They’re constantly on the prowl for easy prey in the church—typically widows, widowers, the recently divorced and the relationship-starved. The more money you have, the bigger a target you are. Here you’ll meet one such charlatan—Jane Smith. Her name and those of her victims have been changed, but her story is true.
While you observe examples of her well-practiced art of deception, you’ll also hear from Jeffrey P. Bjorck, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology, as well as Wayde Goodall, pastor of Winston-Salem (North Carolina) First Assembly of God.
From their expert perspectives, they will point out warning signs and red flags in Smith’s twisted behavior so that those who are a part of your ministries are less likely to become victims of Christian con artists. Smith’s whereabouts are unknown as of this writing. But for many years she traveled around the country—and around the world—earning a very comfortable living by ripping off unsuspecting Christians.
And not only men. Smith was able to seduce and lure women into her traps as well. She sometimes posed as a full-time, Third-World missionary, sometimes as a rich widow, sometimes as a worker for or follower of various Christian ministries—and always speaking familiar “Christian-ese,” and always expertly plucking on the heartstrings of her targets.
That’s how it began for one woman, Michelle, who met Smith on a flight to California in 2003. According to a Dallas Observer article from December 2004, Smith was dressed in musty, secondhand clothes, sported a medical boot on one foot and began a sweet, seductive chat with Michelle, outlining her experiences as a missionary in India.
Michelle was charmed by the slight-looking woman with the bright, dancing eyes. When the flight attendant asked if either of the women wanted some wine, Smith expressed immediate interest. “She hinted it in such a way that I had to pay for it from the get-go,” Michelle said.
As the two sipped their drinks, Michelle talked about her booming business in the Napa Valley area. That’s when Smith really turned on the charm. “She started with the light fluttering in her eyes, the touching, making intimate contact,” Michelle said. “It was warm, a tad bit flirtatious ... right from the beginning.”
Turns out that during their conversation, Smith revealed to Michelle that she felt led by God to settle in California—to find property where she could instruct young people from developing nations the process of organic farming.
What’s more, Smith told Michelle that before their flight she was praying with a woman in an airport chapel, and her prayer partner said she must get on their particular flight because she would meet someone “elemental” to her life. Then, to seal the deal, a pastor from out of nowhere bought Smith a ticket, positive he was performing a service for the Almighty.
Smith seemed so kind, so brave in her missionary adventures and so giving. And at that moment, Michelle found out how giving she could be, too. As the plane landed, Smith—without a dime on her person—launched a plea of sorts:
“You’ll pay for my room tonight, won’t you?”
Michelle was ill-prepared and had precious little time to mull over the matter. Of course—as with so many others before her—Michelle slipped Smith a handout. And the con was only just beginning.
Diane Jones is a California real-estate agent who has surprisingly sympathetic memories of Smith, despite a multimillion-dollar property transaction that went bad due to Smith misrepresenting her assets and forging official documents.
“Ah, Jane,” Jones sighs, in a recent interview with Ministries Today. “She was obviously a sociopath and suffered from some kind of a mental illness, but she was also amazingly charismatic. She was quite convincing, very bright and did a brilliant job studying human nature.
“She was a joyous person who praised the Lord. She mentioned God at every turn, and when someone’s telling you that and has it down pat, it’s completely disarming. I can’t replay the situation in my mind and see anything I did wrong. I loved that woman—whoever she was pretending to be.”
Turn back the clock a bit—to 2000. Smith set her sights on a two-week conference in Colorado. That’s where she first held hands and prayed with James Dandridge, a career military officer from Texas, who was three years past a messy divorce and searching for direction in his life.
After the pair prayed, Dandridge learned that Smith had a pretty impressive spiritual résumé. “She said she’d just come back from a trip with a prominent female charismatic minister,” Dandridge told the Observer. Smith also offered that she was “mentored” by the minister herself.
Dandridge was enchanted by Smith—her gentle nature, her apparent spiritual depth. She was looking for a “Boaz” who desired an honest-to-goodness “Proverbs 31 wife”—an industrious housewife and helpmate as described in the Old Testament.
Soon, Dandridge was offering Smith money. “She had access to my credit cards early on,” he recalled. “It was a seduction.”
Not that Dandridge seemed to notice. Just three months later—and after Smith visited his hometown and met his friends from church—Dandridge asked Smith to marry him. “I thought God was having mercy on me and brought somebody to me to fulfill my destiny,” Dandridge said.
Soon money was flying all over the place. Dandridge lavished Smith with everything she wanted—including a lavish engagement ring and posh nuptials at a five-star hotel. The bill for the bash: in the neighborhood of $60,000.
But on their wedding night, the once bubbly Smith turned on Dandridge, and became hostile and indifferent. In a marriage that would last but four months, Dandridge and Smith never consummated it. “Within 24 hours,” he recalled, “she’d turned into a witch.”
When they married, Dandridge had no debt and owned lucrative property and possessions, but he would eventually lose it all. This “Proverbs 31” wife hocked her engagement ring to buy a bigger diamond, milking her “Boaz husband” for yet another $15,000, and racked up the credit card bills with first-class air travel, designer clothes and frequent massages.
By the time Christmas rolled around, Dandridge felt like a prisoner in his own home—trapped there with a critical, psychologically abusive mate who, just a few months earlier, was so much the answer to all of his prayers.
“She was so deceptive and dominating,” he recalls. “It was like witchcraft. The whole thing was a nightmare. She seemed to manifest different personalities. I know she’s demon-possessed.”
Smith simply vanished by the start of the new year. Dandridge’s new SUV was gone, too, along with his safety net of gold coins. He had to pawn his wedding ring to get money for the barest of essentials. After filing for an annulment, Dandridge started getting phone calls from bill collectors.
Turns out Smith charged up $100,000 on credit cards and used a host of different Social Security numbers. Their annulment came through almost a year after he had first prayed with the woman who flashed her seductive eyes at him. Dandridge had no choice but to sell his house to pay off the debts.
“She pretty much cleaned me out,” he told the Observer. “She’s one scary lady.”
Daniel Crane met Smith at a revival meeting in a megachurch just outside Atlanta in the summer of 2003. Like Smith’s other victims, Crane was looking for something deep in his life after the death of one of his children, a difficult divorce and business difficulties. Smith pumped him up with words of knowledge—especially that he would soon embark on a “seven-year season of prosperity.”
Then the flirting started. Smith told Crane how much she liked his eyes, handsome features and well-conditioned body. “Her eyes would just dance,” Crane recalled. “She’d squeeze my hands. Her ability to know how to push and how to pull back was faultless.”
After the tête-à-tête, Crane saw Smith moving in for what he thought was a typical “church hug. Instead, “She reaches in to kiss me on the mouth and presses herself full-frontal on me,” Crane said. “But it was quick, graceful and soft. It was surprising to me, but very elegant and very appealing.”
When Smith expressed her desire to meet Crane’s children, he invited her home that day. There Smith told him of her unhappy living situation—her roommate was a con artist. “Deceitful” was the word Smith used to describe her—and, by the way, could she stay at his house for just one night?
A month later, and Smith hadn’t yet left—in fact, she was now running the show, insisting that Crane’s children address her as “Mommy.” While Crane required Smith to sleep on the couch, and while Smith wasn’t sexually aggressive, she said some very odd, suggestive things. To his shock, Crane overheard Smith conversing with strangers that she was his wife.
After an ugly argument, Smith threw a phone at Crane’s chest and finally left for good.
Smith was later seen in a California homeless shelter with a Bible on her lap. The next day, she vanished again. Her last known sighting came courtesy of a diner waitress who watched Smith befriend a kindly couple … who offered to give her a ride to her next destination.
Then, in 1971, while pastoring First Assembly of God in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a revival disturbed his Pentecostal sensibilities, and he found himself ministering with (and to) Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Although Miles' church grew like a weed, he soon attracted the suspicion of fellow AG pastors, who frowned upon his ecumenical tendencies, openness to the charismatic movement and interest in new models of ministry.
“I became a black sheep in the AG,” he recalls. “Because we had such large numbers of people, they thought we were compromising with the world.” Miles found himself avoiding his jealous colleagues, and soon the affiliation with the AG became “on paper only.” Not too long after, he resigned his credentials. In the years since, relationships have been mended, apologies have been exchanged and the denomination has invited Miles to return whenever he wishes. But he has no plans to do so.
After his departure from the AG, Miles founded Evangel Fellowship International (EFI), a network of more than 600 churches in the United States, 672 in Russia and 35 missionaries overseas. EFI's doctrinal statement is essentially Pentecostal, but local assemblies are autonomous, and pastors appoint their own boards and leadership from within the congregation.
Fast forward three decades ...
Another pastor, Ron Johnson, leads Bethel Temple (AG), a megachurch in Hampton, Virginia. He is loyal to the Assemblies of God, but Johnson's style of ministry is decidedly apostolic. He personally leads a network of more than 800 churches, plants an average of two new congregations per year and has pastors nationwide who look to him for oversight-all activities that have historically caused tension in some denominations that require approval to plant churches and credential ministers. Although he says he would jettison his affiliation with the denomination if it ever began to hamper his mission, Johnson has no plans of doing so and has been refreshed by signs of reform within the AG.
Sure, Johnson's independence may seem incompatible with denominational structure, and some of his friends in the apostolic movement may suggest he should have abandoned the “old wineskins” of the AG long ago. But he's not going anywhere. And the denomination is just fine with that.
Johnson admits that his relationship with AG colleagues has been tense at times, but a humble attitude combined with the common goals of church planting and leadership training have served to bring the two parties together when there's been a potential for discord.
“I believe it is my responsibility to do the best I can to work with them,” he explains. “But if we reach a point that we no longer have the grace to walk together and we're going to be at war, it's better for me to graciously-with dignity-step out of the denomination rather than create strife.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that institutional structures grow more rigid with time. But in recent years some of the most innovative pastors in America have decided to stay in their denominations. Ministries Today sat down with a few of these leaders, and others who have left, in an attempt to explore what factors are bringing about denominational transformation-and where reform is still needed.
Few dynamics are changing the face of denominations more dramatically than the prevalence of megachurches. The visionary-and often independent-style of ministry common among megachurch pastors sometimes runs counter to the conformity common in denominations.
“Megachurches are more often than not the product of one highly gifted spiritual leader,” writes megachurch expert Scott Thumma in “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomenon,” an article adapted from his doctoral dissertation on the subject. “The majority of contemporary megachurches were either founded by or achieved mega-status within the tenure of a single senior minister.”
With the growth of the megachurch phenomenon (In 1994, researcher John Vaughan estimated that the number of megachurches increases by 5 percent per year), it is only natural that denominations will feel the pressure from highly successful leaders within their ranks. While some megachurch pastors have left denominations, others have decided to stay and use their influence to effect institutional change.
Ron Carpenter was not even 30 years old, and he was already frustrated with the size of his church. In the seven years since its founding, Redemption World Outreach Center (RWOC) in Greenville, South Carolina, had grown to 400 members. By 1998, it had reached a plateau, but the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) pastor knew God had bigger things in mind.
After a yearlong study of the New Testament church, Carpenter dismantled every committee and stripped every leader's title, rebuilding the structure of the church from the ground up and exchanging the congregation's democratic system of government for “apostolic protocol.” Within six months, the church's attendance had tripled to 1,200 … and it has not stopped since.
Now, with 5,000 members, RWOC is the largest congregation in the denomination, and Carpenter leads some 600 ministers who call him “apostle” and have no formal affiliation with the IPHC.
Carpenter rejects the notion that God is through using denominations. He encourages other visionary pastors to humble themselves and dialogue with denominational leaders-but ultimately listen to the voice of God. While it's not without its tension, this pattern appears to be slowly bringing reform to some denominational structures.
“I have gone all over the IPHC speaking on this topic and have been met with far more passion to change than with resistance,” he says. “Denominations have tremendous resources, so I struggle with some peoples' suggestion that none of it is beneficial. If there's a possibility of change, why go back and recreate all these resources when they could be channeled?”
Ron Johnson agrees, noting that many pastors who feel they've outgrown their denomination tend to foster an internal prejudice toward institutional structures and assume that denominational leaders do not share their drive for evangelism and church planting.
“Many times denominational leaders are perceived as wanting to build the denomination as opposed to advancing the cause of Christ,” Johnson explains. “But from what I've experienced, the passion of our general superintendent is to embrace the work of the Spirit. He will do anything in his power to see men hear God and obey Him.”
Johnson recognizes that some visionary leaders may never fit into a denomination-and that this may be God's will. But overall, he urges those contemplating leaving their denominations to exercise caution.
“Move slowly. Stay as long as you can, but no longer than you have the grace to do so,” he says. “When you leave, don't trash your denomination; bless them.”
Most denominations are led by people who were elected to their positions by their constituency. Critics argue that a democratic style of government reflects Western political styles, but has little to do with the way authority and responsibility are apportioned in the kingdom of God. As a result, emerging leaders are pushing denominations toward allowing more local autonomy and allowing visionary pastors to lead their congregations based on the direction they feel God has given them for their churches.
“The democratic system has bred distrust of people,” Ron Carpenter explains. “Democracy has worked for America with some measure of success, but the church was never meant to be a people-controlled movement.”
Instead, Carpenter advocates church leadership based on the authority of apostles and prophets who receive mandates directly from the Spirit. This view runs counter to many denominational structures, in which the pastor functions as an employee of the local church-subject to the whims of the elder board and the congregation.
New apostolic styles of church government reverse the model held by many denominations: Power within the church is taken from congregations and placed in the hands of pastors. Additionally, regional church authority is taken out of the hands of centralized denominations and placed in the hands of apostles who oversee networks of pastors.
This flexibility and autonomy is what led Joseph Thompson to avoid denominational affiliation in the first place. After serving as teaching pastor under Ted Haggard at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Thompson is planting a new congregation (Church at the Well) in the Orlando, Florida, area.
Before he made plans to relocate to Florida, Thompson was invited to pastor a denominational church but grew concerned by what he saw as the restrictive leadership structure in the local congregation.
“The bylaws said that the pastor is an employee of the board,” Thompson recalls. “That's strange to me. That means if two-thirds of them suddenly decide they don't like the way the pastor has preached for the last two Sundays, they can kick him out. I don't think that's healthy. I don't think it gives the pastor liberty to hear the voice of God and be honest.”
While this dynamic may be common in denominations operating with a congregational form of church government, for those with episcopal bylaws, this is less of a challenge. For instance, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (ICFG) fills vacant pulpits, and pastors are allowed to appoint their own elders.
Twenty-one years ago, Daniel Brown planted The Coastlands, a Foursquare church in Aptos, California. Since then, he has pioneered 34 daughter churches and supplied five pulpits with ministers raised up in the church. Brown goes so far as to call the Foursquare a “pastors denomination,” stressing the liberty and autonomy that the fellowship offers its pastors.
Some denominations are making adjustments to ensure that this is the exception, not the rule. ICFG president Jack Hayford points out that three years ago, the denomination revised its structure, placing more authority in the hands of leading pastors rather than denominationally structured regional offices. Leadership was distributed among 75 supervisors, whereas before the shift there had only been 9. Although he refers to the new structure as “apostolic,” Hayford is careful in describing the motivation that initiated it.
“This was not done as an attempt to answer the criticisms of some who seem impassioned with identifying and investing apostles and prophets as a crusade of sorts,” he explains. “Rather, it was simply done in response to the Holy Spirit's work in fashioning a movement to serve its expanding future.”
But for some, changes such as these are too little, too late. Some say the problems with denominations are irreparable; they are deeply embedded in the DNA of institutionalized religion in America.
Church-growth expert C. Peter Wagner was optimistic as he observed the charismatic renewal of the '60s and '70s. The wind of the Holy Spirit began to blow through the dusty halls of mainline denominations that were already experiencing symptoms of irrelevance and decay.
But by 2000, as Wagner writes in his 2004 book Changing Church, “not one of the U.S. denominations had experienced the spiritual reformation that leaders had been praying for. … Yes, many individuals and some congregations had been spiritually transformed, but the structures at best had remained the same, and in some cases they had deteriorated even more.”
Wagner blames this phenomenon not on people, but on structures-structures that worked 300 years ago when denominations became independent of state control but that have become almost as rigid as the institutions they replaced.
For him, the solution is no longer renewal, but reformation. As early as his 2000 book, The New Apostolic Churches, Wagner noted that the most thriving churches worldwide are not denominational in structure-even if they are affiliated with one. They are apostolic, structured around the Spirit-led leadership of one man or woman. As a result, Wagner argues that those truly wanting to participate in the next move of God will need to leave their denominations.
“The old wineskins were once bright shining new wineskins,” Wagner explained in a recent interview with Ministries Today. “But they have come under a spell or domination of the spirit of religion-a spell that causes them to think that maintaining the status quo is the will of God. Those who stay in denominations will not receive new wine.”
Many, like Houston Miles, suggest that accountability has become obsolete within denominations, that they have grown beyond their capacity to relationally connect leaders with grass-roots ministers.
“In the AG, the superintendent was more of an administrator than a pastor,” he notes. “The only time you'd hear from him is if you got behind on your tithe.” As this yawning relational gap is becoming more pronounced, alternative organizations are arising to provide networking and resources for leaders inside and outside denominations.
Joseph Thompson affiliates with several networks-Association of Life-Giving Churches, founded by Ted Haggard, and Association of Related Churches, an organization of pastors committed to church planting. Like many of their nondenominational counterparts, both are organized around a function (healthy congregational ministry and church planting) rather than a doctrinal statement or a structure of leadership and control.
As a result, neither organization exerts any control over its members in regard to accountability. Instead, they assume a certain level of pre-existent accountability of their members-many of whom are already affiliated with denominations and apostolic networks-Thompson says.
“They recognize the need to have people over you,” he explains. “But that's not what they exist for. They provide a context for horizontal accountability-an opportunity to voluntarily submit yourself to accountability with your peers.”
Some of these networks are even being launched by denominational pastors who wish to combine the resources offered by their denominations with the flexibility and specialization offered by a smaller organization.
Scott Hagan resigned in May as pastor of First Assembly of God in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Known for his passion for racial reconciliation, Hagan recently launched the Blended Church Network, an organization dedicated to training and connecting leaders to plant multiethnic churches.
Although Hagan's new network carries the enthusiastic blessing of AG officials, it is intended to be a cross-denominational effort that will train leaders of any stripe. The 42-year-old pastor believes that efforts such as his reflect a growing openness in his denomination toward entrepreneurial churchplanting, apostolic leadership and the cultivation of relationships outside denominational boundaries.
“Any time we begin acquiring land, building buildings, creating salaries and careers, there will come a time for reinvention,” Hagan explains. “I believe that this is a journey back to the simplicity of our purpose.”
For many, peer-level networks such as Hagan's hold an advantage to denominations. They are not centered on a doctrinal distinctive, nor do they have top-heavy infrastructures that demand financial support. They are primarily relational in nature-and led by people who have ministries of their own.
Although he is encouraged by the various networks-apostolic and otherwise-that are sprouting for the purpose of church planting, evangelism, and so on, C. Peter Wagner is concerned that people leaving denominations will find camaraderie but ultimately avoid authentic accountability to a spiritual father or mother.
“There are still too many people out there doing their own thing,” he says. “Everyone needs apostolic oversight. But accountability is voluntary, and you can avoid it whether you're in a denomination or an apostolic network.”
He also contends that even the most flexible and forward-thinking apostolic network of today can become a denomination tomorrow, if policies are not put in place to prevent institutionalism.
“What we want to avoid is apostles who are 'pre-denominational,'” he explains. “Sociologists of religion tell us that this is not only possible, it is inevitable. But I want to be a history changer. History does not have to repeat itself.”
Denominations tend to be led by those who have proven themselves in ministry. While this lends stability and credibility, it creates an environment for generational tension between emerging and established leaders.
As Ron Johnson notes, it's increasingly problematic when a younger generation comes on the scene with new ideas-and a completely different view of institutional loyalty. Postmodern leaders sometimes have little tolerance for what they perceive as the faceless reality of 20th-century denominations.
“We're dealing in the AG with leaders that are 60-plus years of age at the top level of leadership,” Johnson explains. “When these older leaders and their postmodern counterparts talk about 'relationship,' they're not talking about the same thing.”
Johnson points out that-ironically-a younger generation craves fatherly mentoring. Isolation and independence are not in their vocabulary, but they question whether denominational structures can provide the relational guidance that they desire. Unlike their forbears, they have nothing against leaving a denomination to find it. Ron Carpenter agrees.
“My daddy's generation would be loyal to the church if God died,” he says jokingly. “In contrast, my generation will not be faithful to a denomination … but they will die for a man.”
Stenneth Powell, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Center Church of God in Christ (COGIC), in Raleigh, North Carolina, has raised up 49 ministers-many of whom hold credentials with COGIC, but look to him for spiritual oversight. Powell notes that younger pastors are not only looking for leadership, they also want resources-church-growth advice, leadership mentoring and church-management skills. The growth of large churches has provided opportunities for young leaders to connect with successful models-outside the confines of denominational institutions.
“This frustration with denominations is cyclical. Pastors get successful-too big for their own denominations-so they start their own organization. Essentially that too becomes a denomination,” he explains. “If a big church can offer a young guy who's just starting out the same resources as a denomination, he'll join that organization.”
Many, like Scott Hagan, believe that these generational shifts may ultimately seal denominations' survival-if leaders take the opportunity to harness enthusiasm and listen to the concerns of their younger colleagues.
“Our AG colleges are packed with students-black, white, brown, male female-whom the denomination has to keep if we have any hope,” he explains. “We can't draw in these kids and slam them with old-school thinking. The spirit that these young people have must start permeating the entire movement.”
This challenge is not exclusive to denominations.
Senior pastor of Covenant Centre International in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Norman Benz left the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in 1991. He explains that he heard God say, “What I want to do with you I can't do with you in this denomination.”
Since then he joined International Coalition of Apostles (ICA), founded by C. Peter Wagner. But he points out that the apostolic movement is in danger of being largely a “baby boomer” movement and stresses the importance of incorporating younger leaders. One of the priorities of his own organization, Covenant Apostolic Network, is to intentionally release the next generation.
“When we look at scripture, apostles and elders were not necessarily chosen because of their age, but because of the favor of the Spirit on them,” he explains. “We have to be careful that we don't become stalemated and segmented into becoming a certain kind of a movement because of the age of our leaders.”
A Return to Pentecost
Although these tensions would appear to chip away at denominational foundations, many argue that such shifts actually indicate a return to the values that launched the Pentecostal and charismatic movements nearly a century ago. Ron Carpenter points out that Pentecostals and charismatics should-by nature-be more ready for denominational reform, noting that he has encountered extensive openness among leaders and laity in his own denomination.
“We tend to be spontaneous and flexible,” he explains. “Also, most Pentecostals are biblically rooted enough that if you open the Word and explain these new ideas, they will accept them.”
Ron Johnson argues that many denominations were specifically formed for the purpose of church planting, world missions and raising up new leaders, but that a desire to preserve institutional identity and enforce conformity has sometimes trumped these concerns.
“Denominations serve a purpose in building the kingdom,” he says. “But if they lose the dynamic life of their inception, they automatically default to some other reason for existence-usually self-preservation.”
While denominational leaders have often recognized this problem, Johnson notes that they have not always been quick to offer a solution. But as he looks at the landscape of the church, two factors bring him hope: a rebirth in a commitment to missions and church planting and the rise of a generation that values relationships over structure.
“Contrary to the perception that all they want to do is build their denomination, most leaders want to build the kingdom,” he explains. “As long as denominations will effectively communicate that they are releasing and empowering people to do this as well, they will grow.”
The first African American, the first military chaplain and the first Seventh-day Adventist to serve in his position, Black is well aware of the uniqueness of his role. But he's more convinced than ever that it is God-not the Constitution-that has created a place for him in Washington, D.C.
While she was pregnant with Barry, his mother was baptized and asked God for a special anointing on her unborn child. The results were tangible. “I have never had another rival in my affections as far as my vocation,” Black explains. “I have always wanted to be a minister.”
Being reared in an impoverished-and virtually fatherless-family in a Baltimore ghetto, Black's chances for vocational ministry seemed slim to none. But his mother daily wove Scripture into the lives of Black and his siblings, offering them a nickel for every Bible verse they memorized. One of these verses may have saved his life.
Black vividly recalls the day his mother assigned him Proverbs 1:10: “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” Hours later, two neighborhood friends invited the 14-year-old Black to join them in “getting back at” a mutual acquaintance. Remembering the verse, Black declined, and the boys left. Later, he learned that the boys were involved in a murder, and both went to prison for life.
In retrospect, one could say that many events in Black's life have pointed to his most recent assignment. When he was only 8 years old, his mother gave him a recording of Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall's message “Were You There?” He listened to it until he could recite it from memory. Even now, nearly five decades later, he is able to deliver the sermon, complete with a convincing version of Marshall's Scottish brogue.
After college and seminary, Black pastored several churches and was commissioned as a Navy chaplain in 1976. He had been promoted to the rank of rear admiral, was serving as chief of the Navy chaplains and was preparing for retirement in 2003 when he was invited to interview for the Senate chaplaincy.
Dressed in a crisp civilian suit and a studious bow tie, Black's demeanor still reflects the military precision of his Navy days. He rises at 5 a.m., works out, spends time in devotions and uses his 45-minute commute to listen to Scripture on CD. The average week is a whirlwind of invocations, counseling sessions, Bible studies and speaking engagements.
Black serves not only the 100 senators and their families but also the 16,000 staff members that work on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. His daily responsibilities rival that of a megachurch pastor-with one notable exception.
“I have the opportunity of being involved with my members at a level that the average pastor cannot,” he says. “I see people on their jobs.”
This level of engagement has given Black a bird's-eye view of the spiritual climate in the nation's capital-a perspective that tends to be overlooked by the mainstream media. Recently, Chaplain Black sat down with Ministries Today to tell us how God is bringing spiritual renewal to the most unlikely of places-and what values should shape the church's involvement in national transformation.
Ministries Today: How does your role fit into the constitutional understanding of “separation of church and state”?
Senate Chaplain Barry Black: The Senate chaplaincy is a nonpartisan responsibility. The congressional chaplaincies were created in 1789 and were established three days before the establishment clause of the Constitution. We know that by the very fact that there was a chaplaincy when that was written, the intention of our founders was not to pull religion completely outside of government activities.
I like to say there's a separation of church and state-a phrase that does not occur in the Constitution-but not a separation of God and state. So, I'm very, very comfortable being who I am as a spiritual person and meeting the spiritual needs of people on Capitol Hill, as best I can, bringing something of the transcendent into this very important environment. Capitol Hill is one place where you need God.
Ministries Today: What are some signs of spiritual interest that you are seeing in the Capitol?
Black: I've seen evidence of what Paul called “saints in Caesar's household.” We can get as many as 200 people at our plenary Bible studies. That's an amazing number of people who regularly gather to study the Word of God.
This study has an amazing level of biblical literacy. I can start in any verse and these so-called ordinary people can tell me chapter and verse. A significant number of senators attend the prayer breakfast-as well as the Bible study. A significant number of spouses and chiefs of staff attend the Bible studies I lead for them.
Ministries Today: What do you think is behind this interest?
Black: These are challenging times. We've had to evacuate the Capitol a couple of times just in the last three months because of airplanes entering prohibited airspace. The news we hear from around the world is enough to make people more vulnerable to the things of the Spirit-to seek answers from someone bigger than any human being.
Ministries Today: What are some misperceptions people have about the spirituality of their elected officials?
Black: One misperception is that people who debate certain issues inside the chamber cannot be friends and spiritual brothers and sisters outside the chamber. People here are seeking after God in the same way that people outside of Capitol Hill are seeking God. Also, very few would know about the people who come into this office, and seek me out because they are wrestling with spiritual and theological issues.
Ministries Today: It sounds like your role is something of an ethical coach to our lawmakers?
Black: Well, I talk to them about ethical conundrums-a “right versus right” challenge. It is what the apostle Paul talked about when he referred to proving “what is excellent”-choosing better over good. They involve decisions of truth versus loyalty, the individual versus the community, long term versus short term and justice versus mercy. And the reasons may differ, but I encourage them to have an ethical foundation to reach their decisions. Former Senate Chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie used to tell the senators: “You have one constituency: God. If you please Him, everything else works out.”
Ministries Today: So, you would argue that the gospel-and your role-is not out of place on Capitol Hill?
Black: Good news is as needed on Capitol Hill as anywhere. Moreover, many of the challenges we face today are analogous to those faced by Nebuchadnezzar. There's a sense of foreboding, but we can't remember the dream. There are many wise men who can give you the interpretation of a dream that you can remember, but who are powerless when revelatory knowledge is needed.
I think we face challenges as a nation-and as a planet-that create this sense of foreboding. We need supernatural wisdom, supernatural guidance. Our leaders need a wisdom the world can't give them. It's time for people who know the Lord to connect with Him in such a way that He can impart the desperately needed wisdom that can make the difference for a nation.
Ministries Today: You use the word “revelatory.” Do you see God speaking through people today-not just through His Word?
Black: The Scriptures are not some static verbiage encased in the cannon. They're alive, as 2 Timothy 3:16 says. So, we do not so much search the Scriptures, as the Scriptures search us. Not a day goes by that I do not receive a rhema word from God. If I depend on what I read a couple of days ago, that's like trying to save the manna. It just doesn't work that way.
I believe God speaks in the here and now. Joel prophesied, “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” I think we're in that time.
Ministries Today: Speaking of prophecy, Ugandan pastor Jackson Senyonga prophesied over you about renewal in Washington, D.C. Can you tell us about that?
Black: The week before he came, the Lord had laid on my heart Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Jackson came and said, “God sent me here with a word for you, and He told me to tell you to ask Him for the nations.”
It was a validation of the rhema word God had laid on my heart. It kept reverberating in the corridors of my spirit, and he and I discussed how this could happen based on what had happened in Uganda. He laid out a step-by-step blueprint of a necessary process of the realization of the vision. It was one of a number of prophetic visits I've received.
Ministries Today: So, would you consider yourself a charismatic?
Black: I would call myself a theological eclectic. I read through the Bible three or four times a year, and I listen to CDs of Scripture. I deliberately drive to work in an hour-and-a-half round trip where I'm in the Word just hearing it and letting it move through me.
What happens when you immerse yourself in the Word is that you break out of labels, you become a moving target. There's a flexibility and a breadth and a lack of strictures to the religion of Jesus Christ. That same freedom manifests itself in terms of our theological stances. The moment you can put something in concrete, you're headed for a problem. You need to always be open to a move of God, a fresh word from the Lord.
Ministries Today: Is there any hope of the Christian “right” and the Christian “left” coming together?
Black: The focus of left and right should be to get back to basics. We've become too smart for our own good. When the Magi came to Herod, they called in the theologians. They came in extremely knowledgeable. They knew where He was to be born, but they did not have the spiritual wisdom to walk the five miles and worship Him. You need more than information. The wise men did not have the information, they had an experience. They were following a star. The ones with the cerebral advantage did not take advantage of it.
My feeling is that what's up here [pointing to head] is minor compared to what's down here [pointing to his heart]. I'll take a rough Elijah who's looking about the political scene and saying: “God, now they're saying that Baal is the one who sends the rain. Show Yourself strong. Stand up and do something.”
James 5 says, “One man, just like us, shut up the heavens for three-and-one-half years.” That's what we need in our pulpits. That's what we need in our churches. That's what we need in our legislative and executive branch.
Ministries Today: So, you would argue that our problems are primarily spiritual, not political?
Black: More will be accomplished by wielding spiritual weapons and practicing the disciplines of fasting, praying and falling on our faces before the Lord than will ever be achieved by working behind the scenes to see if this or that will happen.
The heart of the king is in the Lord's hands. He turns it whichever way He wants to. So, to become preoccupied with who's in the executive branch, who's in the judicial branch, who's in the legislative branch is majoring on minors. There is a power beyond anything that these folk can do. God can have Nebuchadnezzar eating grass tomorrow.
From A Thief in the Night movies of the '70s and '80s to the more recent Left Behind book series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the end- times story has come into the forefront of the imagination of the average churchgoer-and the average American.
More than 63 million copies in the aforementioned book series have been sold, with one in every eight Americans having read at least one Left Behind book. Even mainstream American entertainment has picked up on end-times terminology and culture. Movies (The Omen, The Seventh Sign, The Prophecy, The Rapture), books (The Stand, The Mask of Nostradamus) and music (“It's the End of the World As We Know It”) all borrow biblical phrases and imagery.
In fact, according to a 2001 Barna Group poll, 44 percent of American adults believed in a rapture. Those numbers fluctuated depending on church affiliation (71 percent of non-mainline Protestant organizations held to the belief while only 38 percent of mainline attendees did).
But how are theories on eschatology shifting in light of wars, natural disasters and epidemics? Is a younger generation embracing the end-times views of its forebears? And how does this renewed fascination with eschatology shape everyday ministry? Ministries Today sat down with some authors, pastors and scholars to explore what the future holds.
Eschatology is a heady topic-even for the most seasoned scholar. But, for many, their first introduction to end-time theories is prior to or immediately following conversion. In fact, one could argue that the threat of the immanent judgment of God is a useful motivation for becoming a Christian in the first place.
Truth be told, most of us have met at least one person who traces his or her conversion to reading the dire predictions of Hal Lindsey's 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, or a tract created by Jack Chick. But some argue that fear tactics should not be the impetus behind evangelism.
“If our end-times talk is the good news being preached in all nations, then that will motivate us in a good way,” says Craig Keener, professor of New Testament Studies at Palmer Seminary and author of the NIV Application Commentary: Revelation. “The problem is that some people have used eschatology the way the world uses horoscopes, just to satisfy our curiosity about the future.” Paul Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and author of More Than a Skeleton, a book that gently pokes fun at traditional dispensational eschatology and explores the possible reaction of the evangelical community if someone claiming to be Jesus suddenly appeared on earth. Maier discourages the use of eschatology for purposes of proselytizing.
“I think the core message is misplaced if we're constantly using the apocalyptic messages of the Bible for evangelical purposes,” he told Ministries Today.
Data suggest that apocalyptic events do have an impact, at least in the short term, on the public's sensitivity toward spiritual things. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Christian leaders celebrated a rise in church attendance, with Pat Robertson predicting, “one of the greatest revivals in the history of America.” The Gallup Organization chronicled a 6 percent rise in church attendance in the months following the attacks … which quickly dropped 5 percent.
Sigmund Brouwer, who co-authored the end-times themed The Last Disciple with Hank Hanegraaff, points to damage done by emotional end-times evangelism.
“Some Christians are happy to overlook false predictions made by church leaders who continuously revise the time-line of end-time prophecies,” Brouwer says.
“Again and again I hear of people who converted to Christianity a decade ago because they were told the end of the world was upon us, and who now doubt the entire Christian message because of specific failed prophecies made by church leaders.”
It doesn't help, argues Maier, when these stark visions of a wrathful God are juxtaposed with more tolerant portrayals that have recently become popular in mainstream entertainment.
“Let's say you have a seeker-someone who is now being affirmed in their unbelief by books like The Da Vinci Code,” Maier offers. “Is this person going to give any credibility to a God of the Left Behind series who zaps a Christian crew out of a plane and lets the plane crash?”
Jason Boyett is the author of the tongue-in-cheek Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, a book aimed at helping 20-somethings understand the nuances of eschatology. Boyett argues that a pre-tribulation, rapture-focused Christianity is primarily numbers-focused in its evangelistic technique.
“It tends to place getting decisions for Christ above everything else,” he says. “The rapture can come at any moment, so the foremost duty of all Christians becomes an urgent commitment to evangelism. There is less focus on spiritual formation, discipleship, meeting the needs of the poor, being good stewards of the environment or concern about generations to come.”
But others argue that this imbalance is not a natural byproduct of a premillennial, pre-tribulation view of the end times.
“A believer on the lookout for Christ doesn't have to ignore the world,” says Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Riverside, California's, Harvest Christian Fellowship and author of the newly released Are We Living in the Last Days?
“It's been said a person could be so heavenly minded you're no earthly good, but, you can be so heavenly minded you can be earthly good,” he suggests. “If you really understand what the Scripture teaches about the imminence of the Lord's return, it isn't telling us to abandon our jobs and sit on rooftops but to be faithfully using the gifts God has given us.”
Laurie, who's been studying Bible prophecy for 30 years, says his end-times message is by far his “most responded to” message, prompting him to offer his views in the book.
“The Left Behind series opened the door to a whole new generation of people to look at what's going on in the world,” he says. “The authors would be the first to point out that they're taking certain liberties, but the core message is the same that Hal Lindsey wrote about years ago: The Lord could come back at any moment, there are signs of the times that have been fulfilled, and we need to be ready.”
Various interpretations of Scripture and prophecies have yielded several heightened moments of end-times focus. In 1988, Edgar Whisenant predicted Jesus' return during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana in his booklet 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1988. More than 3.2 million copies of the booklet were distributed, bringing eschatological discussion into the national spotlight.
Subsequent prophecies have followed, revolving around the dawn of the 21st century and the feared Y2K computer meltdown. Even in the midst of natural disasters and global terrorism, the question could be asked: Is the church still seeing “the signs of the times”?
“A perceived uptick in catastrophic occurrences tends to set everyone's rapture-meter buzzing,” Boyett explains. “Of course, there have always been wars, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis. These days, we're infinitely more aware of them because of the Internet and the immediacy of the global media. Whether or not these things have actually increased in recent years, the perception is that they have.”
Looking for signs is yet another possible distraction for the church, says Keener, who believes some of those signs aren't as clear as believers may think.
“The things we see as signs are in Matthew 24, but it's very ironic that we're using that passage,” he says. “Jesus specifically refers to them and then says, 'You'll see these things, but the end is not yet.' In verse 14, He says, 'When the good news of the kingdom has been preached to all nations … and then the end will come.' Instead of fixing on the signs, we should be fixing on the mission. It's not to say these things aren't indications of God's working, but they're not the point that Jesus calls us to focus on.”
Jill Austin, prophetic minister and author of the Master Potter book series, does feel the signs are everywhere and should engage the church to a greater awareness of Jesus' return.
“I feel the signs of the times, the birth pains, are getting closer,” Austin states. “We are in war, we're in global shakings. The church is in a radical transition right now. Different dictators are being taken out. There are holy alliances, and we are moving into an escalation of a real shaking. Everyone knows, even in the world, that the Lord is returning soon.”
But for Austin, these signs are not an impetus toward eschatological speculation or an escape clause, but a call toward spiritual warfare.
“I feel like if you want to be a history changer, you need to have a radical God encounter,” she says. “He gives you the power to change cities and strategies. It's having this living radical encounter with your life.”
Like Austin's call to prayer, there are points of agreement prophecy scholars can reach, giving some common ground to the end-times discussion.
“I believe all Christians should believe we are living in the last days,” Maier says. “When the church loses sight of Jesus' return, it gets lazy.”
Laurie is quick to address the potential divisiveness of the issue and his hope for a healthy discourse: “I don't think we as Christians should break fellowship over our views on this topic. A healthy discussion and debate is good, but I think most evangelical believers believe Christ is coming soon.”
The timing of Christ's second coming is the main point of disagreement for many evangelicals, who hold views as divergent as premillennialism (the belief that Jesus will return before a literal 1,000-year reign) and preterism (the belief that all Bible prophecies-including those concerning the second coming-were fulfilled before A.D. 70). With such diversity, what is there to agree on?
“As Christians holding different views, we all can agree on some of the insights of each of these views,” Keener says. “Christ reigns now and helps us to make a big difference in this world. In this world we have tribulation, and we must be ready to lay down our lives for our Lord. Our glorious hope is our Lord's return, and we must live our lives in expectation of that return.”
The view of a pre-tribulation rapture of believers is one that some scholars point out is virtually still “new” and only took hold with the non-mainline Protestant churches in the 19th and 20th centuries. If the emerging church continues to examine and study its beliefs in light of Scripture and not necessarily tradition, Keener says another theological shift might be in order.
“I was taught the 'pre-trib' view, and it was probably the most decisive issue that turned me toward reading and studying Scripture,” he says. “I was told that you have to believe this because all the great men of God believed it, but then I found out a few months later, nobody in church history, Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, nobody believed in that doctrine until 1830. I can't just say this is what everybody believes. I needed to find out for myself.”
There is some indication that this tendency toward self-study is a characteristic of younger evangelicals, many of whom resist both end-times speculation and adopting any one view of eschatology.
“Fueled by postmodernism, open-mindedness and the more conversational, less dogmatic theology of the emergent church-I believe the next generation will be much less apocalyptic in tone,” Boyett argues. “Less interested in reading Revelation as a scriptural play-by-play of the last days and more concerned with understanding it in terms of its place in the culture.”
There's nothing like unfulfilled end-times predictions to teach us that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ's return.
SOURCE: Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, by Jason Boyett (RelevantBooks)
Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.
In 1960 there were 16 churches in America with attendance of more than 2,000. Now, fewer than 50 years later, there are 1,210 such churches—nearly twice as many as there were five years ago.
Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.
In 2005, four megachurch pastors had books on The New York Times bestseller list, and one of these books (Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life) has become the best-selling hardcover non-fiction book in U.S. history.
The attention these churches and their pastors generate is not entirely flattering. In an interview in the Feb. 22 edition of Australia's The Age, World Council of Churches General Secretary Samuel Kobia describes megachurches as "two miles long and one inch deep." The decision of several prominent megachurches to cancel services on Christmas day drew the ire of American evangelicals and became fodder for discussion on secular newscasts. Books from Os Guinness' 1993 Dining With the Devil to this year's Left Behind in a Megachurch World by church historian Ruth Tucker and O Shepherd, Where Art Thou? by seminary professor Calvin Miller have criticized what they see as the commercialization, materialism or shallow theology perpetuated by megachurches.
In almost schizophrenic fashion, American evangelicals have been quick to either uncritically embrace the numeric success of megachurches as a sign of spiritual renewal ... or cynically attribute it to cultural compromise. But the truth may be somewhat less obvious, as recent research would suggest.
Released February 3, Megachurches Today 2005 is a research study of more than 1,800 churches conducted by the Dallas-based Leadership Network and Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary's Institute for Religion Research (HIRR). The study follows on the heels of the 2000 Faith Communities Today study conducted by HIRR and reveals shifts in the growth patterns, geographical distribution and ministry dynamics of America's largest churches. In the course of the research, key characteristics of megachurches distilled—often corresponding with commonly-held myths surrounding the growth, leadership and activities of megachurches. Ministry Today got a sneak-peak at the study shortly before its release and had a chance to talk with the researchers behind it. Here's what we discovered:MythOne
All megachurches are alike.
There are several characteristics that most megachurches possess—well-educated pastors, youthful attendees and conservative politics, according to Megachurches Today 2005. (As expected, only two percent of megachurches describe themselves as politically "liberal.") In fact, the study notes that they often "have more in common with each other than they do with smaller churches."
However, the monolithic stereotype of the suburban, white, theologically "vanilla", newly-established megachurch may need to be adjusted. For instance, while many churches have earned the status of "mega" in recent years—giving the impression that large churches are sprouting in places where there were none to begin with—the median year that these churches were founded is 1965.
Diversity most vividly shows in the worship styles of megachurches—60 percent of which claim they have changed the style of their services "some" or "a lot" in the past five years. Increasing accessibility and openness to using technology has led to implementation of multimedia aids such as video projection, increasing from 65 percent in 2000 to 91 percent in 2005.
But nowhere is this diversity seen more than in music styles, where, in the past five years, the use of traditional instruments such as pianos and organs has declined and the use of drums, bass and electric guitars increased to 80 percent. This trend in itself is intriguing—particularly in light of the fact that the percentage of megachurches that identify themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal has declined from 25 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2005.
Geographically, megachurches are most prevalent in the Sunbelt, with California leading the pack as the state with the most megachurches (178), followed by Texas (157), Florida (85) and Georgia (73). With the exception of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming, every state has at least one church with more than 2,000 members.
In spite of these apparent regional concentrations of megachurches Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, as well as a researcher on the Megachurches Today 2005 study, believes that a geographical "decentering" is occurring.
"I fully expect to see more megachurches in New England, in the midsection and up the northwest coast of the U.S.," he notes.MythTwo
Megachurches are fixated on raising and spending money.
The average megachurch brings in about $6 million per year in income, with expenditures at $5.6 million. This can give the impression that megachurches spend a lot of time raising money to support burgeoning staffs, buildings and programs.
However, according to the survey, fundraising ranked lowest on a list of activities that respondents viewed as important—behind study groups, religious education, prayer, pastoral care, evangelism, music, fellowship and social service.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this lack of pressure is the relative ease with which megachurches attract volunteer labor. The study noted these churches employ an average of 20 full-time, paid leadership staff positions and nine part-time positions—in addition to 22 full-time and 15 part-time administrative support staff positions.
However, megachurches manage to engage the labors of an average of 284 volunteers, who each donate five or more hours a week to church work—a ratio of 10 attendees to one staff or volunteer.MythThree
Megachurches all meet in cavernous sanctuaries on enormous campuses.
In the age of sky-high real estate prices and building-supply costs, large churches must sometimes improvise to accommodate growth. In the Faith Communities Today 2000 study, a majority of respondents felt they had "insufficient building space for many areas of their ministries," and this trend has only become more noticeable in the past five years.
For instance, the average attendance at a megachurch in 2005 is 3,585, but the average seating capacity is only 1,400. (In fact, only five percent of megachurches have sanctuaries of 3,000 seats or more.) As a result, 97 percent of megachurches hold multiple worship services, and five percent hold nine or more each weekend.
Another way this disparity in congregation size and seating capacity is remedied is through satellite locations. At least 50 percent of megachurches use a combination of multiple venues and satellite locations to accommodate growth.
A recent book on this trend, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird) predicts that 30,000 American churches will be multi-site within the next few years. The authors suggest this phenomenon is driven just as much by missiological goals as it is practical constraints and cite churches as small as 30 that have launched satellite congregations.
In a recent interview with Ministry Today, Bird (who was also one of the researchers in the Megachurches Today 2005 study) noted one of these missiological goals is more effectively reaching youth and teens.
"Many new megachurch facilities are smaller in worship capacity but proportionately bigger in their children's and youth facilities," he says. "For example, consider Christ's Church of the Valley, Peoria, Ariz. [www.ccvonline.com]. Eleven thousand worship on a typical weekend, and the sanctuary—which seats 2,800—is well-designed and wired for all kinds of media. Yet the bigger square footage and expense has gone to the facilities used for children and youth."MythFour
Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about personal devotion or theological depth.
Because of their size—and the multiple services that most offer on any given weekend—megachurches must painstakingly plan each aspect of their services for efficiency and consistency. Arguably, this level of routine could constrict the flow of authentic ministry on any given Sunday and give congregants the impression that they are merely spectators at an entertainment event.
However, 78 percent of survey respondents described their congregations as holding "strong beliefs and values," and the study noted that practices such as personal Bible study, prayer, tithing and family devotions are emphasized by the church as important aspects of the Christian faith.
Perhaps nowhere is the personal devotion of megachurch attendees more evident than in their propensity to invite friends, neighbors and family members to church with them. 58 percent of megachurches report that evangelism and recruiting is a key emphasis of their ministry. Although megachurches harness mailing lists, TV advertising, newsletters and events to draw new congregants, their most effective method is to encourage members to invite others to services.
When it comes to theology, megachurches are sometimes described as shallow in their approach—with sermons focusing on practical topics often beginning with "How to ..." rather than theological exposition. Warren Bird cautions against the universalization of this stereotype, however.
"In some camps of the seeker model this statement might be true, but the major trend in megachurches is toward life application of Bible truths," he notes. "Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle [www.marshillchurch.org] and John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis [www.bbcmpls.org]—and many old line denominational churches—are almost entirely theological in their teaching."MythFive
Megachurches are nondenominational.
The majority (66 percent) of megachurches are denominational in connection, although, whether because of their nondescript names or their styles of worship, many are not easily identified with these denominations. The most represented denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, claiming 16 percent of America's megachurches.
However, Megachurches Today suggests there is a subtle shift toward megachurches being nondenominational in affiliation, noting that "megachurches founded since 1991 are more likely to be nondenominational and less likely to describe their congregation as traditional, moderate, Pentecostal or charismatic." Younger megachurches gravitate away from the use of labels in general—preferring the more general moniker of "evangelical."
Warren Bird notes several exceptions to this rule.
"New Hope Fellowship, Honolulu, pastored by Wayne Cordeiro is an exception in that their literature and Website clearly proclaims their Foursquare connection. But even they didn't put 'Foursquare' in their church name," he points out. "Charismatic and Pentecostal churches tend not to play down their denominational connection too much, although some newer ones, such as Matthew Barnett's Dream Center [www.dreamcenter.org] and Angelus Temple [www.angelustemple.org] in Los Angeles, are leaving the denominational connection out of their name."
While it is clear that some megachurches downplay their denominational affiliation (the 2000 survey showed only a third said they expressed their denominational heritage very or quite well), very few changed affiliation (three percent in the last five years) or became independent (three percent since 2000).
They predict that, although a few churches may leave their denomination in the next few years, more will either drop the denominational label in favor of a more generic name, or form a quasi-denominational network of like minded churches. Twenty-two percent of megachurches have already done so. Further pointing to this trend toward independence, 37 percent of the megachurches surveyed say they helped plant at least one new congregation in the past five years.
"We are definitely seeing a renaissance of church planting by megachurches, both locally and internationally," notes Leadership Network vice president, Dave Travis.MythSix
Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming and transfer growth from other churches.
While some would argue these congregations just happened to sprout in the right place at the right time—or even embraced some form of compromise or "secret formula" to ensure growth, researchers note that such formulas don't guarantee success:
"Almost none of the many evangelistic programs and efforts (such as advertising, creating recruitment plans, sponsoring visitor events, contacting persons new to the community or actually contacting persons after they visited the church) we tested had a strong influence on the variable growth rates of these megachurches." Instead, they cite spiritual vitality, adaptation to change, clear mission, youthfulness of the congregation and the tendency of megachurch congregants to tell others about their experiences at church. (They also noted the use of electric guitars and drums is also a factor.)
The common denominator among the fastest-growing megachurches is the extent at which members are involved in recruiting new members. 64.7 percent of those churches that experienced more than 100 percent growth in the last five years say that a lot of their members were "heavily involved."
But are these new congregants being stolen from less dominant and successful churches? Some are.
"The transfers that come from other local churches typically come from churches of all sizes, big and small," Bird notes. "When a church grows past about 400 in attendance, it often becomes what [church-growth consultant] Carl George calls a 'feeder-receptor' church. That is, whether it likes it or not, it becomes a magnet for transfer growth because it usually sports the biggest youth group around or the most 'happening' singles group around. As a result, the larger a church grows, the more intentional it has to be about reaching lost and unchurched people; otherwise the transfer-growth factor can be awkwardly high."
Travis cites reasons people will transfer to a megachurch (e.g., major life change, church strife in the previous church attended, attendance of other family members—even if one is not thrilled with the music) and reasons they never would leave to attend a megachurch (e.g., membership and active participation at the same congregation for more than 10 years, regular giving, deep affection for the fellow attendees and leaders, satisfaction with one's spiritual growth and the likelihood that your children and grandchildren would not want to attend this same congregation.)
"Most church transfers occur because people have opted out of their previous church, and no one chased after them," Travis notes. "It was dropping out and then eventually reconnecting with another church at a later time."
Additionally, dramatic growth can be connected with senior pastoral leadership: 83 percent of churches tracked their most dramatic growth during the tenure of the current senior pastor.
Perhaps less predictable is the connection between the senior pastor's education and the rate of growth. Megachurch pastors are generally more highly-educated than pastors in smaller churches. Thirty-five percent possess a D.Min. or Ph.D., and only eight percent have not completed a college degree.
However, the study noted that "as the education levels of pastors decrease, the rates of growth of these churches increase. ... It raises interesting questions about the mentoring of young pastors and the role of seminaries in producing clergy to fill these very large congregations."
"Today's culture values leaders who are proven doers more than leaders with appropriate educational credentials," Dave Travis notes. "If a pastor can preach and lead in credible ways, and is a lifelong learner, most folks don't care about titles or level of formal education."
Thumma points out this phenomenon may coincide with the prevalence of nondenominational megachurches—many of which do not have educational requirements for their pastors.
"These pastors do not have a pattern of going to seminary," he notes. "They're much more likely to become a pastor through mentoring with another megachurch pastor—their real training is at the feet of their fathers."
So, what does the future hold for America's megachurches? Experts point to an increasing interest in church planting, as well as a growing commitment to education and leadership training—particularly in the customized and resource-rich environment that a megachurch affords.
"An increasing number of megachurches are training the next generation of pastors," Bird notes, citing The Vineyard Columbus [www.vineyardcolumbus.org], a congregation that houses Vineyard Leadership Institute, a center responsible for training Vineyard pastors across the country. "Some become an extension site for a seminary, while others become their own program."
Ultimately, as Thumma notes, megachurches are a product of their times. The urbanization and customization of American culture that has provided a fertile environment for Wal-Mart and the Internet has also been a nursery for our largest churches.
"There's a tendency to think of megachurches as a unique phenomenon—a result of God's blessing or revival. This is a religious interpretation of what I see as a social phenomenon," he says. "But we should also be exploring how megachurches reflect and represent what's going on in culture and society in general."