Disenchanted with the place of worship prospects in Las Vegas, I attended Central Christian Church several months ago, despite my inclination to dislike megachurches. I was shocked to find that the theology taught there was far from the most liberal I had seen (I was looking for a reformed church, but I would take what I could find), and the Christian community seemed to be thriving.
You should be surprised, too, because a huge church with conservative Christian views defies logic. The more conservative a theology, the more exclusive it is—the harder it is to be in good shape with God. So unless a church espouses the idea that people can be members without accepting the beliefs there, the liberal churches should have the most people.
Two of the leading Reformed theologians in the U.S. pastor churches with thousands of people. John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif. has 14 associate pastors and John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist church in Minneapolis, Minn. has three campuses. But each holds roughly to Calvinism, which teaches that God chooses people, rather than them choosing Him- not the most inviting of ideas to a non-Christian.
There are two explanations I can see for people flocking to churches that teach some of the most difficult-to-live-up-to theology in the world.
The first is that these churches emphasize evangelism so strongly that they are bound to bring in new members for the sheer volume of people they talk to. This is probably true, but once the bandwagon effect wears off, those people should leave, right? Who is going to remain at a church they started attending without conviction, unless something changes once they get there?
Ergo, second hypothesis: Something actually does change when they get there. These churches have it right–or at least right enough that the good things about their beliefs overshadow the attractiveness of worshipping in a place with easier standards to meet.
Megachurches with conservative theology must be right enough to keep people interested—at least long enough for them to start enjoying the community life of the group.
And the sense of community should be stronger in places with highly exclusive beliefs, so once they are formed, huge congregations might actually be more likely to stay together if they are bound by conservative theology.
The large congregation with conservative beliefs is advantaged in the category of church unity as well.
The most obvious risk in any megachurch is factioning. Because these organizations almost always function on a network of smaller groups where most of the hard theology is taught, it is easy to imagine that over time, the church might cease to have a unified body of followers.
Factioning does happen within many large churches, but it is less likely in one with strong conservative views for at least two reasons that reflect on the usual nature of church communities with highly exclusive theology.
First, conservative theology often follows doctrine that leans toward Calvinism. A congregation is less likely to split apart if its people believe they are there by God’s omnipotent desire than if they think they can come and go at their own will.
Second, the kind of church leader it takes to convince people that they are there by God’s omnipotent desire is not easy to find. Though associates and assistants might believe the same things, it is unlikely that any church has more than one person capable of leading through the complex theology of conservative Christianity. That one leader therefore serves as a point on which to unify the congregation regardless of group affiliation.
Finally, that strain of belief is almost always associated with the traditions of heavy biblical research and exegetic teaching (exposition through logic). Regardless of smaller networks, a church is unlikely to break apart if its people believe their beliefs have been proven to them through reason. Leaving little room for interpretation is the key to forming a belief system that will not mutate under scrutiny or neglect.
Given these ideas, the conservative megachurch is not really the anomaly as I once thought. In fact, it makes sense. Could exclusive Christian theology really be headed toward a future of high-density participation? Who could have guessed?
KEEPING THE FAITH is a column about religion and philosophy that seeks to open constructive discussion about our most important beliefs. It appears in every Thursday issue.