Tim Keller: Megachurches are “Poor Places for Formation” & Have “Addictive Dependence” on Founders

Por Julie Roys
Tim Keller cancer diagnosis progress
Tim Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. (Photo via Facebook)

Megachurches “are poor places for formation and pastoral care” and tend toward “addictive dependence” on their founders.

So said author and pastor Timothy Keller in a Facebook post today, explaining why the church he founded—Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City—decided to split into three congregations when Keller retired four years ago.

“Megachurches have some design deficits,” said Keller. “In general, they are poor places for formation and pastoral care due to their size. In our current cultural moment that is a deadly problem because Christians are being more formed by social media than local Christian community. We need thick communities and the size of our churches factor into that.”

Keller also noted that megachurches “tend to grow fast under a founder” and “depend too much on the gifts and personality” of the founder. “(T)he sooner that addictive dependence is broken, the better,” he said.

In 1989, Keller planted Redeemer with 50 people. By 2008, the church had grown to a total weekly attendance of more than 5,000.

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Rather than hand the megachurch off to one pastor when Keller retired in 2017, the church formed three congregations with three different pastors. Redeemer has since grown two more congregations and added two more pastors for a total of five.

In his post, Keller wrote that founders tend to “see the church as their persona possession—and an extension of their personality and self-image. (T)hey often never want to leave, nor do they know how to well.”

He added, “It is good to leave sooner rather than later as a spiritual discipline.”

Keller also noted that megachurches rarely thrive under a single successor.

“That person is always excessively and sometimes harshly compared in every way to the founder,” he wrote. “It’s lose-lose for them and the movement.”

At Redeemer, whose congregation is largely made up of single adults and is more than 40% Asian American, another advantage of having multiple pastors was diversity.

“Because I was able to hand off Redeemer to a more diverse group of leaders-instead of one white American, Redeemer has now been led by Sr Pastors who were Chinese, Korean, British, and Nagamese/Lebanese,” Keller wrote. “All, though solidly united on Reformed theology, bring their distinct-enriching cultural perspectives, experiences, and wisdom.”

Keller also noted that megachurches draw people from great distances who can’t participate in the life of the church. But smaller congregations are often forced to rely on “a greater percentage of lay persons’ gifts & talents” who can “take part in community building.”

“Cities and regions can benefit from the unique resources of a megachurch (eg counseling centers, seminaries). But in general, the area—and the Christians—will benefit more from 10 churches of 400 scattered throughout the city, rather than one church of 4,000 in the middle of it.”

Keller, who’s best-selling books include The Reason for God in an Age of Skepticism y The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2020. However, last December, his wife tweeted that he was making “remarkable improvement.”

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24 pensamientos sobre “Tim Keller: Megachurches are “Poor Places for Formation” & Have “Addictive Dependence” on Founders”

  1. cynthia wright

    “Keller also noted that megachurches draw people from great distances who can’t participate in the life of the church.”

    Huh, I didn’t know that. Very interesting discussion.

      1. cynthia wright

        Yes, but that might not be the whole story. Attendees may be driving past many churches in order to reach the one that’s trendy. In my area, there are plenty of small churches in addition to the giant ones like Elevation.

  2. mandril gordon

    I believe Tim Keller is telling what many of us have known for years, many large mega churches are toxic. They money machines that take a lot to keep going. Satellite campuses miles away or even countries away. I also noticed that many of those pastors stay away from any topic that could cost them members.

    1. Marcos Gunderson

      It’s complicated, with cause and effect flowing both ways. Ambitious (narcissistic) pastors are going to be drawn to the larger more powerful positions. But power also corrupts those who didn’t have that goal.

      And I can say that small churches are wonderful until you have a particular need. Maybe your church doesn’t have a grief group, or connections to qualified counseling. Your small church may be 80% homeschool families and you’re a public school teacher or, like me, a single parent.

      I’m anti-megachurch in general but they do have resources that reach much further than the little 120-attendance Baptist church. Kind of like how what Wal Mart does to small businesses is evil unless you’re a disabled person looking for a job.

      1. True Mark.

        Tim Keller certainly had an interesting comment,which I will quote from:

        “4th, because often the founder comes to see the church as their personal possession-and an extension of their personality and self-image, they often never want to leave, nor do they know how to well. It is good to leave sooner rather than later as a spiritual discipline.”—Tim Keller

        The whole article was good, and I was brought back to it because this is more of a common occurrence than probably realized.

        While I can think of recent examples from IFB’s It really reminded me also of a large California Methodist Church that I attended decades ago.

        Its minister was very successful in attracting people and knew it, it shows that not only fundamentalist pastors can be full of themseves but so can Methodist ministers The Methodist Church. No doubt knew that this pulpiteer enjoyed the attention he was getting from the congregation but also knew that it was unhealthy for the church to have the attention focused on the sermon-giver rather then on the Church. This minister was very unhappy with the ideaAnd tried to get people to follow them over to the church he was going to that was 30 or 40 miles away!

        The Methodist Church at the time at least had the power to transfer ministers who were getting full of themselves. It was certainly beneficial to the Church.

  3. His mega church ideas are ok, but I wouldn’t trust anything he says. He says some very deceptive and manipulative things.

  4. eric rasmusen

    This is very strange. Doesn’t Pastor Keller realize that everyone who reads this will immediately think, “Then why did you pastor a megachurch for many many years and it could only break up when you retired?” Does he think a giant church with a celebrity pastor is a megachurch only if the pastor’s name doesn’t start with K?

    1. jennifer eison

      What is the definition of a megachurch? Is it a specific number of members? A sufficiently large budget? I realize Tim Keller’s church was quite large but didn’t think it qualified as a “mega”.

      1. cynthia wright

        “The Hartford Institute for Religion Research defines a megachurch as a Protestant congregation that has an average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more members in its worship services.”

        1. jennifer eison

          Thank you Cynthia Wright. That’s interesting, I never thought of Redeemer as a megachurch but apparently it is/was. Maybe because it’s in such a large city and in my mind sort of seemed to scale, I didn’t class it with the other megas I’ve heard of.

          1. cynthia wright

            You’re welcome. I didn’t know the “official” definition, either, until I looked it up.

        2. Sounds too conservative; I’d say it is a church where the elders/deacons/board members are not personally known by the clear majority of the church. Say, 400 is the max for this.

          1. cynthia wright

            That’s an interesting way to look at it.

            “What’s the best size for a church congregation?” is a different question from, “How is a ‘megachurch’ defined?”

    2. As a person who attended Redeemer from its early years, and still does today, pastor Keller always stated that Redeemer was not going to be a megachurch. It was planned very intentionally that the church would plant churches throughout the city. This is why they had several pastors on rotation every Sunday as the church grew. The church becoming 3 separate churches was underway long before his official retirement.

  5. mandril gordon

    Hi Eric,, what you said was true but maybe after a time of reflection he realized that he could have done better. He did make suggestions that were listened too. .

  6. Mark Schaefer

    I would say that this is typical authoritarian mentality. Keller has a lot of good things to say, but it’s wrapped in a culture of narcissistic authority. It’s not surprising to me that someone who has bought into the authoritarian teaching of NAPARC would first get caught up in the warmth of having 5000 adoring patrons each week doting on his wisdom, and then when he’s ready to pass the mantle realize that anyone who would pick up his mantle wants it because of the adoration.

    1. Loren Martín

      I can’t see into Keller’s heart, but going from 50 to 5000 people in 11 years doesn’t make him a narcissist. Maybe he should have capped his services at 400 and told everyone else to go away.

  7. greg brennemann

    I agree 100% with Tim Keller’s thoughts in this article. The biblical model of church growth is church planting, which his former church has done. I know of a couple large churches in major cities where I live that moved away from pursuing one giant church, and have planted churches, who themselves have planted churches. This has created impact in their communities way beyond what one big church could have done, and offering much more personal care and attention. These plants are not necessarily small, they may be 500 – 1000, but are very effective in their respective communities.

    – Greg

  8. Marin Heiskell

    I have been a part of small churches that were like an extension of my family, yet serving in ministry with so few available hands made it feel like a job. I could not finish praise and worship, hear the full sermon, or take communion with the rest of the body because I was busy serving (“This is the last worship song, get the youth choir lined up!”). I was also in need of a singles ministry that was lacking due to size. And so a “mega church” was a nice place of refreshing for me – to be served and join active ministries that smaller churches did not have the people or budget to support.
    I appreciated what both experiences brought to my walk with Christ. So I hate to see these sweeping generalizations of all churches over 2000 members. I don’t think the sin is in the size. It’s in the heart of the church, and as the sayings go, “attitude reflects leadership” and “the fish rots from the head.” Let’s lay this sin at the feet of where it belongs: the leaders who have let pride steer them away from a calling.

  9. Sue Hendershot

    I always feel so sad when men of God write such divisive articles. And make such sweeping and definitive statements. Maybe this happens in some mega churches but certainly not in all mega churches. We were surprised that in our early 60’s God called us to serve Him and people in a mega church. How do you make a large church feel small? We had not idea but we very soon found out. Our church had none of the issues Rev Keller spoke about. I always think about that God is looking at the heart where we, including pastors, tend to look at the outward appearance. Go to the place of worship God calls you to go.

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