How 21st Century MegaChurches Energize Believers And Assume Apostolic Authority
By Don Chatelain
I have spent two decades studying what we know from Scripture about the first century Christians and the way God acted through them. This study informed my teaching—training seminary students about church growth—and writing; my most recent project is an imaginative reconstruction of the first century church as it spread the Good News throughout the known world. In October 2013 I attended a conference at Saddleback Valley Community Church that crystallized my understanding of Christ’s Authority within Christian community and led to the argument I am about to put forward.
The first Christians had what we would now call a “megachurch” of 3000 souls, guided as a community by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:41). They “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (Acts 2:42).
I have come to believe that many modern Evangelical megachurches are the true heirs of these early Christians. By energizing believers with Gospel centered discipleship and mission, they have assumed the mantle of apostolic and moral authority that Christ first bestowed upon Peter and John. I pray that lessons learned from them can revitalize the entire Evangelical community, including:
(1) the 95% of Protestant churches in the United States that have fewer than 200 members and are concerned about not only their future direction but their very survival, and
(2) the many Americans who, as Nicholas Kristof points out, are "scarcely knowledgeable" about what the Bible teaches.
The following information about Saddleback Valley Community Church (Orange County, CA) is drawn from material presented at the Exponential Conference of Disciplers and Church Planters in October 2013. 1800 conference attendees from churches of all sizes experienced a wide variety of plenary sessions, seminars, and workshops; their session on “Saddleback DNA” generously shared detailed approaches to megachurch health and growth.
Characteristics Of A Modern MegaChurch
Previous efforts to revitalize modern Christendom, undertaken by the major Protestant denominations, academics and scholars, para-church groups, religious media and Christian seminaries, while meaningful, have failed.
How are many megachurches revitalizing the Body of Christ?
Using all four of these as the pillars of their approach, many evangelical megachurches (ranging in size from 500 to 50,000 members) train Christians who can launch and sustain individual and small group Missional covenants from a place of spiritual maturity.
Any ecclesial entity that rests upon these four pillars, nourished by the Holy Spirit with the very stamp (Karak’tos as used in Hebrews 1:3) of our Lord Jesus Christ, wears the mantle of apostolic authority and can help bring Holy light to a dark world (John 3:19-21). Any ecclesial entity not honoring God according to these pillars survives, like the fig tree of Mark 12:12-14, in a form that is shrunken, diminished or dead.
From The Roman Era To Today
Acts 2 reviews the development of the first Christian church in detail, describing how its practice included all four of the pillars just described. This “first Christian megachurch” lasted until the early 300s AD when Emperor Constantine incorporated Christianity into the structures of Imperial Rome, establishing the Roman church system. Historians may disagree as to whether this integration was politically expedient, providential, or a death knell for the true spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was all three.
For the next 1200 years, Jesus Followers interacted with God chiefly through priestly intermediaries. (The Christian mystics were a notable exception.) Most “small groups” of followers were typically led by clergy, as was Eucharistic worship.
[These next sections draw heavily on the scholarship of W.R. Ward, Mark Noll and Ephraim Radner.]
In the 1300s the feudal system of social control began to break down, challenged by the availability of mercenary soldiers using gunpowder, reducing the invulnerability of the Roman Church hierarchies within their castles, and changing the distribution of wealth.
By 1450 AD, the advent of the block printing press and movable type allowed religious manuscripts to be printed and placed in book or folio form. Ordinary lay people began to read them and meet informally to discuss them, again weakening the control of the Roman Church over Christian testaments and Christian gatherings.
But it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s
(Martin Luther 1483-1546 and John Calvin 1509-1564) that the Roman Church faced
the rise of Lutheran and Reformed Orthodox Churches. In many geographical areas
these changes came about through direct conversion of their princes by Luther. The
term “evangelical” first came into use during this period.
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 Counter-Reformation.
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 Pietatis.
(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 comfortable with.
(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 authority.
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 forever.
An Evangelical 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 life.”
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: “We 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.”
“We 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 campus.
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 Apostolic Authority
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 Satan’s storms.
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 101 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.”
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.