American Megachurches: Ministerial training & post-denominationalism

Ministerial training

The report finds —

On the other hand, 7% more megachurches (47% in 2000 to 54% in 2008) were sponsoring Pastors or ministerial conferences. Additionally 69% have internship/ residency programs to train potential staff and ministerial candidates. So it seems as if megachurches are shifting from formal pastoral schools or institutes toward informal on-the-job internship programs for clergy training.

This is astonishing news. It seems our largest congregations are getting away from seminary training for their ministers. And yet the seminaries serve as the heart of most denominations.

Post-denominationalism

All these changes together suggest a possible shift taking place in the American religious institutional reality. In some sense megachurches can be seen as becoming de facto replacements for denominations in that they are duplicating many of the functions of these bureaucratic national bodies. Church school literature, worship resources and music materials are all produced by megachurches and consumed en masse by smaller churches internationally of all different denominations. As seen above, more of these churches sponsor pastors training conferences and have intentional programs of training for would-be clergy. Likewise, many megachurches have been instrumental in both planting new congregations and spinning off affiliated satellite locations that are flourishing under a popular and recognizable name-brand. Additionally, while most megachurches continue to sponsor denominational mission programs, increasingly they are also investing heavily in their own homegrown, hands-on mission trips for those attending their churches to experience what it is like to be a missionary and assist, even temporarily, in the mission field.

Are we beginning to see the outlines of the new post-denominational world?

The original reasons for founding denominations were —

* The oldest denominations were founded as official state churches, tied to a European nation-state. Presbyterians were the official church of Scotland, Lutherans were the official church for many northern European nations, the Church of England (Episcopalian Church in the US) was the official church of England.

* Most denominations claimed to be the only saved people. Why associate with those who only pretend to be Christians?

* Denominations had doctrinal distinctives — apostolic succession, Calvinism, etc.

* Denominations owned the building. In many denominations, even today, following the feudal patterns of their sponsoring nation-states, many denominations own the buildings and pay the salaries of the ministers — making it all but impossible for a local church to violate denominational policy.

Now, as the US birthed many new denominations as part of the Second Great Awakening in the 19th Century — including the Restoration Movement — people naturally thought in denominational terms. It’s all anyone had ever known. Thus, many new denominations took on the centralized authoritarian patterns of the old European churches.

Even in the nominally autonomous Churches of Christ, many lawsuits were filed at the turn of the century over the ownership of buildings as churches split over the instrument, with each side claiming to be the one true church — resulting in the same kind of property-based authority as the centralized European denominations.

Now, however, we see a very different post-denominational world evolving. Notice these differences —

* Participation in a Willow Creek or Saddleback conference or support network is entirely voluntary. There are no penalties if you quit. They won’t even talk bad about you!

* Lines are not drawn based on doctrine. Obviously, some doctrine must be shared for the 40 Days of Purpose material, for example, to be of value to you. But no one is talking about the issues that divided the European churches.

* There is no sense that you must join the Saddleback league to be saved. Salvation of one another is unquestioned. Rather, the cooperation is purely pragmatic: join if we can help you.

And, I might add, the material coming out of many of the megachurches is vastly superior to much of the material coming from the old denominational headquarters. The real energy and vitality is found in the local congregations, who share their material for the joy of sharing and love of Jesus.

Finally, more and more megachurches are advising other churches to hire and train their own ministers. And increasingly churches are hiring children’s ministers, teen ministers, and campus ministers with little or no seminary training. After all, they say, if you hire from within, you know what you’re getting and can train them in your way of doing things.

I don’t think the seminaries are going out of business anytime soon — at least not all of them. But I do think they will increasingly be required to do more than teach Romans and koine Greek. We live in a world where anyone can buy and read N. T. Wright and so know as much about some topics as the professors. Bible knowledge at a very high level is available inexpensively for anyone with the motivation. And so churches will be looking less for theological expertise as for leadership.

This post-denominational mindset has led to more and more megachurch members thinking of themselves as generic evangelicals —

Another aspect of megachurch life that greatly affects the worship, style and orientation of these congregations is the perceived theological identity of the majority of the attenders. This labeling of the attenders theological perspective has drastically shifted in 8 years. The vast majority of megachurches have always held a conservative theological position, and this hasn’t changed. But what has changed is a turn away from distinctive theological segments within conservative Protestantism toward a “generic evangelicalism.” During the past 8 years, nearly 20% more churches chose to describe the theological orientation of the congregation as “evangelical” rather than one of the distinctive variations within conservativism. In some sense the term “evangelical” can be seen as generically encompassing an increasingly broad spectrum of conservative Christians as the subgroup distinctions, such as Pentecostal, traditional, charismatic, etc., are less important or significant.

megachurch evangelicals

Now, not only is this true of the megachurches, I’m seeing it happen in the progressive Churches of Christ. The change is happening at a dramatic pace.

It’s not so much leader-led as Spirit-led, in my opinion. As we study books from other faith traditions, cite scholars from other traditions, and leave behind the errors of the 20th Century, our members are figuring out that we are more like what they read about in the Bible bookstore than the other Churches of Christ in town.

When they move out of town, many ask for a recommendation of a church, and few have any interest in attending a more traditional Church of Christ. They don’t want to go — as they see it — backwards. They don’t want their children taught legalism. And they don’t want to be miserable again.

Therefore, if they can’t find a reasonably progressive Church of Christ in their new hometown, they’ll likely wind up at a “community church,” that is, a generic evangelical, post-denominational church.

These trends are here, they are big, they are affecting us more than we realize, and they affect everything. They affect who will attend a Church of Christ university, who will donate to a Church of Christ foster care program, and who will read a Church of Christ periodical.

The old loyalties were built on false assumptions about who had the truth and who was going to hell. Everything is changing — and those institutions that ignore the changes will fail. On the other hand, those institutions that can read the signs of the times, make the necessary adjustments, and follow the Spirit’s lead, will be blessed.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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