A Lutheran Looks at Mega Churches, by Andrew P. Bauer. Milwaukee: NPH, 2012. 99 pages.
Pastor Bauer, the author of A Lutheran Looks at Mega Churches, lives ten minutes from Willow Creek Community Church. He has conducted [his] ministry in her shadow for 16 years (p. iv). He has seen firsthand how much Willow Creek’s way of doing church has influenced his area and our nation. He thus has a heightened sensitivity to some practices in our own synod “that appear to be ‘Creekish’” (p. v). So one might expect him to rant and rail against the mega church movement in his book, to use it as an opportunity to vent all the ministerial frustrations, perhaps even jealousies, of one and a half decades.
Pastor Bauer does not do that. “I intend to show the common threads that tie mega churches together,” he writes. “I’ll do this not as a disinterested researcher but as someone who wants to give the Lutheran reader insights into the mind and heart of a neighbor who attends a mega church” (p. v).
Pastor Bauer’s work is not a scholarly treatment, but a pastoral one that reflects his concern for “doctrine and the salvation of souls” above all else (p. vi).
A Lutheran Looks at Mega Churches, part of Northwestern Publishing House’s A Lutheran Looks at… series, can easily be divided into two parts – an analysis of the mega church movement, and a practical application of the analysis.
Pastor Bauer begins the first part in a helpful, Lutheran way – by asking the question, “What does this label ‘mega church’ mean?” He divides mega churches into two categories: “large denominational churches and large nondenominational churches” (p. 5). He focuses on “the second type of mega church, the large nondenominational church, also known as a community church.” However, he quickly points out that “community mega churches have influenced denominational mega churches to the point where there is little, if any outward difference between them. Denominational mega churches have a tendency to downplay their connection with their denomination” (p. 6). To the extent that a denominational mega church does that, this book also helps the reader to talk to his or her neighbor who is a member of such a church.
While the most important section of the first part of this book is the analysis of the teachings of a community church, the author also does a good job of showing how the approach of the community church easily leads to those teachings. The community church is sensitive to the “felt needs” of the community. For example, Pastor Bauer cites the development of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. “Bill’s efforts began with a needs assessment survey,” Bauer writes. “He walked through the neighborhoods…asking people what they wanted in a church. Whatever people disliked about church, Bill resolved to exclude from his new church. For example, one complaint was that the church talks too much about money, so Bill made sure his church didn’t talk about money” (p. 15).
When the foundation and direction of a church are manifestly based on “felt needs,” which really amount to “what [sinful people’s] itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3), it should not be surprising when those churches stray from the Bible in what they teach. It is also not surprising when this approach leads the community church to embrace the local culture in other ways as well, such as in its architecture and worship (p. 21).
More than anything else, this book emphasizes how community churches do indeed stray from the Bible in their teachings. Bauer correctly points out that “[o]ur objection as Lutherans to a mega church will not be over size, projector screens, or casual attire. It will always be about teaching” (p. 36).
Sadly, the emphasis of mega churchism “is about self” (p. 32). “Jesus is assumed and the topic of ‘me and getting my life straightened out’ hogs the agenda in preaching and teaching” (p. 37). “Their proof that Jesus is real is not the cross, the empty tomb, or the truth of salvation. Their proof is found in the fact that the meth addict hasn’t used [meth] in a long time” (p. 36).
Since the focus is on self, the teachings of the Bible attacked the hardest by the mega church are those having to do with the means of grace, especially the sacraments. Instead of baptizing infants, the community church will dedicate them, which puts the emphasis on the parents’ “desire to lead and spiritually nurture their children, so they will develop a desire to love God and others” (p. 30). When the community church considers the person old enough to be baptized, baptism is not viewed as God’s activity but man’s. Bauer recalls how, leading up to one of Willow Creek’s baptismal events, he heard Bill Hybels explicitly tell the crowd that “the only reason to be baptized is because Jesus commands it, not because it will benefit you in any way’” (p. 34). Contrast this with the simple words of the apostle Peter: “Baptism…saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
The same goes for Holy Communion. In mega churches, this sacrament is simply an opportunity “to remember our Savior,” not a means by which Christ actually gives us his true body and blood, and with them, his forgiveness. Thus the earthly elements Christ willed that we use also get ignored. Bread is changed to crackers. Wine is changed to grape juice. “Sometimes [the Lord’s Supper] will be offered on the way out the door, with an invitation to stop by for some ‘crackers and grape juice’ on the way home,” Bauer writes. “Or the Lord’s Supper will be handed down the aisle in handy individual containers with a wafer and some grape juice. Just peel open the first seal to get at the wafer. Peel open the second seal to get at the juice. Since its teaching is that the Sacrament is nothing more than a reminder of Christ’s death, the church allows everyone to receive it” (p. 60). Contrast this to Jesus’ clear words about what he is giving his disciples in Matthew 26:26-29, and Paul’s clear words about who should receive it in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30.
Bauer suggests that “Christian contemporary music has become the mega church’s new sacrament” – a thought-provoking suggestion considering that in the music of the community church the audience is typically “not there to be active but to be passive” (p. 58) – a role that Lutherans correctly associate with the means of grace, not with singing.
In the second part of the book, the practical application, Bauer explores two questions: “How do I talk religion with my mega church friends?” and “How much of mega churchism should influence Lutheranism?”
To the first question, Bauer clearly displays his pastoral heart when he says, “You want first and foremost for your neighbor to be a Christian” (p. 80). Denominational concerns should fade into the background before this concern. By asking questions like, “When you sit in the auditorium and listen…do you learn about Christ?” and “Is the message about you or is it about Christ?” (p. 78), he encourages us first to determine if they have the Christian faith. Only then can a discussion of doctrinal differences take place. And for that discussion, “[y]ou must be certain about your beliefs and comfortable with how you worship God on Sunday morning,” Bauer says (p. 77). That can only happen by regularly reading and studying the Scriptures.
In discussing the second question, about adopting mega church methods or not, the author displays his objectivity. The community church’s pursuit of excellence is something “Lutherans can learn a lesson from” (p. 44). He also commends their “fearless self-evaluation.” “Perhaps Lutheran churches could use a dose of such fearless analysis so that our efforts and resources don’t get wasted on things that don’t serve people,” he says (p. 90).
But Bauer is far from ashamed of Lutheran methods in general. “[W]hat we do flows from our theology” he says (p. 87). “A Lutheran church should use forms appropriate to what it is” (p. 86). “[I]f we ‘plunder the Egyptians’ in search of methods that work, some of what is Egypt may come along with that plunder” (p. 87). In short, when we realize that our methods flow from our theology, and that our theology is taken straight from Scripture, we will exclaim, “Being a Lutheran Christian is an awesome thing” (p. 77), and we will not be so enamored with what is not Lutheran.
If Bauer’s work has any weakness, it is that he perhaps draws too much from his own experience, and so Willow Creek ends up representing all mega churchism. However, Willow Creek’s wide-ranging influence is widely acknowledged, and this reviewer found the book’s assertions to be in harmony with his own experience with the local mega church in his area. There are also a few minor editing mistakes. For example, “Jacob Arminius” becomes “Joseph Arminius” in the next line (p. 35) and at least one set of quotation marks needs correcting (p. 36).
But overall, the reader will find this work to be not only a helpful treatment, but also an edifying and devotional one, leading the Lutheran reader to “[r]ejoice in the fact that [he or she is] part of a church that, above all else, seeks to glorify him who saved us and who still works miracles among us through the Word and sacraments” (p. 93).