We must ask ourselves what is the fallout with the rise of the mega-church phenomena that is so dependent upon large personalities. Many of my other writings go into great depth at critiquing some of the fallout of this way of doing church (financial cost, marginalization of the majority of people, lack of missional impulse...etc.), so for this entry I will simply restrict my thoughts to the leadership and its succession.
I believe that a high percentage of the mega-churches today are still led by the founding pastor. Many of those leaders are getting older. We are now getting close to watching what happens when they attempt to pass on that leadership to the next leader, and I am not sure it will turn out so nice. Many of these outstanding leaders are being succeeded by their children, which works well sometimes (Thomas Road Baptist, Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades) and not so well at other times (Crystal Cathedral). Some of their children are starting something new somewhere else (Charles/Andy Stanley, Chuck Smith Sr./Jr. And even Robert Schuller Sr./Jr.), perhaps because the parental pastors are not ready to let go of the baton when they hand it over (I can only speculate).
I do not know of any studies that have been done, but I do know that many of my personal friends who have led large mega-churches have experienced some sort of personal and emotional melt down due to going too long carrying so many people's expectations and functioning on adrenalin and giftedness. A sabbatical is usually helpful and often leads to adjustments that enable a better pace for a longer tenure...but then what? Inevitably we all must die and succession is an important issue, especially if the manner in which a church is led depends so much on a specific leader's exceptional giftedness as it is with the multi-site/video-venue approach.
For me the success of a leader is not determined by the number of followers attained, but by the number of fruitful leaders that are blossoming around the leader.
I have the privilege of knowing many exceptionally gifted leaders and preachers that have large churches. I find myself thinking that toning down who they are and what gifts they have received is just not a wise idea, so what do we do? God made them to be a certain way and it would be wrong for them to try to be something less.
I have come to believe that what is really needed is an alteration of their understanding of success and also learning what it truly means to use their own gift-mix to the max. I am convinced that many of these highly gifted leaders have not tapped into the real depth of their gifts or calling because they have been seduced by early success. This early success must be maintained and the demand comes form so many places that they are prevented from going further into their calling if it means that they do less of the front line ministry itself. Can it be that their own growth and maturity is stunted for the sake of the expectations of the masses? I believe so.
I believe that all the gifts of Eph 4:11 (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers) are meant to equip others to do the ministry...not to just keep doing the work themselves. The evangelist is not called to reach the lost, but to equip the saints to reach the lost. The teacher is not called to simply teach the saints, but to equip the saints to teach. I have come to understand that the difference between one who teaches (what we are used to) and a true teacher (equipper ala Eph 4:11) is that the person has reached a level of maturity that gives birth to the next generation of people who teach. So many of our current leaders in the West are not progressing in the maturation process to become spiritual parents of the next generation.
The Apostle John laid out three phases of maturing that are helpful for us. He refers to little children, young men and fathers. (1 John 2:12-14) These broad categories can help us to see what the maturing process is like. Please excuse the masculine exclusivity but I am merely following the pattern put forth by the apostle John to discover the maturing process. This is in no way something that is strictly limited to male leaders (though perhaps women with a maternal instinct within are better and quicker to give everything for their children then men are).
- Little Children cannot help themselves but are consumed with their own needs. That is the nature of immaturity. In the spiritual life, young believers are focused on themselves and their own spiritual needs. I find that they typically are wracked with shame over their sin. The good news for them, according to John is, “your sins are forgiven.” The child is set free from their sins, and most of their childhood will really be about coming to realize this important truth.
- Young Men are warriors that finally venture out into adulthood. This phase of development is where leaders begin to emerge and take on the issues of life. Young men are interested mostly in winning the battle and wooing the girl. Therefore, he is no longer only thinking of himself but is now facing an enemy. The good news for them, according to John is, “you have overcome the evil one.” The strength of faith in God is the protection of someone in this stage of life.
- Fathers are a phase of reproduction. It is a time of maturing when you now are more concerned with the success of your children then your own success. Your life, at this point, is spent to help others to grow, and bear fruit. No longer are fathers the ones taking on the enemy with a full frontal assault, instead, they are training the new, young warriors with their own rich experience and mature paternal heart. The good news for these leaders is, “You know the Father.” Intimacy with God is the reward to maturity and is actually a far greater reward than large attendance and celebrity status.
It is my opinion that this “father phase” is when we become true equippers of others. Not enough Christian leaders reach the “father phase” of maturation, which is unfortunate in so many ways. They never know the deepest level of intimacy that they could experience, and their own spiritual children are kept from the kind of success they could have. Too many stay in the less mature level of being a young man out on the battle field and never give birth to the next generation because all the pressure to succeed there holds them back. I would challenge my friends who are leading these huge churches to consider the influence they could have on a more global basis if they succeeded on birthing next generation leaders rather than staying young and immature. We need mentors who are more concerned with the success of their children than their own success. It is when you become a spiritual father that the intimacy with our heavenly Father is so strong and God trusts you in a fuller way with His greatest gifts. Don’t be content with less than what you were designed to be.