The Bible tells a lot of stories. Rambling stories. Messy stories of messed-up people from Moses to Job, Jonah to the Revelator John. Stories that don’t always resolve or tie up neatly. You can’t trust a story that’s too clean. They taught us that in Psychology 101. True stories are raw and rough and they don’t always turn out the way we want. But there’s a power in unpolished stories.
Jesus told stories. And he was reluctant to explain. He left it for the people to make up their own minds.
This is simply my story of what I learned working at a megachurch.
1. Most churches become “mega” under one truly gifted pastor.
I’d been church hopping for a while when I decided to check out South Point, a mid-size congregation smack in the middle of downtown. They had a new, young pastor named Tommy Rush, a lanky fellow who wore his suits loose like a college basketball coach and when you met him, he looked you in the eye and made you feel special, like he was genuinely interested in what you had to say. His preaching seemed like he was talking just to you, and the way he described God made it sound like He is your oldest, truest friend — one you could lean on in good times or bad.
South Point was the only church I ever attended where the most seasoned believer or rank sinner could come and not leave jaded or unchanged. One of my most heathen friends shook his head slowly after one service and said, “Man, I’ve been waiting for someone to talk to me like that all my life . . . ”
2. Bigger has its benefits . . .
With its 4,000-plus weekly attendance, South Point had a plethora of outreach ministries, multiple youth programs, a wellness center, coffee bar, and thrift store. The parking lots were secure. Volunteers would deliver you from your car to the church door in a golf cart. The services started and ended on time. Worship was well produced and performed by talented musicians. The biggest acts were attracted to South Point and even without all that, Brother Tommy’s preaching seemed to get better every week.
All of this worked to attract more people. I watched the church double. Then triple. They added an early service, then another on Saturday night. I decided to make South Point my home.
3. . . . but it can also be like high school all over again.
If you were a natural-born extrovert or good at networking, you have a huge advantage at the megachurch. If you were class president or head cheerleader, you’d do fine.
I was one of those people who slipped into the balcony or back pew and struggled to find a place to fit in. I don’t do well in groups. I’m better one-on-one. But most megachurches are geared towards groups and extroverts. I tried a few church mixers but even though we had several thousand members, it seemed like once you met four or five people, you’d pretty much met them all. And they all appeared to be a lot more together and sure about things than I was. So I kept my mouth shut and stayed in the back with the other struggling, C-minus Christians.
But I knew I needed to try harder, to figure out some way to find my place.
4. There’s more business behind the scenes than you might think.
I was just out of grad school and somehow snagged a license to practice psychotherapy through a loophole in state regulations. Garrett Thomas and I worked together at the mental hospital, but then South Point asked him to start a counseling center. Their mission was to offer “professional counseling in an atmosphere of hope, healing, and restoration” and even though there was something about estrogen-heavy church slogans that made me want to tattoo a rattlesnake up my arm and join Mad Max’s gang — I still thought it was a solid idea to offer a ministry devoted to just listening. So when Garrett offered me a job, I took it.
The counseling center could only start me part time, so I’d have to keep my side jobs at the psych ward and roller rink, but still . . . I thought I had arrived. I was going to work at the megachurch.
Things looked different behind the scenes. There was a thick pack of associate pastors and many seemed straight corporate, like CEOs or the people who run a bank. But South Point was an enormous machine, right? If you just had sensitive artsy types the light bill wouldn’t get paid. You need business-minded people for balance. And for a while, it worked. South Point kept booming. We built a massive new sanctuary. Some said we were on our way to becoming the largest per capita church in America.
Then, just before I started, Brother Tommy left for an even bigger church. There was an undercurrent of panic, but slogans were circulated and a search committee formed to find a new pastor ASAP. Maybe South Point was moving to the next level. Weren’t Christians supposed to be hopeful? We were all determined to step up and carry on.
5. People are people, wherever you go.
How hard could megachurch counseling be? Everybody seemed so together and happy, like those people who conquered mountains and stood on top with hands lifted high. I’d never done any actual counseling before, but I figured church people would probably come to discuss the theological/philosophical meaning of life, and we could talk about stuff like why the Bible seems so mean and crazy sometimes with the Job and Moses thing, with seven-headed lions and locust armies and wild women driving tent stakes through the temples of men.
Nobody came to discuss locust armies or the meaning of life. People came bleeding out and dying from trying to keep up the façade. I saw cutters and closet binge drinkers and church singers hiding extramarital affairs. Dead marriages and depressive fatigues, ungovernable teens, phantom lusts, deviant compulsions, doubts, fears, anxiety in the night, secretly agnostic ministers, and thoughts of suicide.
Everyday was a new and desperate revelation. Monday: the preacher’s wife eats Xanax. Tuesday: the deacon struggles with porn. Wednesday: the church secretary can be a real witch sometimes. Thursday: the couple that leads the marriage workshop can’t stand each other, but fake it because they can’t afford to lose the gig. Friday: closed, by grace. Jesus often withdrew to lonely places. I was beginning to understand why.
The biggest lesson I learned at the megachurch? What people claim corporately and believe privately are two very different things. Everybody’s wrecked behind the scenes. We’re all struggling and faking it somewhere along the way, praying no one finds out how messed up we truly are.
The megachurch people had similar problems to my psych ward people. In fact, they were pretty much the same — just a little better at camouflage when it counted.
6. Big machines crash hard.
After a long ramble through the sand, a new pastor was welcomed with great fanfare. The first time I met Lance he had a clammy handshake and kept staring over my shoulder like he was looking for someone more important to talk to. But the second time he seemed like a decent enough guy. We all wanted to give him time and the benefit of the doubt.
After a short honeymoon period, things started to get shady. Sensational ministry campaigns were announced then mysteriously fizzled out. Pastors got fired but forced to stand on stage and say God had called them away. Lance scrambled, fumbling between strut and fluster, while the congregation checked watches and rolled their eyes.
Soon enough the writing was on the wall. This new pastor wasn’t nearly as gifted as Brother Tommy. Or maybe his gifts just didn’t fit what South Point was trying to do. Truth was, I kinda felt sorry for Lance. He was struggling to find his place, too. But few were willing to call it what it was, preferring to cling to spiritual clichés and pretend everything was okay.
Attendance plunged and ministries crumpled. Staff members quit. The counseling center dropped off and Garrett was quickly canned. The balance shifted. The CEOs took over. At some level, we were all left wondering: What happened here?
7. There’s hope for humanity in busted machines.
Sometimes we set ourselves up for delusion, placing more on the church than we ever should. God chose to be born in a feeding trough of a barn. Jesus built his church on Peter, the most misfit rebel disciple of them all. Church history is ragged at best. Maybe church was always supposed to be sort of a mess.
You see some nutty stuff working in a giant church, some really crazy people. But then, if you watch, you’ll see some of those same crazy people do beautiful things. The arrogant deacon feeds the homeless, the hypocrite cares for the sick, the religious bigots band together to build some widow a wheelchair accessible porch. People are just people — and in the dark, lonely places we are all basically the same, frightened and confused and feeling like we’re doing the best that we can do.
Knowing that the beautiful, shiny churchy people are just as messed up as the rest of us — well, it gave me a strange kind of hope. The feeling that maybe I could make it after all.
I went on to work with several other large churches. In every case so far, the story has been basically the same. I love the busted-up, strange, stumbling, fumbling church. I’m busted and fumbling, too.
Today South Point’s massive new sanctuary sits mostly empty. But they have a new young pastor and hope is holding on.
Editors note: names and places have been changed to protect identities.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.