Megachurch Wal-Mart Effect

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I came across an interesting observation in a book I am reading for one of my classes. In the book Shepherd Leader, author Timothy Witmer points out what he calls the “Wal-mart effect” among megachurches.

The truth of the matter is that much of the growth of megachurches is drawn from smaller churches in the region. This is what I call the Wal-Mart effect. What happens when a Wal-Mart moves to town? Many small “mom and pop” businesses are forced to close because they can’t compete with the prices, variety, and “one-stop shopping” of Wal-Mart. Likewise, small churches are depleted by large churches because the large churches provide “one-stop shopping” with ministries of every variety for everyone in the family. Sometimes the “prices” are cheaper, too. Not in the sense that a “tithe” is any less but that the anonymity of a larger church may not require the same level of commitment that smaller churches must have in order to function effectively. How many new members in your church are joining by profession of faith? How many are coming from other churches? These are important questions to consider.

The sheep shuffle from church to church, otherwise known as “church hopping.” There is no doubt that there is a consumer mentality among many Christians whose primary question about a church is not, “Is this a good place for me to serve and where I can grow as a believer?” but rather, “Will this church meet my needs?” If you are on the receiving end of these new members you rejoice and consider it to be church growth and God’s blessing. If you are on the losing end, you can easily become cynical and accuse other churches of “sheep stealing.”1

While Witmer’s observations may seem obvious to some extent from outside of the megachurch, the perspective from within may be much more positive. I have friends that have had great experiences attending and serving in megachurches. I may even join one myself some day…who knows. One point about the church hoping phenomenon is that it is not limited to megachurches.

Witmer adds a positive note on the next page.

To be honest, one of the reasons that Wal-Mart continues to grow is that they not only provide good prices but customer service as well. There is someone there to greet you, guide you, and answer your questions.2

What do you think about the Wal-mart effect?

  1. Witmer, Timothy Z. (2010-02-04). Shepherd Leader (p. 180). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid. 181.
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tagged as , , , , in Church Issues,Culture,theology

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jason March 20, 2012 at 10:49 am

I am in my second pastorate and both so far have included dealing with this experience, though on a smaller scale. Both churches have been very traditional are made up of 85-90% senior adults. Though we currently have some young families, most in our community go to other churches that have bigger, newer facilities and are more modern in their worship style. Naturally, they have larger congregations and more income, thus more means to do what they do. I am often more frustrated than not because of the mentality that so many have–“let’s go to this church because they have ______ and ______…” Whether or not people are growing in Christ I have no way of knowing, but I do know that I get incredibly discouraged by it.

As far as megachurches, I can see both sides. On the one hand they do a lot of good because they are able to reach a lot of people. On the other, many are like a vortex that sucks in people from miles away. Those, rather than worshiping and serving where they live, drive miles and miles to some other place to a community where they only know who attends that church, and then it’s usually only a handful (comparatively) in their own little circle within the church.

I think the ultimate draw from most in these situations is what you quoted from Witmer above: “Will this church meet my needs?” That’s what it’s all about for many, maybe most. I won’t lie–I could fall right into place in a contemporary “hipster” church (so long as the preaching is sound and ministry is the consequence), but I can’t help but feel discouragement and some bitterness when people flock to the latest up and coming church. I guess it’s always going to be that way.

2 Chris Roberts March 20, 2012 at 10:52 am

Aggravating, that’s what I think about it. We have seen many, many people leave for the larger churches over the years, several doing so since I came to pastor this church.

3 Mike Woodward March 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

I have seen the effect from both sides and to be honest, I am struggling with cynicism at this moment. I also struggle with my own culpability in the effect, because twenty years ago our family left a small SBC church for a SBC regional megachurch. This church had a strong passion for sharing Christ. We saw many come to Christ, but yes, we saw many “church hoppers” just like us.

After a decade and a half, we left and became part of the leadership team of a small non-denom when we moved farther away from the mega.

My concept of church life has changed dramatically. I REALLY believe all of the metaphors we use for church, i.e. community, family of God, brothers and sisters. I believe when you join a church it means something more akin to marriage than just joining an organization. I believe that just as you would fight for your marriage if bad times ensued, you should fight for your church relationships when trials come.

I was a late bloomer (mid-40s) when it comes to this kind of idealism. Now after five years of ministry at the small church, watching people I love leave, many for larger ministries with great programs, I wonder if this idealism isn’t too idealistic. I wonder if I am a type of Bono singing “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”

4 Michael Buratovich March 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm

The “Wal-Mart” Syndrome is simply symptomatic of American consumerism invading the church. The Spirit of the World has replaced what our view of the church should be. Instead of a place to serve, and be “examples to the flock,” the church has become a place to take and take and take. What we receive from the church is an overflow of what we give. Instead we have made the church an institution that rewards and countenances selfishness. We need to re-visit ecclesiology and preach the theology of the church with renewed vigor.

5 Bruce H. March 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm

My wife and I have children. The balance we seek (need) is the right preaching of the word, conservative standards (by today’s comparisons) and a youth ministry that is spiritually proactive and focuses on discipleship rather than entertainment. The church is not in the business of attracting the world, we are to be making disciples and bringing them in. That is the difference we would be seeking in a larger church. The mega church philosophy seems to be everything you said including entertainment. We must be ready to allow the members of the church to walk away if that is what they are seeking. The only way we can do that is to be committed to poverty, if necessary, and “owe no man anything but to lover one another”

Great post.

6 Peter L March 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm

My problem with mega churches are those that have three or four different services going on at the same time. Like traditional hymns? Go to room 1. Repetitive 7-11 Choruses? Room 2. Rock music so loud you’ll need ear plugs? Room 3. And so on. You can attend the same church as your neighbor yet never have fellowship or realize they are there as well.

And I have a problem with the article:
“To be honest, one of the reasons that Wal-Mart continues to grow is that they not only provide good prices but customer service as well. There is someone there to greet you, guide you, and answer your questions.”

He obviously does not go to the same Wal-Mart I go to.

7 Moyo March 21, 2012 at 2:02 pm

This is an interesting thought on the mega churches, but I wonder is it possible to know the state of the heart of their pastors? The shepherds may have the right heart, but ultimately the people make the church.

Jesus fed 5000 men, given today’s stats of 3 times as many women and children than men, there were probably about 15000 people present. Is it safe to say that “Jesus pastored a mega church”. I’m just saying…

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