Yep, he did it. Just when I thought Skye was finished with his thoughts on this subject and it was safe to refer you to it, he snuck in another one. So, for those of you who were interested in what he wrote, he's part 3 (the one HE CLAIMS is the last). Skye, if you are reading this, I'm a big fan! Write as many posts as you want! For my other friends, give this some thought:
In part 1 of this article I explored the emergence of megachurches and the parallel with the transformation of the passenger shipping industry from liners to cruise ships in the late 20th century.
In part 2 we saw how the desire for relevance has led both cruise lines and churches to lose sight of their unique value proposition. They have tried to compete in areas they can never win, while abandoning the one thing their competition can never provide.
In this final installment I outline the unintended side effects of both mega ships and megachurches, and how they appear more stable then they really are.
Earlier we saw how the desire to compete with land resorts fueled the construction of larger ships with more land-like features. Relevance was not the only motivation for building larger ships, however, they also created operational efficiencies. Putting 4,000 passengers on one ship is much more cost effective than putting the same number of passengers on four ships. Just as it costs less to take a bus than a taxi because the costs of the driver, fuel, maintenance, and tolls are spread across more passengers, so larger ships also benefit from an economy of scale.
In the cruise business a ship’s price is often calculated as the “cost per berth,” or the total cost of the ship divided by the number of passengers it carries. The Seabourn Quest, with only 450 passengers, cost $540,000 per berth to build. The world’s largest cruise ship, Allure of the Seas, with ten times as many passengers has a per berth cost less than half that of the Seabourn Quest. This is why cruise lines have come to believe bigger is better.
But is it?
While large ships are unquestionably more economically efficient there are costly tradeoffs. One of the advantages cruise ships have over land resorts is mobility. If a hurricane hits the Caribbean, hotels there may lose an entire season of revenue. Cruise ships, however, can relocate to Bermuda, Mexico, or South America. Similarly, a recession in the United States may lead a line to move ships to Asia or Europe where the economy is stronger. In other words, ships are nimble; they can react quickly to market changes and adjust.
Big ships, however, are much less nimble than smaller ones. The Allure of the Seas, for example, is too large to transit the Panama Canal, and therefore it’s area of deployment is limited to warm weather areas of the Atlantic. Similarly, it’s massive size means it cannot call at smaller ports or serve smaller emerging markets. It’s size makes the ship efficient as long as market conditions remain stable. Large ships trade flexibility for efficiency.
The same is true for megachurches. One example occurred in 2005 when Christmas fell on a Sunday. Large churches across the country announced they would not have Sunday worship services on Christmas Day while most smaller churches remained opened. One megachurch admitted, “Organizing services on Christmas Sunday would not be the most effective use of staff and volunteer resources.” The church spokesperson said each service requires 90 staff and up to 700 volunteers. Factoring the cost of lighting and heating the huge facility, the cost of opening on Christmas Sunday would not be offset by the smaller attendance and offering collected. In this case being big was a limitation to ministry rather than an advantage.
If megachurches cannot flex for a predictable anomaly, like Christmas falling on a Sunday, how will they adjust to more dramatic market changes? What happens when a generation values cities more than suburbs (where most megachurch are located)? Or when young adults prefer to buy smart phones rather than cars (which most megachurches are predicated upon)? Or when confidence in large institutions plummets in favor of smaller organizations? Building a megachurch may appear efficient today, but church leaders are making a mega gamble that market conditions will remain favorable for decades to come.
Megachurches, like huge ships, project an appearance of stability and security, but it is precisely these qualities that make them vulnerable to disaster. The Titanic was called “unsinkable” because of her unprecedented size, but it was her size that made her unable to turn quickly enough to avoid the iceberg. Similarly, many church commentators continue to affirm the growth and stability of megachurches without recognizing the inherent vulnerability of these ecclesiastical Titanics that are far less nimble than small churches.
Not everyone is naive. Over the last 15 years more megachurch leaders have come to acknowledge the risks–particularly their inflexibility. They have tried to overcome this by pursing a multisite model that franchises the reach of a megachurch beyond it’s immediate 30-minute drive radius by launching multiple smaller congregations in different communities. This allows a church to engage emerging markets, adjust to changing conditions, and spread the costs and risks across a larger number of people. The multisite model appears to be a perfect solution. It incorporates the efficiencies of a megachurch with the flexibility of small churches.
However, most of these multisite megachurches still remain vulnerable to the Captain Schettino problem. Francesco Schettino was the master of the Costa Concordia who took over 4,000 passengers and crew off course to do a “fly by” of the Italian island of Giglio in January 2012. The ship struck a rock, capsized, and 32 people died. Schettino is facing trial for negligence, abandoning his ship, and manslaughter. Five other officers have already been convicted. Financial loses from the accident are estimated at over $2 billion, the worst in maritime history.
While putting 4,000 people onto one cruise ship under the command of one captain is very efficient, if the captain is a Schettino all you’ve done is ensure an efficient disaster. As vessels get larger they are required to have redundant safety features, but the growth in size simultaneously exacerbates whatever human failures may occur.
Multisite churches try to limit risk and expand their missions by decentralizing many of their functions. Most of these churches, however, are still driven by a central personality–a “captain” who serves as the lead pastor, preacher, and CEO of the ministry. Video and digital simulcasting allow a single person to speak at dozens of multisite campuses, and in some cases holographic technology provides an illusion of incarnation (a big hit with Gnositcs). In many cases these leaders are mature, godly pastors, but what happens when the pastor is a Schettino who takes his congregation of thousands on a joy ride to destruction?
Sadly we have seen too many stories of megachurches led by Schettinos who view their ministries as personal kingdoms to rule over and exploit. There is something amiss when the mission of an entire church, and the wellbeing of thousands of Christ’s people, are entrusted to a single person with little or no accountability. Yet this is the case in many megachurches that lack denominational oversight or sufficient internal checks and balances. Don’t assume this is a case against all megachurches, just as all cruise ships are not destined to end up like the Costa Concordia. Instead, we simply need to acknowledge the incredible responsibility pastors of megachurches carry and the inherent risk of placing so much power in the hands of one talented, but possibly immature, leader.
I do not believe megachurches should be abandoned, nor do I believe they are going to disappear as the religious landscape of America changes. There are challenges ahead, however, for the megachurch movement and for the smaller churches that seek to emulate its values. Our skill in navigating these waters will depend on our ability to understand why megachurches emerged, what makes them successful, and the inherent weaknesses they often disguise as strengths.