The First-Century Megachurch?

In the comment thread of Ed Stetzer’s recent post introducing a series on megachurches, I wrote:

“I would argue that megachurches are intrinsically unhealthy because of the exorbitant building costs, reliance on attractional church programs, and the fact that your pastor doesn’t know your name.”

A couple of Ed’s readers responded to my comment with,

“I guess I’m not into questioning the idea of megachurches till one get’s larger than the church in first century Jerusalem. I don’t think James knew the thousands of parishioners in that church by name.”

and

“Didn’t the church begin as a mega-church? ie Jerusalem and 3000 were saved in one day.”

It never really occurred to me that there were Christians who believed that the first century church looked even remotely like church as it’s known in America today. I can’t imagine that early believers organized themselves congregationally, or that what they did/could (in any way, shape, or form) be compared to a modern megachurch.

This is a classic example of bringing American Christian presuppositions to the scriptures. The commenters on Ed’s blog didn’t say this, but let’s apply the thinking; the elders (“pillars,” Galatians 2:9) were staff members, the church met all together in one place, the pastor preached a sermon.

Scripture doesn’t paint this picture of the early church. According to the book of Acts (2:42-47), the first Christians were Jews. They participated in the Temple, they observed Jewish traditions. Their Christianity was expressed through learning, sharing, eating, praying/fasting, praising God and meeting needs. The Lord added thousands to their number. Maybe it’s my postmodern distrust in all things institutional. Maybe it’s my time on the mission field, away from established traditional churches. Whatever the reason, I don’t see this as a megachurch.

Why would we assume that “praising God” means that the believers met in one place for a time of guided “praise and worship?” Why would we think that early church leaders were pastors in any sense of the word as it’s used today (seminary-trained, full-time, executive preachers)? What would lead us to assume that the “Jerusalem Church” was a local church and not a unified citywideĀ  movement? Why would we think that a felowshipping network of believers could be safely “translated” into something compartmentalized, attractional, branded, and programmatic? Can we not see that applying corporate and commercial principals to church actually change what it means to be the church?

Our inability to conceptualize church outside the formal, building-and-staff centered model may be one reason for the relative ineffectiveness of American missionaries planting churches on the mission field. In the short run, we can reproduce First Baptist Church by re-wiring people to think in modern, rational, and propositional term. We can build (rent/borrow/receive as gifts) buildings, set up rows of chairs all facing the pulpit, and teach people to sing in order to worship, but the popular American model for church simply isn’t sustainable, even in America.

So what might a more biblical and missional church look like? Stay tuned for my next post: Mom-and-Pop Church.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.