Unintended Consequences of the Mega Church Movement

There was an article that appeared in my local newspaper yesterday (Oct.7th, 2012) about an activist group moving forward with a plan to take away housing allowances for pastors. (Here is a link to that article.) The group is arguing that the housing allowance is unconstitutional because it favors ministers over other not-for-profit leaders. They also argue giving pastors this particular tax break violates the separation of church and state. To be honest, I think they make a good argument. I don’t agree with it, but I think their case could be strong and at some point in the future the housing allowance pastors like myself enjoy could disappear. I also think in the not so distant future churches will lose all their tax breaks and giving to churches (and other religious based non-profits) will no longer be tax deductible. It just seems to be the direction our country is moving. I am preparing for the church/state relationship in this country to mirror the church/state relationship of most of Europe. A big part of me will be ok with the changes because then following Christ will be countercultural instead of cultural and that is the way Christianity was intended to be.

Yesterday’s article got me thinking about a host of changes I have seen in the church world over the last 25 years. I think a lot of the changes, especially changes in attitudes toward churches by the unchurched, is indirectly a result of the mega church movement across the U.S. Please understand, I am not being critical of mega churches. There are good and bad churches of all sizes. I love all churches of all sizes. I have a lot of friends who pastor mega churches and they are all gifted leaders and people of integrity. Furthermore, the mega churches I know are doing incredible work for the kingdom. However, I do think some of the unintended consequences of the mega church movement need to be discussed because these consequences affect smaller churches, like the one I pastor, like 75% of all churches in the U.S. I think most mega church pastors are aware of these unintended consequences and are doing all they can to rectify the problem. I don’t think most people who attend church (both mega and small) are aware of these consequences. And neither are the unchurched. That is why I think these unintended consequences need to be discussed.

Here are just a few of the unintended consequences of the mega church movement I have witnessed:

First is a division within the body of Christ. I have seen this firsthand. There are smaller church pastors and members who are critical of all larger churches, believing the only reason they are large is because they have compromised the gospel. This in spite of evidence to the contrary. Most mega churches are extremely conservative theologically. On the other hand, the attitude of the larger churches is that if you are small than you are insignificant.  “If you are not growing you are dying” seems to be the attitude. Another attitude is, “If the small church is healthy it will grow. Thus, if a small church is not growing it must not be unhealthy.” Obviously, “growth” is defined by numbers. Again, not all large churches feel this way but there are plenty that do. (These attitudes come more from the membership than the pastors. Most mega church pastors I know recognize the importance and role of the smaller church in the kingdom of God.) The enemy has used the mega church movement to divide Christians in an attempt to conquer Christianity. On a lot of levels his plan seems to be working.

A second unintended consequence is less assistance available for the smaller church. When I first entered pastoral ministry any time the church needed something – painting, heating & air service, yard cut, small repairs, legal advice, etc…people in the community would be more than happy to help, usually for free but at the very least a good discount. This does not happen as much anymore. Also, in the past, local authorities would work with the church on issues concerning “codes,” but now they often hold churches to a higher standard than other businesses.  Why you ask? Because businesses and government now look at churches as commercial businesses and think to themselves, “Why should I give a church a break when they have more money than I do?” No matter how much ministry a large church does, the unchurched view them as “big business” with lots of money. As a result, small churches with very little resources do not get the help they once did. Small churches are held to the same standard as large churches and since many large churches are run like a business, smaller churches are expected to be the same.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Did you know that churches pay property tax on grounds they own that do not have buildings or parking lots or ball fields on them? I got our church’s property tax bill in the mail last week. We own 14 acres that we hope to build on one day. Until we do, we pay approximately $5,000 a year in property tax. For a mega church, that is not a whole lot of money. But for a church like ours, $5,000 is a significant amount of money. As the pastor of a small church with limited resources, it pains me to know I will have to take money away from ministry to pay these taxes.

The extra expenses that smaller churches now accrue is one of the reason more and more small churches are closing their doors. One of the unintended consequences of mega churches that has been widely studied and written about is how they put smaller churches out of business in the same way Walmart puts mom-and-pop businesses out of business. Mega churches do not do this on purpose, that is why it is called unintentional.

Another unintended consequence is people’s attitude toward pastors in general. I am a bi-vocational pastor. In addition to pastoring, I teach at a local community college. When my students find out I am a pastor, they almost always think I am wealthy. Sometimes they ask me how much I make as a pastor. They automatically put me in the same category as a Joel Olsteen or some other televangelist they have seen or heard. I have had them ask me if I own my own plane, or how many cars I drive, or how big my house is. Many of them view all pastors as con-men who cannot be trusted. Twenty-five years ago people respected you because you were a minister. That is not the case any more because many unchurched people think all pastors work for mega churches and make mega bucks. My students are surprised when I tell them what the average pastor makes and how the average pastor lives.

In addition to teaching and pastoring, I also earn a little money writing books, articles, and curriculum. I easily work 6-7 days a week and put in 60+ hours of work each week. I am on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I barely make enough to cover all my bills. I am not rich and I do not have a large retirement planned. I am not complaining. I would not trade places with anyone I know. God has been faithful to me and I absolutely love what I do and would do it for free if I could. I also pay taxes and social security and I do take advantage of the housing allowance. By my estimate, on my already tight budget, if I were to lose my housing allowance deduction it would cost me an additional $3,000-5,000 per year. That’s in addition to the amount of taxes I already pay.

Most pastors are like me. Most pastors do not claim $70,000 in housing allowance, do not own more than 1 home, and are not “basketball teachers” claiming to be ministers as the article mentioned. Most pastors are not wealthy, have no desire to be wealthy, and have given their lives to serving other people at huge personal expense. It is difficult to pastor any church of any size and it has gotten more difficult over the last 20-plus years. A partial reason for the difficulties are the unintended consequences of the mega church movement. That’s not a criticism of the mega church. It’s just a fact.

What do you think?

Should pastors lose their housing allowance?

(NOTE: I mentioned Joel Olsteen and the article mentions Rick Warren. I believe it is important to point out that pastors like Joel Olsteen and Rick Warren receive zero salary from their churches. Their money comes from royalties and speaking engagements.)

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