Read an Excerpt
What I s Church?
...God's household, which is the
church of the living God, the pillar
and foundation of the truth.
1 TIMOTHY 3: 15
While at home one evening in Colorado, I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a member of the pastoral search committee for Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. After a few years with a para-church ministry, I had been praying about returning to the pastorate--it's both my calling and my passion--but I felt unsure about God's timing. After a brief conversation, I agreed to look over some material that he promised to send, then chat further about possible interest.
In a few days I found myself looking at a sixty-page, professionally printed book that covered everything you'd ever want to know about a church. While I had been aware of Calvary Church and its ministry for several years, this book filled in some gaps in my knowledge. After reading the book, for reasons both personal and pastoral, I wasn't too sure I was their guy. One phrase in particular stuck out: "We are a megachurch." I had to talk about that. You see, I believe the megachurch model cannot help but build competition, pride, and arrogance. Such pride grows both internally (within the church) and externally (toward other churches). It can show up internally between various ministries vying for volunteers and limited budgetary dollars. Even the media often describe a church by stating its attendance or membership figures, often implying that the validity of what a ministry says or does comes in direct proportion to its size or rate of growth. While those who have adopted the megachurch model have intended none of this, it almost can't help but take place. Ultimately, the model hurts people. I agree with author Stephen Macchia, who writes, "We are convinced that when we set up models for churches to follow, they are doomed to fail or at best be successful for a short time. It's time we move away from trying to be carbon copies of our superheroes (and their respective churches)."
Over the next couple of phone conversations and later in a face-to-face interview, I explained to the good folks from Calvary that I believed the "megachurch" as defined by the church-growth movement to be a harmful concept, too often filled with ego, pride, and programs. While it was launched with good intentions and pure hearts, the model's inherent flaws made me consider it just another dead horse trying to be ridden.
I watched the eyes of my interviewers, looking for a sign that I would be written off as some kind of radical nut who clearly had no clue what it took to pastor a large church. But instead, I began to hear the real story of Calvary--this time not via the details, facts, figures, and numbers of the book, but from the heart of God's hurting and broken people.
Watch the Foundation!
Calvary Church was founded in May 1939 and enjoyed steady growth over the years. Then, in the early 1970s and on into the 1980s, things exploded. Growth skyrocketed, and Calvary Church became "the place to be" in Charlotte. At the same time, it became the place to criticize in both secular and sacred circles (i.e., "they must be doing something wrong if it's growing that fast").
Calvary Church set the pace for the churches of the city with a list of "firsts" a mile long. It was the largest with the biggest programs, most ministries, and so on. Strong, biblical preaching and stirring evangelistic messages enabled all of this to come about.
"From 1973 to 1980 was a time when many people came to Christ or recommitted their lives to Christ," recalls a long-time elder at Calvary. "Our pastor's preaching filled a vacuum of soul dissatisfaction, both within and outside of the church in Charlotte. Leadership did not seek growth for growth's sake. We really were in a reactionary mode rather than a proactive mode. Our focus was containment of rapid growth. As a result, we focused on programs more than people. We did typical church things and used typical church measures such as dollars, numbers, and programs to judge effectiveness. The intentions were good; the measures were wrong, which led to wrong methods to achieve them. At the same time, self-absorption in the success of the church did lead to a certain pride and arrogance. Good intentions do not necessarily guarantee godly results." In the midst of tremendous excitement, the church made a decision to relocate and build a major campus. Enthusiasm ran high . . . but soon tensions ran even higher. The relocation and building project took more than four years, ballooning in cost to more than thirty-nine million dollars. Hurting and disillusioned people began to seep away from the church. The local newspaper, wrongly supposing it had another "PTL" fiasco on its hands, had a field day, and the church began to lose much of its credibility and effectiveness. While the core of the church remained intact, the broader congregation began to struggle. Individualistic perspectives explaining the church's dilemma multiplied beyond counting. After I arrived, some folks took it upon themselves to send me lengthy letters filled with years of complaints and questions. Someone sent me a library full of every article written about Calvary in the local paper. A flood of unsigned notes of "helpful information" also poured onto my desk. If any of these folks saw me as some sort of ecclesiastical savior, they would soon learn they were dead wrong. From my perspective, most had missed the point. Few seemed to be asking why the house was starting to come down.
Remember the parable Jesus told about two houses that had been built on differing foundations? One builder chose sand, the other rock. From the outside, both houses looked sound. Both builders used quality materials. They both employed reputable contractors, excellent carpenters, choice wood, and so forth. Both wanted to build the best homes possible. The difference in their respective facilities could be traced to their dissimilar foundations. When a fierce storm hit both structures, only the house built on rock withstood the howling winds and driving rain. The other fell flat.