Possible Megachurch Trend as a Cue for UM Districts?

Used by permission. CC BY-SA 2.0
Ed Stetzer, researcher with LifeWay, has just published a blog article  on Christianity Today noting what he is observing (but has not yet researched) as a trend among mega-churches and giga-churches (average Sunday attendance >10000).

Basically, he's noticing more of these large churches investing in multiple sites with substantially smaller venues than their main campus rather than expanding the size of their current site or investing in sites of roughly equal capacity elsewhere.

As he says, he hasn't done the research on just how prevalent this trend is. It will be interesting to see what he discovers when he completes that.

Meanwhile, his article includes a list of benefits of multi-site ministry by mega-churches, based on the research of Warren Bird. To Bird's list, Ed adds a possible benefit specific to multi-site megachurches where the "other" venues are substantially smaller: "multi-site may very well lead to smaller (and, I hope) recyclable buildings that does not lead to a proliferation of large, empty church caverns when neighborhoods change."

Did you catch what Ed Stetzer is saying here? Do you see that little word "when"? And behind it, do you hear an assumption? The assumption is a "successful" mega-church would not leave a "satellite" located where the population can't support it. They would far sooner put that satellite location up for sale.

What, take away the church from the people there? From one angle, yes. It's not "their" church, but a satellite of a larger body. From another angle, though, no. It's not about taking away the church, but rather making sure all the "branches" of the mega-church are as vital and viable as possible. It's a decision you make when you have a truly regional missional strategy rather than a strategy of supporting as many individual congregations as you can.

Mega-churches would do this. And they are doing it.

And mega-churches continue to set the pace in the US for modeling both the growth and the spread of vital, healthy congregations on a regional basis.

As of the 2012 Book of Discipline, the first specific role of the District Superintendent is as "chief missional strategist of the district" (2012 Book of Discipline, Paragraph 419.1). The means the DS is to be the point person to ensure each district, as a district (a geographical region, not simply a collection of individual congregations) both has a regional missional strategy and deploys its resources toward achieving that strategy in that region.

To be sure, the vast majority of United Methodist congregations in the US are not mega-churches. Nor are the vast majority of United Methodist congregations in the US anywhere near a United Methodist mega-church. In the US, we are predominantly a denomination of small and medium sized congregations. We don't need to convert them all into mega-churches to be "successful."

But maybe there is at least this bit of wisdom we can glean from how mega-churches think and act to achieve a regional footprint. Maybe if we had a much more clearly articulated district strategy, we would find ourselves more ready to think about our current congregations as satellites or branches of United Methodist congregational ministry within that district. And if we could begin to think and act in this way, we may find it much easier to recognize where and how congregational ministries need to be deployed across the district to have a maximal continuing impact on a more regional basis.

Satellite locations of mega-churches are not independent congregational entities. They are strategic missional outposts. And when their location or configuration isn't positioned to achieve the mission because of any number of changes, the congregation (main campus) re-allocates resources and often relocates meeting facilities to ensure the regional mission can be accomplished as optimally as possible.

General Conference was wise in not putting a lot of definitions around "chief missional strategist" when they added this term as the first specified duty of District Superintendents in 2012. This gives DSes a lot of freedom to innovate in the process of developing and implementing a missional strategy with and for their districts.

Here's hoping, as they do so, they may glean what they can from the wisdom of mega-churches whose approaches to a regional vision do seem to bearing significant fruit.