Yesterday over at ReKnew.org, Greg Boyd responded to a common objection. Can you have an Anabaptist mega-church?
Some may claim that a church can espouse an “Anabaptist” theology (or partially), but if they are large enough to be considered a “mega” church they can’t really be an Anabaptist congregation.
I’ve heard this skepticism before. In fact, I have personally discussed this objection with Greg, since Woodland Hills Church has evolved into an Anabaptist congregation, and because I entered the Mennonite USA back in June of this year to pastor an Anabaptist church in Virginia.
Here’s an excerpt of what Greg had to say in his post:
Ironically, those who argue mega-churches can’t be Anabaptist churches are assuming, in the process of raising this objection, a non-Anabaptist definition of church as a weekend gathering. If the leadership of Woodland Hills thought that our “mega” weekend gathering was “the church,” the objection would indeed be valid. But we don’t think this, precisely because this would be a very non-Anabaptist position to assume!
I was encouraged to read Greg’s response because it reflects my own thoughts, and my personal experience as well.
After leaving vocational ministry within the SBC in 2006, and meeting in “organic” house churches for five years, I became very critical of organized churches, especially mega-churches. And for good reason. Mega churches have a tendency to base their success on attendance in their corporate gatherings, and have little to no concern for real community.
Meeting in homes for several years, deconstructing and reconstructing my understanding of the church, was necessary for me to see the benefits of face-to-face community, as well as the larger “mega” gatherings.
It was during that time that I was becoming an Anabaptist. And I deeply resonated with this concern that Anabaptists have for community and keeping it simple. Historically, they’ve done it better than most.
Anabaptist theology and practice rightfully recognizes that face-to-face community is essential in being the Body of Christ in any given location. So, there is a legitimate concern that community might be lost if a church grows beyond a certain point. Some would say it will be lost.
But is this necessarily so?
Again, listen to Greg’s response:
What Woodland Hills Church (as well as and the Meeting House in Toronto and other mega-Anabaptist Churches that may be out there) demonstrates is that we don’t have to chose between embracing the church as community, on the one hand, and holding a large weekend gathering, on the other. There’s nothing intrinsically anti-kingdom about large gatherings. After all, large crowds flocked to Jesus, and the early Christians in Jerusalem met in large groups in “Solomon’s porch” (Acts 5:16-19). The key, however, is to always remind people that the primary expression of church is not the large group, but the smaller communities that come together in houses to share life, study the word, worship and minister together.
I’ve discovered that it is possible to grow in number (corporately) and maintain real community. With it will come challenges, but they’re opportunities to build the Kingdom. We should embrace them.
It may be that the maturity level of some believers has them seeing a weekend “mega” gathering as church. They are just passive receivers of sermons. I think you’re always going to have people who think that way. I’ve even seen them in house churches. They just come, sit, and leave.
So it’s like this. If the leadership and core members hold fast to promoting and practicing sincere relationships in face-to-face community, the church will stay the course of vibrant Kingdom community and outreach.
I appreciate Greg helping us to see the way forward.
Are you a part of an Anabaptist church? How has your church responded to the idea of growing into a large congregation as you reach your community? Do you believe it’s possible to grow numerically and maintain a deep level of community? Please, share your thoughts.
D.D. Flowers, 2013.
Read Greg’s entire post here at ReKnew.org.
October 9th, 2013 at 2:14 am
The definition of church as a weekend gathering is only one aspect of the mega-church problem, and also one that is rapidly declining as many of these churches are seeking to establish organic-like midweek gatherings. Not everyone reads Cole & Viola and then rushes out to “meet under the headship of Christ” in a small independent group. Thousands of sincere, godly believers (including pastors) are reading these books and saying “Hey, why can’t we do this in the week and simply celebrate on Sundays?” And so much of the typical Anabaptist mindset is being adopted by believers worldwide, albeit under different names. The greater problem with mega-churches is something wholly different, namely the suggestion that it is possible for “a” church to exist within “the” church. The definition of church as a specific number of believers who are distinguished from other believers in the same locality by virtue of their allegiance to certain prerequisites (even low-key ones such as signing a “membership covenant”, or noble ones such as understanding what is meant by the term Anabaptist) constitutes the real problem. Obviously this problem applies to churches of all sizes, but it is more spirited in mega-churches where the particular church identity is reinforced by numbers. What I am trying to say is that a large weekend gathering can only truly be non-churchy if every single believer in the community feels equally free to arrive and equally represented.
October 9th, 2013 at 8:34 am
Hey Tobie, I agree with some of what you’ve said, but feel you’re being too rigid on other things.
As you know, I’m friends with Frank Viola and I spent a few years in “organic” expressions. I have written a few posts over the last several years (here, here, and here) that express my disagreement with the philosophy and exegesis of some organic leaders.
I’m happy to say we’re still friends.
I recognize that large churches encounter many problems (This wasn’t the post to go into all the problems), but are you being honest about the problems within all other forms of Body life, including “organic” churches.
We discovered that there are and will be challenges and problems in all church associations. I’m afraid that idealism can blind us to this truth.
Yes, pastors are leaving organized churches, and some are incorporating “organic” principles into their churches–promoting face-to-face community on a regular basis. The important thing is that folks are following Christ, even back into organized churches like myself. I suppose I’m now a statistic that you don’t hear much about—pastors that return to the “institutional” church.
I concluded that knowing “Christ in community” is to be celebrated wherever we find it. You’re right, Christ should be at the center of our association. There should be no prerequisites, but there will be a certain character and tradition in every church. Nothing wrong with that.
See my post Creeds & the Local Church.
October 10th, 2013 at 1:33 am
Thanks for the response, David. I’ve been following your journey and event though it may seem that I don’t relate, I actually do. If the Lord would call me to to what you’ve done, I would happily oblige. But at this point I remain committed to a vision of the church as a scattered community that is so bound together by Christ and their love for one another that they would need nothing else to motivate them to frequently gather together in larger groups for expressing the fullness of Christ in a given locality, regardless of any lesser distinctions of tradition and character among them. As long as the larger gatherings are enabled by any dynamic other than the above two, this ideal of a regular corporate expression of Christ amongst believers who are traditionally and characteristically dissociated, and who may have nothing in common except Christ, remains but an ideal. And so the idealists among us have to sacrifice (not demean!) the one for the sake of pursuing the other.
October 9th, 2013 at 9:02 am
I’m with you, David. I don’t think house churches or smaller church gatherings are any more Anabaptist than larger church gatherings. If the folks in leadership in those larger churches are focusing on making sure the emphasis is in the smaller communities they spawn (Home Churches as Bruxy’s church, The Meeting House, calls it) and if they make an effort to pour resources into those local manifestations (both TMH and Woodland Hills are working at doing this), then I don’t see any major issue with having an Anabaptist mega church. Especially with the emphasis that “church is not a weekend event.”
I think Greg’s response is well thought out, Scripturally sound, and shows that there is an Anabaptist focus going on there.
Something that Terri Churchill (Greg’s editor at Reknew.org) mentioned was that we need to take into consideration that WH growth to megachurch status occurred BEFORE they found their alignment with Anabaptist theology. So, we need to keep in mind that their Anabaptist focus is much more recent and we need to expect a process. So, even if there is some “mega-church”, celebrity pastor mindset among some of the congregants at WH, we need to remember that they are in transition and, as more teaching, more restructuring, etc., occurs, WH may look a lot different in 2, 3, 5, 10 years…
October 9th, 2013 at 9:07 am
Exactly, Robert. What is happening with Woodland Hills has never happened before. As for the celebrity pastor concerns, I know we “Menno-nites” should be careful with that critique. 🙂
October 9th, 2013 at 9:11 am
Yup! We have our own “celebrities” we like to trot out on occasion… Time to address our log before we address their speck.
October 9th, 2013 at 9:07 am
Refreshing thoughts. Adds to my growing ponder on this whole subject.
What do you say to those who are convinced that the organized religious church system led by clergy is part of Babylon and are calling for saints to come out of her and come under the government of the Holy Spirit whether meeting “organically” or being in the “wilderness” and faithfully coming under the government of the Holy Spirit being reduced to Christ for further and future ministry?
October 9th, 2013 at 9:35 am
Hey Seth, as you are aware I have addressed this (albeit indirectly) in previous posts. Also, see my recent comment to Tobie.
I received several “concerned” emails by some organic folks who heard about me pastoring a church. They told me what my motives were and how the venture would destroy me and my family in the process. No questions asked. Wasn’t “concerned” about what God has impressed upon me, or why I would return to vocational ministry after having spent time in organic church life.
Needless to say, I have little respect or concern of my own for folks who think and act this way. I’m deeply suspicious of a person who wants to have a ministry of opposition to men and women who feel called by God to minister to others. I wouldn’t want to be known for that. It calls their own motives, reasoning, and intentions into question.
So, it seems to me that they traded one delusion for another. They are living in the opposite extreme that they left.
October 9th, 2013 at 11:11 am
Judging from Boyd’s post, I think that Woodland Hills’ structure is much better than the typical mega-church.
That said, I think there are some dangers to it. Namely, what kind of authority does Boyd and the leadership have over these house churches? I see absolutely no problem with several–or even many–house churches gathering regularly for a teaching gathering, but I do see a problem with one centralized group or person having authority over all of these house churches. In the end, that would essentially be a miniature denomination. If one of these house churches decided to give all of their offerings to the poor rather than the upkeep of the Woodland Hills building and staff, would they still be considered a part of Woodland Hills? Are only certain people allowed to teach in the house churches, and is the teaching limited to what the leadership allows? If so, I wouldn’t really call these “house-churches” but simply small groups, comparable to any other institutional church.
However, I don’t know the details of Woodland Hills’ model. These are only some concerns I have with the idea itself. If the house-churches are truly autonomous and operate under New Testament principles, then I don’t think we can say it is “wrong.” Though, perhaps we can say it is more prone to some of the same problems of the institutional model.
October 9th, 2013 at 2:57 pm
You’re raising important questions here about the autonomy and as I see it the spiritual growth of the people in the house church community as we seek to live fully in the gifts God has given us. (I am a member of this community at WHC.)
As I consider your post I think of two ditches (over regulated/under regulated), on the one hand yes, the house churches have a great degree of autonomy. People are free to teach what the Spirit has laid on their heart and as they have prepared. Yes, a HC could be led to give all their offering to some other need. So I think as I read the intent of your questions and observations, yes we are set up to function pretty autonomously. The other ditch though is that we do have connection back to WHC so that someone would not start to teach flawed doctrine. (Flawed by what standard? Probably another topic for another post.) There is support and connection to the WHC pastoral staff for help and direction. It seems you have this tension in any relational system, what behavior/thinking etc. is “in bounds” and what is “out of bounds”. This community is growing in walking out a balance of autonomy and connection. For sure we are not the perfect model and have our struggles and yet I can say that I am growing in richer, deeper ways that big Sunday alone doesn’t touch.
Bless you all as we seek to live in this world the best we know how.
October 9th, 2013 at 3:13 pm
Thanks for responding, Rob. That’s very helpful.
October 9th, 2013 at 5:17 pm
Thanks for the clarification. As you anticipated, “Whose standard of doctrine do we follow?” is a question I would have for this situation. Though, that’s not to say I am against what WHC does. I’m still trying to work out how churches should work together, what role doctrine plays in our cooperation with each other, and how we should respond to fellow churches who are drifting away from accepted doctrines. I would love to hear how WHC or David deals with this tough issue. Though, as you say, there will always be some tension in this area, no matter what we do to relieve it.
Peace be with you.
October 9th, 2013 at 10:22 pm
I think Rob’s response was on the money.
I understand your concern, and I don’t think it should ever cease to be a concern. However, as has been said already, this is something that will always involve a careful balance of authority and freedom within the congregation(s). I believe Paul and the apostles (church planters & shepherds) sought after this with the churches they guided. It seems they were careful to allow freedom, but didn’t hesitate to set some boundaries and guide the church on a certain trajectory–toward Christ in all things! They even found it necessary at times to rebuke false teachers and rabble rousers by name.
Not a job I want, but clearly there is a time for it.
I’m convinced that there is no perfect system. We all would like one, but it just doesn’t exist, not even in the NT. Instead, we should celebrate where Christ is being known in community (all healthy forms), be slow to judge what is bringing real Kingdom results (even if we would do it differently), and humbly learn from one another (regardless if we disagree in small things).
Ultimately, I believe we will be judged by the way we replicated Christ’s love to neighbor and enemy, as well as our attempts (or lack thereof) at unity among the saints for the sake of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
October 10th, 2013 at 8:04 am
“no perfect system” is exactly right. Many of the divisions between denominations are not as much doctrinal as they are practical. How should the church operate? The NT does not lay down a single, one-size-fits-all blueprint. There are principles and examples, but not universal commands. While I prefer the way that Southern Baptists have applied those principles, it does not make all other alternatives evil or unbiblical. Grace, love and unity of purpose are important here.
October 9th, 2013 at 10:58 pm
David, nice observations here! For sure this is a tough question. Greg did a sermon where he makes a distinction between doctrine, dogma, and opinion. You can find it here: http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/our-one-foundation it was from April 15, 2012 and is on the whchurch.org website. I think it gives a little glimpse into the grid GB and WHC would use to look at these questions. As we have all acknowledged, tough topic to unpack. I hope you are helped by the piece of the sermon where he explains these circles. Keep living in love!
October 9th, 2013 at 11:02 pm
Hey Rob, I remember that series! Yes, very helpful. I’ve written on the topic as well, Creeds & the Local Church.
October 11th, 2013 at 10:42 am
Thanks for the link, Rob! I’ve listened to most of Greg’s message and will finish it soon.
David, great insight. I think I agree with what you said. But, as I said in my last comment, I’m still trying to work some of the particulars out. Thanks so much for your response.
October 11th, 2013 at 1:16 pm
Thanks, bro. We’re all working it out. 🙂
October 9th, 2013 at 12:43 pm
I think the key is that size is not God’s measure for church health. I have been at small churches with plenty of problems (and reasons why they weren’t growing!). We are now at a larger church that has seemed very healthy for the three plus years we have been members. Community happens in LifeGroups and other ways. Large churches need to grow smaller (more small groups) as they grow larger. And those large churches can do things (like ministry to disabled folks) that smaller churches cannot/will not do.
I have never heard of the “organic” stuff mentioned in the comments here. It does seem to be an extreme reaction.
Mainly, I don’t want to judge any other churches. I just want to be part of what God has called me to do in my local body.
October 9th, 2013 at 11:22 pm
Hey Sean, you’re right about larger churches being able to do ministry that smaller churches can’t do with limited hands and resources.
October 9th, 2013 at 4:04 pm
I live in Pennsylvania and we have some seriously large Mennonite congregations here… particularly if you look at the Hopewell Mennonite denomination (a denomination within Mennonitism that embraces charismatic gifts and practices more overtly than mainstream Mennonitism as a whole…) I don’t know how large a church has to be to be considered a megachurch, but we certainly have many congregations here in PA that are pushing the boundaries of becoming one.
October 9th, 2013 at 4:07 pm
Hey Heather, yeah… I don’t know exactly how you define a “mega” church. I’ve heard that it’s having at least 2,000.
I hadn’t heard of Hopewell. I’ll look into it. Thanks.
October 10th, 2013 at 12:36 am
Just found a link:
October 10th, 2013 at 12:39 am
I like it!
October 10th, 2013 at 9:52 am
Yeah, Hopewell is awesome 🙂
October 10th, 2013 at 12:17 pm
David, I think your thoughts are very careful and excellent on this topic. My experience is shaping up to be very similar to yours. I find that the organic of the organic churches very easily loses it’s organicness when it grapples with what we might call “the church question.” That is the very painful question that you touched on that got roused up in all the comments. What makes church church. What makes it work and what keeps it healthy. My experience is that I will think I know the answer, and then I go with that until I hit a love road block. Something happens where I see that my previous idea won’t work without causing all kinds of damage to people and myself. It is interesting that it is like describing how to keep one’s own spiritual life healthy and alive. You start seeing something that works and you come up with ideas until you get smacked in the face with a problem of love. Where the Lord let’s you know that hey you aren’t walking in love right now. So I think the solution is to have our judgment crushed by the Lord. That our eyes would not be judging what the Lord’s right and perfect way is for all men. Instead there is enough struggle and difficulty for us to personally stay in right relationship with the Lord and with others that we need not make judgments on the whole system. All we need is to be able to walk each step one at a time with the Lord. If we do that, then what need do we have to have a right and perfect church, if I am pleasing the Lord by submission to His Lordship, then I have everything I need. He will lead me into proper character. He will lead me into proper fellowship. He will lead me into proper service. Thanks for the reminder. It is a refreshing word to me.
October 10th, 2013 at 12:23 pm
To be clear in my response I would like to add that I am saying whether in the institutional church or outside of it, whether mega huge or very small, the church are the believers of the Lord Jesus and the whether it is right for it to be institutional or too mega, is not my concern but the Lord’s. May I learn not to judge His work.