over a Catholic parish/church of 500 or more members, with some independence from Rome and significant small group participation, featuring Gospel-driven, Holy Spirit remembrance in worship proclamation, small group discipling and missional provision, I would consider that a megachurch could indeed emerge, receiving through the Holy Spirit, additional apostolic authority.
In ways similar under leading by the Holy Spirit, large Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian or Methodist congregations, under siege from denominational over reach, and with small groups already in place, could establish undenominational megachurches, while preserving local, liturgical practices.
Anglican denomination's interpretative Scriptural deterioration may already have reached critical mass, hope against "hoping some larger alliance of Christian witness" and interpretation would appear
according to Ephraim Radner. In my past, personal experience as a Presbyterian Elder, many Presbyterian megachurches today function in spirit and praxis as "unconscious undenominationals", working around a grasping, centralized polity. It is only a matter of time before many of these churches separate from their denominational headache.
I can also call to mind occasions when bishops of groups that could be regarded as Catholic or Anglican megachurches have espoused denominational freedom but then sought the protection of either Rome or England as needed to deflect charges of mismanagement, child abuse, and cover-ups of those same charges. Pope Francis himself receives the media attention of a religious "rock star"; here Ross Douthat explains the importance of distinguishing between his pastoral and doctrinal roles. For both Catholic and Protestant leaders of megachurches, the issue of the quality of the shepherds of a church remains key. For micro-churches, another warning sign would be prolonged stasis: a church community that remains the same size for years, not growing in worship, discipleship and mission.
For all believers, Protestant and Catholic, regardless of the size of our churches, the central truth of our faith is this: “He or she who believes in the Son has eternal life; he or she who does not obey the Son shall not see (eternal) life, but the wrath of God will rest upon him or her (forever).” - John 3:36. Additional recommended passages include Jeremiah 23:1-6, 33-40, Mark 10:1-18, and Galatians 6:1-10.
Replicating the New Testament model of the original
megachurch, the enabling structure,
covenantal love and spiritual maturity of a modern undenominational
megachurch can evangelize all comers. Undenominational Saddleback and other
megachurches whose organizational structures support the spiritual maturity of
the faithful can receive, preserve and manifest a consolidated evangelical
apostolic authority in their ministries and missions.
To review the levels of discipleship as summarized by Steve Gladen: “Class
is where we help people become members and get them connected to the church and
small groups. Class 201 is where we disciple people and teach them the habits
of a spiritually mature follower of Christ.” Next come Class 301, Ministry and
Covenant, and Class 401, Missional Commitment.
I appreciate Rich Stearns' sentiment, in his book Unfinished, which I paraphrase here; that in the area of missional effort, “we’re still living too comfortably, pleased with what we’ve accomplished.”
However, I will let Rick Warren have the last word here (quoted from the final session
of the conference): “Pastor, be Kingdom minded – you don’t need to look
too far for hurting people. If you want your church to grow you must become
more loving – of everybody.”
Email for your comments on this Essay: Don7000@comcast.net
PS: If this article has piqued your curiosity about the crowd worship
and small group discipling of the first century Christians, I invite you to
read my novel, The Parable of the Messiah
Scrolls, as support for your own evangelical imagination.