I recently have been laying out some of the history, philosophy and personalities that are central to or played a key role in giving birth to the megachurch movement. I think it is appropriate to define the term ‘megachurch’ so that there is not any confusion in my use of the word. After all, if someone is going to claim and provide evidence that there is a problem with something, that person should be, in megachurch newspeak, get ‘real clear, and be intentional and authentic’ in the word usage.
Some might say, well Jesus started the first megachurch of course when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. They had the first-century version of the coffee shop in the lobby even with loaves of bread and fish. Of course, that was a sermon, not a congregation nor a church. It dispersed after the event.
Some will say there have been big churches before, even in the 1800s there were examples of some US churches with thousands of congregants. This is true. Those were anomalies and certainly not part of a movement. They happened in some places for independent reasons. When I speak of the megachurch I am not talking about things that have occurred seldom and independently because of that church’s unique set of circumstances.
What Do I Mean by Megachurch?
My definition of the megachurch movement is churches formed and organized upon the corporate business-model way of ‘doing church’ espoused by Peter Drucker beginning in the 1990s and promulgated by The Leadership Network and others.
Members of megachurches and underling leaders in such churches will likely and invariably deny that any of this definition could be true – they have never heard of Peter Drucker after all. Besides, their church is independent! Nevermind that they share very similar techniques and styles to all the other ‘independent’ megachurches and they all started ‘spontaneously generating’ around the same time. There is nothing to deny. Christianity Today, Forbes and several national newspapers ran articles throughout the 1990s and 2000s talking about Drucker and his work with megachurches, megachurch pastors and The Leadership Network. The Leadership Network, an organization that every megachurch senior pastor has had interaction with claims proudly that they would not exist without Drucker. There is nothing to deny, it is public record.
The megachurch movement has gone through three phases:
Organic, Cult of Personality Phase
Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral, certainly a mega-church in terms of size, was more of an inspiration for rather than part of the megachurch movement. Schuller grew his congregation by offering sermons that his audience wanted, therapeutic, self-help theology in a cool new format, drive up to the church, at the start. Schuller was not the sole inspiration, but he is representative of the examples in the early 199os. These generated questions in the minds of men like Rick Warren and Peter Drucker and brought them together. As I laid out in The Problem with the Megachurch, Drucker had a vision for creating communities of communities as a way to solve societal and economic programs and by the 1990s he had turned his focus to churches as a means to achieve this.
Drucker, often called the father of modern management, undoubtedly realized two facts related to the examples of Bakker, Swaggert, Schuller, and others. First, much of their success was based upon individual charisma and personality. Second, they gave their audience what they wanted – in the first case emotion, in the second validation – bu no matter the product served, it was what people wanted to buy. Those were the elements of the mega-church examples Drucker wanted to emulate. He needed a methodology and techniques that eliminated the need for the personality factor.
Drucker’s 1984 novel The Last of All Possible Worlds And, The Temptation to Do Good finds a young man conversing with his priest about his decision to enter business with his father instead of the church. The priest is left to wonder if management techniques might not be exactly what the church needs.
His books The New Realities: in Government and Politics, in Economics and Business, in Society and World View (1989) followed by Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Practices and Principles (1990) set the initial parameters for how he saw nonprofits and specifically churches changing society.
In 1984, Bob Buford, Fred Smith, Jr. and Gayle Carpenter started Leadership Network as a way of trying to help the newly emerging wave of pastors who were breaking worship attendance barriers of 1,000 and sometimes 2,000 or more. During his business years, Buford had spent countless hours talking with and seeking guidance from Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, and he now tapped into Drucker’s guidance for how best to frame Leadership Network. He later remarked that Leadership Network would not be the same—in fact, might not exist at all—were it not for Peter Drucker. (Buford later developed that 23-year mentoring relationship into a book, Drucker and Me.)
Leadership Network started in 1984 with a budget of $5,000, and held its first forum with 55 churches that had attendance of 800 and higher. By 2017 the organization was annually serving more than 400 larger churches through in-person events which included more than 1,500 leaders. Online conferences reached upwards of 25,000, and Leadership Network Advance subscriptions exceeded 50,000. (LN)
Before Bob Buford and Fred Smith Jr. co-founded Leadership Network, Buford consulted Drucker for advice. As a testimony to Drucker’s profound influence on Leadership Network, Buford has observed, “Peter Drucker is the ‘intellectual father’ of most all that guides my approach to philanthropy. I’ve long since ceased trying to determine what thoughts are mine and which come from Peter.”
In 1997, Atlantic Monthly magazine editor Jack Beatty interviewed Buford for two hours for a book titled, The World According to Peter Drucker. The entire volume contained only six words from Buford: “He’s the brains, I’m the legs.”
Leadership Network would not be the same–in fact, might not exist at all -were it not for Peter Drucker – their words (LN)
Baptist Model Phase
Rick Warren was an early disciple and partner of Petter Drucker. His Purpose Driven Church in 1995 introduced terminology, in proto-form, that became megachurch newspeak. The entire SBC was adversely affected by Warren, in ways some only began to realize at the SBC convention in 2019. SBC churches, large and small became to some degree megachurch minded, Sunday school classes followed various 40-day programs. Some churches grew and literally became ‘mega’, others just served to place mega ideas in future megachurch congregants.
Many of the Baptist megachurches began dumping the word Baptist from their name. Many Baptist pastors participated in and participate in Leadership Network activities. However, in the final analysis, the megachurch model within the framework of the Baptist denomination still requires a strong pastoral personality. Baptists still vote on elders and deacons. In order to execute Druker’s Leadership Principle in a Baptist church, the pastor has to be a strong, dynamic and attractive personality.
A good methodology is replicable across a spectrum of problems, independent of the people involved. Drucker’s vision for an improved society consisting of communities of communities could not heavily rely on strong personalities to repeat. The Leadership Network, by capturing successful lessons-learned, tactics and techniques and making resources available to aspiring megachurches and megachurch pastors created such a methodology.
No longer is a strong central personality required. The ‘cumbersome’ barriers to ‘doing church’ such as voting on elders and the board are eliminated in the new model. A decently charismatic leader, supporting by a closely selected board and an ethos throughout the organization to follow the leadership plan will do just fine.
In the third phase of the megachurch, an operation can be started from scratch, using the template and the methodology developed by Druckerite organizations – using methods that are proven to work. Just like a franchise.
Many megachurches, now with thousands of members, began with a small core, a core that is still often heavily represented on the small hand-selected board. The methodology does not require a rock-star senior pastor, it only requires a guy that is capable enough to act like one. Many claim to not even have a senior pastor, just a self-selecting board of elders and a ‘main pastor’. It does not require a board of world-changers and innovators, just a few folks smart enough to implement a proven methodology. It is basically a turn-key franchise. You only need a little bit of money to start it, for the mailing list. A couple of people with adequate social intelligence and personal appeal to build some momentum and access to the template. It only requires a few leaders that can be ‘cool and authentic’ by following a plan and copying others – ironic. It also requires a lot of followers that buy into the cool act and fail to see that their independent, unique, authentic megachurch is really a lot like all the others.
In short, the megachurch movement is very much a franchise.
- Why I Write About the Megachurch
- The Megachurch Explained
- The Problem With the Megachurch (PDF version)
** I want to be super clear that I am not implying, nor do I believe most of the folks that have used the “Drucker Megachurch Franchise” template had ill intentions. Most of the folks that started these churches were GEN Xers, and we GEN Xers grew into adulthood with a lot of distrust of the things that were around us. Those of us that grew up in church saw a stale, ineffective church. We knew the Sunday talk and the weekly walk of many people.
I grew up in a very typical place that describes that. I was raised in Powedersville, near Greenville SC. As typical of the Southern Baptist Bible belt as you can get. I saw all the things that likely frustrated those that followed the Drucker plan.
I also do not believe the folks working in these churches as underling leaders have ill intentions, or at least they did not start out that way. There is however something corrupting when you place an ordinary man in a position of extreme power over others, young impressionable folks, and give him a soap-box to repeat the myth of himself that develops from that power. I have witnessed such people, abuse their power in subtle ways.
These people did not mean evil, not all of them do overt evil and there are good things that derive from these churches. Most have zero understanding of the flawed philosophy that this movement came from and many of the underling leaders are not even formally trained in theology to recognize error.
On the whole, it was all a mistake, it has morphed into something very dangerous and it is, in my observed opinion, the single greatest existential threat to organized Christianity in America.
When you think of visiting one of these places, keep looking, find a Bible-believing place without all the communitarian trappings, apostasy and error.