Thumma, Scott and David Travis. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We can Learn from America’s Largest Churches. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007. 224pp. $23.95.

Summary

In Beyond Megachurch Myths Scott Thumma and David Travis set out to “help religious leaders to understand megachurches better but also to learn from them, even if they have no desire to become a megachurch” (xvii). They aim to accomplish this by “draw[ing] together a wide range of informational sources and interviews and yet present our findings in a readable and instructive manner” (xxii). At the outset they acknowledge their biases, which are expected in any written work, with the following caveat, “Although we may be accused of defending the phenomenon, we try to present as objective a perspective as possible, while trying to correct what we see as fallacies in the understanding of megachurches” (xxi). While this particular reader agrees that certain stereotypes of megachurches are false and aspects of the phenomenon need to be defended, which they do well at times; however, I will ultimately argue that Thumma and Travis do so in a way that is both atheological and ambiguous.

The book centers on refuting nine commonly held misconceptions concerning megachurches. Prior to examining these misconceptions it is important to begin where Thumma and Travis begin and define what a megachurch is. They define a megachurch as “a Protestant church that averages at least two thousand total attendees in their weekend services” (xviii). It is important to note that they are speaking of average weekend attendance and not church membership; this is critical distinction that they make throughout the work.

The first chapter of this work does not discuss any of the stereotypes instead it gives impetus to the importance of this volume as they describe the “scale and scope of megachurches in America.” For example “the largest 1 percent of U.S. churches contain at least 15 percent of the worshippers, finances, and staff in America” (6). Furthermore, they note that members of megachurches represent the third largest religious group in America (1).

Chapter two examines the myth that “all megachurches are alike” (21-43). Within this chapter they explain that various megachurches were founded in different historical eras, are found within various denominations, and exists in “four distinct streams” (see 30-41).

They address the burgeoning attendance of these churches in chapter three. This chapter is the shortest of the book and gives various statistics concerning their continued growth to demonstrate that they are not too big.

They overcome the stereotype that “megachurches are cults of personality” by demonstrating the various leadership styles in place a several megachurches in chapter four.

In chapter five Thumma and Travis have done well to demonstrate the outward focus of many megachurches, in chapter five, which contrasts the challenge that they are narcissistic institutions.

Chapter six which addresses whether or not “megachurches water down the faith” (91-117) is found to be the most lacking and will be discussed later in this review.

Are megachurches bad for other churches? This question is answered in chapter seven as they look at their positive effect on networking as well as the creation of various training schools/institutes; however, they are unable to answer the frequent accusation of sheep stealing.

When speaking to the alleged homogeneity among megachurch attendees they conclude that this homogeneity is due to a “common suburban milieu” (144); however, “significant pockets of diversity are apparent” (144).

Chapter nine refutes the myth that “megachurches grow because of the show” (147-167) by describing the various evangelistic/church growth methods employed by megachurches.

Against accusations that the movement is dying chapter ten provides various statistics to show that the movement is stronger now than it ever has been.

Chapter eleven is brief yet very helpful as it looks to the future and examines various changes, challenges, and possible threats to the movement that must be undertaken and faced in the future.

Evaluation

Strengths
While this author appreciates their attempt at taking an unbiased look into the life of American megachurches and the various stereotypes surrounding them this strength is also the works greatest weakness. Since this is a text based on various research studies the data is particularly important and this volume is loaded with statistics. At the end of each chapter there is a section entitled “Applying What You Have Read” these sections are generally helpful and a nice practical twist in a book filled with statistics.

Weaknesses
Prior to beginning my critique it is important to note that this particular review finds nothing wrong with the megachurch as a concept. I was an attendee of a megachurch, I have been employed by a megachurch (as a janitor!), and even had friends who have pastored megachurches mentioned in this work.

This volume does well to present its research in a relatively unbiased fashion as they seek to demonstrate that these various myths are not consistent with the data. However, they do so in a fashion that is both ambiguous and profoundly atheological. This is a book that is about presenting research and it ends there none of these questions are even remotely addressed by Scripture. This is most evident in chapter six; however, several examples from other chapters will be given first.

In addressing the question of whether or not megachurches are too big they pragmatically appeal to various statistical studies rather than appealing to Scripture. One might expect them to appeal to Acts 2:41, as many others have, yet they do not. One might expect them to appeal to church history, such as the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and yet they do not. Instead they cite the continued growth of these churches as the sole reason that they are not too big; this is a helpful statistic but an insufficient one.

In chapter four when arguing against the assertion that megachurches are cults of personality they note that “pastors are the center of attention whether the church is large or small” (55); such a statement is a cop-out. Later in the chapter they examine leadership succession which actually supports the stereotype as it exemplifies how to transition between one cult of personality to another. Even in their section on leadership teams it is apparent that the “senior pastor,” a term not found in Scripture, is still the dominant personality of the church.

In chapter nine they cite that around 50% of long-term attendees were drawn to a megachurch because of the worship service style (154). They fail to answer the question of whether or not megachurches grow because of the show as they focus on describing the evangelistic efforts of megachurches rather than the reasons for attendance.

In all the above examples the reader would have benefited by their explaining the statistics acknowledging that the stereotypes are true for some megachurches and then providing examples of how specific churches are doing it right. Rather they attempt to vindicate all megachurches which is a noble but yet impossible task.

Chapter six exemplifies the atheological nature of this volume and should sound an alarm with any discerning reader who would peruse its pages. This tendency is evident at the outset of chapter two when Gene Edward Veith is quoted as saying, “The sermons will tend to be about practical biblical tips for successful living, and go light on doctrine and on sin” (21). While he does mention the similarity among megachurches, which that chapter aims to address, earlier in the quoted paragraph the authors fail to address the central criticism offered by Veith, namely the accusation that megachurches embrace doctrinal ambiguity. Early within chapter six the focus is on form, rather than on content and function, as they discuss physical appearance and worship styles. Once again they make their case pragmatically by appealing to statistics rather than arguing for indigeneity from Scripture.

The following lengthy quote is particularly disconcerting, “It is abundantly clear that some churches preach a prosperity gospel . . . however, the vast majority of megachurches have belief statements on paper and in practice that are clearly . . . orthodox” (98). Later they explain that the difference between theology on paper and theology preached is that these pastors understand that their congregation is not filled with “theological students, but rather people who want a word from God that is applicable to their everyday lives” (100). Discussions of Semantics aside theology, simply stated the study of God, is applicable to daily life and if your preaching does not educate them about God, theology, and your congregation does not desire to study God, theology, then your preaching and your church are both false. In their biased desire to vindicate all megachurches the authors ultimately fail to recognize that many megachurches are false churches, many present a biblical yet severely diminished and dangerous gospel, and many are doctrinally strong churches. Yet their blanket statement that the majority are orthodox is wholly unfounded.

The final weakness does not fit in any of the above discussions.  This reviewer is amazed at the author’s audacity to claim that the reasons for these stereotypes is that they are fueled by “pastors, denominational leaders, and seminary professors . . . [to whom] the rise in the number of megachurches has resulted in the loss of power and influence” (119). The authors do not take these critiques seriously viewing them as an attempt to regain power by disgruntled pastors and seminary professors. This may be why there is no serious consideration that these critiques may have any merit.

Conclusion

While aspects of this volume may be helpful to the reader their argument for the wholesale and uncritical acceptance of all megachurches is both unfounded and dangerously misleading. The lack of discernment and lack of biblical scholarship demonstrated by this work is a disservice to both the reader and the megachurch movement itself.