The worship center at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is massive yet airy, supported by 12 trusses that converge at their peak and lock into a cross. The cross rises 40 feet above the roof and extends another 32 feet below, holding the entire structure in place. When senior minister Bob Russell stands in the pulpit, he is directly beneath that cross.
Russell accepted a call to Southeast in 1966, at the age of 22. The church, which started in 1962, had 125 members when Russell came. They met in the basement of a home.
Today they gather at a $26 million facility in a sanctuary that seats more than 9,000. More than 14,000 people worship at Southeast each weekend, attending one of three services. Russell heads a paid staff of more than 200. The church publishes a weekly newspaper, The Southeast Outlook, and supports many ministries both in Louisville and further abroad.
In its outlines, we've heard this story before: call it "The Amazing Church- Growth Story." Such prodigious growth demands attention, and there's a vast and ever-expanding literature devoted to explaining why this church rather than that one grows, and what such congregations have to tell us about the state of the church.
Indeed, we've heard the story so often, we're in danger of becoming blase. When Christianity Today was first considering a story on Southeast, a church growth expert told us it is "just another megachurch": a full-service, balanced ministry, the biggest in town, but nothing to make it stand out from many other megachurches. Ho hum.
But do we really know what a "typical" megachurch looks like? (Is there such a creature?) And what about the lessons we're directed to take from the megachurch phenomenon—lessons urged on us by critics, on the one hand, and partisans of church growth, on the other: do they stand up to scrutiny?
Getting past illusion
A visit to Southeast Christian suggests that the conventional wisdom needs revising. Like most churches, large and small, urban and rural, Baptist, Catholic, Moravian, or "new paradigm," Southeast Christian defies the generalizations served up in jeremiads and Power Point seminars.
• "People aren't interested in doctrine today. They want religious experience, community." But Bob Russell's superb preaching, no small part of the story of Southeast's extraordinary growth, is heavy on doctrine—always applied, yes, but not watered down one bit. Typical was the eight-week sermon series earlier this year in which Russell and preaching associate Dave Stone, who is being groomed as his successor, unpacked what it means to say that Jesus is Lord.
• "All these marketing strategies represent a capitulation to consumerism. And it is all about me, me, me: how are you going to meet my needs?" Southeast employs savvy marketing, but the brochure in the visitor's packet begins with a photo of the cross atop the worship center and a Scripture verse (John 12:32), followed by the church's mission statement:
SOUTHEAST CHRISTIAN CHURCH EXISTS TO:
EVANGELIZE THE LOST,
EDIFY THE SAVED,
MINISTER TO THOSE IN NEED AND
BE A CONSCIENCE IN THE COMMUNITY
That doesn't sound like a recipe for narcissism, and it isn't just window-dressing. The bulletin for Southeast's "Volunteer Commitment 2000" Sunday listed 21 ministries in need of volunteers—and the couple sitting next to me in the pew surprised me by filling out the volunteer form right on the spot, taking turns, one writing while the other held their baby girl. Participation is higher than at many small churches, Russell says, because expectations are high. When I visited Southeast's Leadership Conference, an every-other-year event featuring dozens of seminars and workshops, there appeared to be at least one volunteer for every participant, and as a result the conference ran without a hitch.
In short, if you come to a church like Southeast with an open mind, you'll quickly find that much of what you have heard from critics of the church-growth movement simply doesn't fit.
But neither will you feel adequately prepared by the books and tapes and so on produced from within the movement by leaders like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Russell himself, whose book When God Builds a Church: 10 Principles for Growing a Dynamic Church, cowritten with his son and associate minister, Rusty Russell, was published earlier this year. These accounts from within have the advantage of participation in the reality they describe—and one can learn a great deal about Southeast from the Russells' book—but their primary aim is to teach and exhort, not to analyze or understand. They exemplify what Mark Noll and others have called the activist strain in evangelicalism, and they do it well. We need that, but we also need reflection. There's an impatient concern with the present in so much church-growth talk. We're too busy doing kingdom work, the message seems to be. Don't bother us with all that stuff—meaning critical reflection, historical perspective.
Yet critical, especially historical, reflection is one habit that can help us better understand certain aspects of the church-growth movement. Consider, for example, the roots of Southeast's denomination: the Christian Churches. The denomination started as a rejection of denominationalism (hence the generic "Christian"), and even today is reluctant to acknowledge its identity as such. Barton Stone, one of the founders of what became variously the Christian Churches/Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ, was inspired by the 1801 revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. And while much from the early days of the Stone–Campbell movement has been shed over the decades (including some serious doctrinal confusion), in some ways that movement anticipated noteworthy features of worship and practice at Southeast.
The notion that every member of the church should be a minister, for example—a point the Russells emphasize in their book, and one that many churches have yet to fully absorb—was at the heart of the Christian Churches movement. If the once-radical populism espoused by Stone and others has by now thoroughly penetrated American culture, still it is worth noting how this democratic, anti-hierarchical spirit is evident at Southeast. Across the page from an affirmation of faith in the visitor's brochure is "A Welcome from Bob." In person Russell exudes quiet authority but also an utterly unpretentious manner of which Barton Stone surely would have approved. Southeast also resembles the Christian movement in drawing its members from many other traditions, especially former Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics who find in Southeast the "basic Christianity" they are seeking.
In his magisterial work, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America, Richard Hughes observes that "Churches of Christ generally have denied that they had a defining history other than the Bible itself and have expressed little or no interest in their particular history." Perhaps it is not stretching things too much to say that the contemporary church-growth movement is vulnerable to the same illusion.
Beyond taste and whim
If we need more historical perspective on the megachurch phenomenon, we also need more informed, sympathetic reflection on the worship and practice—what might be called the "culture"—of megachurches, grounded in the experience of particular congregations. (Robert Wuthnow, for one, has pointed us in this direction.)
In his essay "The Reformation of Worship," included in Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals (Baker, 1996), W. Robert Godfrey writes,
God's concern about his worship must lead evangelicals to much more careful evaluation of their practice in worship. First, evangelicals must reconsider the new elements introduced into worship. Are visual elements such as drama, dance, and film acceptable to God? They do not seem consistent with a thoughtful application of the Second Commandment. Rather, they seem more like strange fruit offered to the Lord (Leviticus 10:1). God in Scripture never approved of creativity or innovation in worship. How can evangelicals so blithely assume God approves of their new activities?
Alas, this exercise in simplistic hermeneutics exemplifies the manner in which many hostile observers have commented on "innovation in worship" in the church today. But the right alternative to this sweeping rejection is not an uncritical acceptance of whatever is done in the name of worship. It seems to me that for the most part we haven't even reached the stage where judgment of some of the characteristic contemporary innovations in worship is possible—unless judgment is to be based on prejudice, whim, fancy.
At Southeast, led by the gifted worship minister Greg Allen, the congregation joins in singing traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs, the words shown on a large video screen high above, where the entire service is displayed even as it unfolds. In the course of a service, there are also solos and ensembles, all expertly performed. (The musicians are in a recessed space, like an orchestra pit.) As a whole, the music is clearly intended to meet the four "legitimate expectations from worship" identified by the Russells in their book: a sense of God's presence; a conviction of our sinfulness; a joyful reminder of God's grace; and the inspiration to serve.
I can't imagine how any believer could attend such a service at Southeast and leave with prejudices against "innovation in worship" intact. And yet I can well imagine believers for whom this particular form of worship would not be satisfying. To go beyond that—again, beyond "taste"—to sort out, for example, how the ubiquitous video monitor affects worship, is work that has hardly begun.
Perhaps the very bigness of megachurches makes them amplifying devices for cultural trends. This is true not only of obvious themes (the video monitor appearing in church at about the same time it began to appear at ballparks) but also of deeper cultural patterns.
For example, one of the most striking features of Southeast Christian Church is the sheer scale and efficiency of the enterprise, from the nursery to the Greenlee Communion Dispensing System (invented by a member at Southeast, this ingenious device "dispenses an entire communion tray in just two seconds!", sending grape juice from a compact, stainless steel reservoir through plastic tubing to the individual communion cups).
One is not surprised, then, to learn that among the paid staff and especially the elders and other volunteers are individuals who have had years of experience with the military, Federal Ex press, and similar organizations. A church like Southeast could not have existed 100 years ago, because the managerial science it embodies was then just being born. (And perhaps some people who find megachurches uncongenial are reacting against the managerial culture.)
While the church-growth movement generally hasn't had time for history, and while it has not encouraged critical reflection on many of its practices, nevertheless churches like Southeast, Willow Creek, and Saddleback are in some respects among the most relentlessly self-examining institutions in the world.
In part, this introspection is a self-selecting feature: these churches have been successful because they have rigorously and routinely evaluated what they are doing and how they are doing it. They never become complacent. In part it reflects a long Christian tradition of examining one's thoughts and behavior. Maybe it also reflects the influence of the therapeutic habit, the talk-show habit, endlessly self-interested and self-probing.
But something more is at work as well, for the introspection extends to the state of the church at this particular moment in time: it's cultural introspection. Visit any church conference nowadays and you are likely to encounter several sessions that exhibit an almost frantic effort to explain the meaning of our time, which is said to be a time of epochal transition: from modernity to postmodernity.
Yes, outside university campuses, if you want to talk about postmodernism today, go to church. You probably know the drill. Like it or not, we're told, we inhabit a postmodern culture, and if we want to be effective witnesses to the gospel we need to understand the new rules of the game. (Any connection between the "postmodernism" so presented and the actual work of figures frequently cited as leading postmodernists—the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, for instance—is likely to be tangential.)
So pervasive has this shtick become that I wasn't surprised to find it even at Southeast—as un-postmodern a place as can be imagined. At the leadership conference last spring, I attended a session on "The Christian Leader in a New Millennium" that was full of nuggets like this: "The New Millennium will be profoundly and radically different from the world we have known thus far." There were Toffler charts—First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave—and a table showing the differences between premodern, modern, and postmodern. (Those old dispensationalist charts are looking better every day.)
But there was also a more interesting session, "Do Postmodernism and 'Generation X' Demand a New Way of Doing Church?" led by Rusty Russell and college minister Richard Mosqueda.
Some of the jargon was swallowed whole, but in general Russell and Mosqueda offered a thoughtful, critical take on the postmodern Christian party line. One of their points was that we need a renewed emphasis on apologetics and Christian philosophy.
This self-correcting move strikes me as important. A visitor who happened to take in only the first session might report that even Southeast has become besotted with postmodernity talk—especially if the visitor came predisposed to find evidence of uncritical acceptance of cultural trends. Lacking any such predisposition, I still might have done that myself had I not been fortunate enough to catch the second session. Too many of our reports on what's happening in the church are fragmentary in that way, if not intentionally slanted.
Beneath the cross
I came away from Southeast even more convinced than before that we should be wary of sweeping judgments on megachurches and the church-growth movement. Clearly God has blessed the church and Bob Russell's ministry there. The lessons to be gained from that experience are not as clear—though certainly the principles that Russell and his son draw from the story (under headings such as Truth, Worship, Excellence, Harmony, and Stewardship) are not a bad place to start.
To an outsider, an unbeliever, that huge cross may seem a strange symbol to preside over a $26 million facility. Some might see it as evidence of hypocrisy, smugness, the usual charges against bad old Organized Religion.
But in fact the cross is equally incongruous on a tiny storefront church two doors down from the laundromat. The cross is out of place anywhere, beyond our comprehension.
And yet to be a church is to be under the sign of the cross, expressing faith in an order that underlies the visible world. That's the faith that sustains Southeast, and your church, and mine, in a mysterious union that will never end.
John Wilson edits Books & Culture, a sister publication of Christianity Today.
Read a short biography of Southeast's senior pastor, Bob Russell.
Learn more about The Living Word radio broadcasts or purchase tapes of Russell's sermons.
Christianity Today has written a lot about megachurches, including The Man Behind the Megachurch, Willow Creek's Place in History, Community Is Their Middle Name, Willow Creek Church Readies for Megagrowth, and Willow Creek's Methods Gain German Following.
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