American evangelicals love megachurches. Today, there are about 1,750 megachurches in the U.S. and 65% of them are evangelical in their theology. But are these megachurches truly helping the evangelical movement—or are they destroying it?
In this edition of The Roys Report, Julies continues a discussion of Jesus vs. Evangelicals with Dr. Constantine Campbell, author of the book by that name. And in this second part, Dr. Campbell offers a scathing, yet necessary critique of the modern megachurch movement.
Many see these huge megachurches—with big buildings, large congregations, and massive budgets—as success stories. But when evaluated by the standard of making mature disciples of Jesus Christ, these megachurches fall woefully short.
Dr. Campbell and Julie also look at evangelicalism’s so-called “lunatic fringe”—from prosperity preachers to proponents of Christian nationalism. At one point, these agenda-driven grifters would not have been accepted by the evangelical community. But increasingly, these leaders are becoming mainstream despite their heretical gospels.
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Dr. Constantine Campbell
JULIE ROYS, DR. CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL
JULIE ROYS 00:06
American evangelicals love mega churches. Today there are about 1750 mega churches in the United States, and 65% of them are evangelical in their theology. But are these mega churches truly helping the evangelical movement? Or, as my guest today suggests, are they destroying it?
Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And this is part two of my podcast on Jesus versus Evangelicals with Dr. Constantine Campbell, author of the book by that name. And if you miss part one, I encourage you to go back and listen to that now. In it we discussed why so many things evangelicalism is known for today, like seeking political power and judging sinners, are the exact opposite of what Jesus modeled. And in part two, Dr. Campbell critiques the mega church movement. Many see these huge mega churches with big buildings, large congregations, and massive budgets as success stories, but using the metric of making disciples, these mega churches fall woefully short. We’ll also look at evangelicalism’s so called lunatic fringe, the prosperity preachers, and proponents of Christian nationalism that at one point would not have been accepted by the evangelical community. But increasingly, these leaders are going mainstream despite their heretical gospels.
We’ll get back to my interview with Dr. Campbell in just a minute. But first, I’d like to thank two sponsors of this podcast, Judson University and Marquardt of Barrington. Judson University is a top ranked Christian University providing a caring community and an excellent college experience. Plus the school offers more than 60 majors great leadership opportunities and strong financial aid. Judson University is shaping lives that shaped the world. For more information, just go to JUDSONU.EDU Also, if you’re looking for a quality new or used car, I highly recommend my friends at Marquardt of Barrington. Marquardt is a Buick GMC dealership where you can expect honesty, integrity, and transparency. That’s because the owners there Dan and Kurt Marquardt are men of integrity. To check them out, just go to BUYACAR123.com.
Well, again joining me to discuss evangelicalism, Jesus and mega churches is Dr. Constantine Campbell, a Professor and Associate Research Director at Sydney College of divinity in Sydney, Australia. We pick up our conversation with a topic that’s become a regular focus of our investigations at The Roys Report, American mega churches.
Chapter seven in your book addresses mega churches. And of course, this is where I have spent so much of the past several years. And you do cite a lot of the work that we’ve published and based on them and other data, you explain why these mega churches and you really don’t mince words. I mean, you really do say are destroying (that’s right) evangelicalism. And I’d like to just walk through some of the information that you present because I think it’s so powerful. Let’s start with who goes to a mega church. Willow Creek, which I went to Willow Creek many, many years ago. But they argued and this was one of the reasons I was excited about it was this whole unchurched Harry and Mary because no unbeliever would get saved in my church I grew up in. They might get saved through the believers that sit in the pews, through their personal relationships, but nobody would get saved through coming to church. I mean, it just, it didn’t happen, right? So, this idea of reaching the lost through this incredible whiz bang kind of service. I did see a boss of mine, who we invited came to church, but it was in the context of spiritual conversations we were having. And then he became a believer. And actually, we saw chain reaction, a whole bunch of people became believers through what God was doing with his little sales team, you know. But by and large is the research showing that that’s who’s coming to our mega churches primarily are unbelievers?
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 04:13
Yeah, I think part of the sort of profile of mega churches is that they’re extremely good at reaching unchurched people, but the statistics don’t really back that up. They’re slightly better than the average church, but you’re talking about 1% better. And the reality is that most mega churches, most of their numbers come from other churches. And that’s the anecdotal experience of many other pastors of small churches and many Christians that they just well as I put it, suck other churches dry and that’s part of the problem for them. So, I think if you remove that, well, they’re very good at reaching unchurched Harry. If you remove that because it’s not actually statistically true, then what are they good for?
JULIE ROYS 05:01
And that is the question.
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 05:04
Yeah. And unfortunately, really, I think that they are again, first I want to say there are many mega churches where the pastors are godly servants, and they stay out of the news, and they do love their people. And many people do experience growth within those churches and there are many positive ministries that mega churches are able to do that smaller churches that are not able to do. Willow Creek, for example, has ministry to incarcerated people and things like that. But I argue in the book that the model of the mega church is unhealthy both for attendees, but also for the pastors. And it’s really based around celebrity. And it’s based around consumerism. And it’s based around this false notion that bigger is better. And that showy, like showy worship music and dazzling lights., and theatrical performance, is what church should be about. I’m not against great music, I’m a professional musician. You know, I’m not against theatrical performance, I love going to the movies, and I love stage plays and that sort of stuff. And I’m also not opposed to those things having a role in church. But it seems to me that the whole mega church model puts confidence in those things, to do the heavy lifting. But if you read the New Testament, the heavy lifting is done by proclaiming the Word of God, by the power of the Spirit, and through loving one another.
And this is really important. In the book, I draw on Ephesians chapter four, where Paul talks about this model of the church where it’s building itself up in love. And it’s an idea of every member of the church working together, as a body of Christ grows in maturity. Not numerically necessarily, but in maturity and in faith. The consumerism of the mega church model is that you really don’t see that happening. You see a few people working very hard, the professionals, but the average person attends, you know, they pop along, they take in the show, maybe they have a coffee with someone afterwards, and then they go. That’s actually not good for them spiritually. Because the reason church is called a service, a church service is we’re meant to be serving one another. Not a church show. And unfortunately, so often, the megachurch model lends itself to a church show, rather than a church service.
JULIE ROYS 07:34
I heard somebody say this recently, where they saw so many people who had been serving in their small church, go to the mega church. And here are people that were active in their small church, when they go to the mega church, they become inactive. They watched the show. And I know we’ve experienced where, you know, we’re in a house church now. And like if you don’t, if each person doesn’t give something, it just doesn’t happen. Right. And so, I do think as making disciples, and as a vehicle for making disciples, the mega church seems to be failing miserably.
And you wrote something, and this just, it took my breath away, but I want to read this from your book. You say, if a clever wolf wanted to destroy GOD’s flock, the following four step strategy would do the trick. Step one, take the sheep away from the good shepherds, leading small churches and put them all under a bad shepherd in one big church. Step two, wait for the Good Shepherd small churches to close. Step three, let the bad Shepherd lead the flock astray through weak teaching and self-centered consumerism. Step four, let the bad Shepherd fall when his true nature becomes known. The result? All the good, small churches are gone. The good shepherds have left the ministry, their former flocks have become corrupted, and the big church Juggernaut is no longer able to function without its celebrity bad Shepherd. It would be a devastating strategy.
Sadly, I have seen that happen. I’ve seen it happen in the Chicago area. And you quote in your book, Paul Lundqvist, who is a former pastor and missionary who I’ve come to know just through his engagement with The Roys Report, and we published something that he wrote that was just so powerful, that he’s talking about how so many of the churches just dried up and died when Willow and Harvest, you know, came to town and everybody went to the bigger show, and now that they’ve imploded in many ways, people are left with this devastation. And I know for me, as I’ve gone searching for a church in the wake of scandals and things, what I find in the landscape is it’s absolutely sobering. I go from show to show to show. What is hard to find is a church that feels safe is a church where you will be loved for who you are, not what you can give to the church, to find one where people are really looking to minister to one another. And you don’t have to have some outstanding gift to be able to just serve and give. And I’ve been so grateful for the pockets of true church that I’ve experienced. But I know so many people out there, and for my kids, my heart just absolutely breaks for them. I think what is going to be left for them? What is left for them? You know, even now I see them struggling to find churches that they really connect with and how do we recover from what’s happening? And should there be some churches who I mean, it seems like they always wait for the major implosion right for the pastor to fall and for you know, the toxic system to be exposed. It would be so nice if churches would be able to say this isn’t unhealthy. Maybe instead of getting bigger. We need to divide and grow smaller.
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 11:15
Yeah, yeah. Well, in some ways, I’m so sorry that that paragraph resonated so strongly with you because it’s a very sad reality, isn’t it? I was lucky in I lived in the next-door suburb from where Willow Creek is, in Lake Zurich, which is next door to Barrington and I went to a church in Barrington called the Village Church of Barrington, an Evangelical Free Church, led by Dr. David Jones, and I love that church. And a big part of it was because of who he is. He’s a Trinity grad smart guy got his doctorate in ministry. Actually, I cite him number of times in the chapter about mega churches, because his study was on multi-site churches, and their negative effect on Christian growth and maturity. But here’s a man who, to my mind gets it. Like, he walks humbly with the Lord teaches the Scripture is very serious about teaching the Bible, but he’s also the kind of person that you can talk to and wants to know how you’re traveling and won’t judge you for when you’re failing. And we just need more people like that.
JULIE ROYS 12:30
And you know, his background?
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 12:31
Yeah, I do know, his background. He was at Harvest.
JULIE ROYS 12:34
And he used to write sermons for James McDonald. And I think probably having seen that has shaped him and ministering to so many Harvest refugees has shaped him.
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 12:50
Yeah, there’s so many Harvest refugees in that in that church, including some of the former elders from Harvest. So, they’re, in part, reacting strongly against the negative things that we’re talking about. But you see, it’s working, and you can’t just get rid of those negative things, you have to replace them with something. And I think, I think with David, you know, it’s like, if you under understand the scriptures, you understand that humility is a prerequisite for leadership. And you understand that love is a prerequisite, and that you understand that it’s by the power of the Spirit, in concert with the Word of God that grows churches, by honoring Christ as the center. If you’re not doing that, then negative things are gonna happen.
But the thing is, I think part of the problem with that whole culture is that to be perfectly honest, there’s such little theological formation, even for the pastors, that don’t know these things that I think are quite basic. They don’t even know that. And the churches don’t know that. So, the churches aren’t able to discern what’s going wrong. And neither are the leaders because they’re just operating on what is basically a worldly model of success, which is entertain people, create a consumerist situation, be flashy and showy, be funny, do all that use these strategies and methods. The apostle Paul says, you know, we issue those worldly methods. You know, he preaches Christ crucified and loves people. That’s basically his method for ministry, preach Christ and love people.
JULIE ROYS 14:32
And that is radical. There are so few places in the world where you are loved. (Yeah) If the church really loves well, I mean, that’s how the early church was known as a community that loved well, and that was radical, it will always be radical, because our world is not based on love and on giving to each other, (right). In your ministry or business, your reputation is your most valuable asset. But what do you do when you suspect misconduct? Hopefully, you do the opposite of many of the organizations I report on. Instead of covering up wrongdoing, you investigate it. And Accord Analytics can help. In just 72 hours, their team of experts can scour emails, call logs and other records to produce usable evidence. They also can analyze your organization to identify specific threats and to suggest best practices. For a free consultation go to ACCORDANALYTICS.COM.
I don’t want to close this conversation without talking about what you call the lunatic fringe, which thank you, yes, it is. I mean, you’re talking about folks like Paula White, Joyce Meyer, which I can’t believe how mainstream she’s become. Joel Osteen, TD Jakes. These are not evangelicals, and yet, as you know, they really have made it into the mainstream. And interestingly, my head’s been in the Hillsong documents that have come out, which are just I mean, there are so many stories that could be generated from those documents, but one is, I mean, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, I mean, TD Jakes is a mogulist. Prosperity gospel, so prevalent in Joyce Meyers teaching, they’ve learned Joel Osteen has learned and they’ve all learned how to kind of walk super close to the line, but not quite over it so that they can say they’re not a prosperity gospel person, you know, they just kind of lead you to the door and encourage you to step through it, but they don’t actually do it themselves, although some of them do. I mean, the, I think Paul White still very blatant, even if you go to her website, you know, do this and you’ll be blessed. And this is give me a lot of money. But these folks are promoting some false gospels. One I mentioned prosperity gospel, and you might want to touch on that briefly. But there’s some other gospels that are becoming more mainstream as well. So, would you talk about those and the threat that they pose to evangelicalism?
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 17:01
Yeah, so as you mentioned, the prosperity gospel, which is also so widespread and prevalent, and sounds so good to people because you know, who doesn’t want to prosper. But also talk about what I call the self-help gospel. And this is where I think Joel Osteen is probably the premier example, where he sort of dispenses coaching tips, life advice. And as I say, in that chapter, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. And the Bible is chock full of practical wisdom, like the book of Proverbs, for example. You know, if you do something stupid, something bad is gonna happen to you that sort of, you know, or if you’re wise, you know, things are gonna go better for you. And that sort of general, common-sense approach is biblical, and it’s good.
But it’s also not the whole story. And actually, if you take the Bible in its entirety, I believe the ultimate message is that we all exist for the glory of God in Jesus Christ. And that’s actually the ultimate purpose of our lives, the ultimate meaning. And sure, God may choose to bless us and with material wealth, or health or success, or not, and there are plenty of Christians for whom that has not been the case. But that’s actually not really the point; our happiness, or our prosperity, or our self-help. It’s not about us. And that’s the biggest danger I think, with both those false gospels, it’s not about us. It’s not meant to be about us. We’re built for worship, you know. It’s about Jesus, its meant to be about him not as our coach in the sky to make our lives better, but that we might live in a way that brings honor and glory to Him and let other people know about him.
So, the third false gospel I mentioned in that chapter is what I call the nationalism gospel, which just conflates or corrupts Christianity with nationalistic themes. And I go so far as to call it syncretism, where you’re just blending Christian and non-Christian elements and calling it Christianity. And I can imagine that for many Americans, that would be a little bit offensive. But I’m hoping as an outsider with some lived experience in the US and some knowledge that helping to uncover a blind spot there. And sometimes you need a neighbor to do that. Because by definition, you can’t see it yourself and I welcome the same correction for our context here in Australia. So, if someone wants to write Jesus, the Australian evangelicals, I wouldn’t be able to do that because they’re my blind spots, you know?
JULIE ROYS 19:38
Well, and I feel like my spiritual heritage has helped me so much because we were Anabaptist and came to America from Switzerland because they were burning us at the stake the other Protestants were. But Anabaptists had this radical idea that, you know, we should actually follow our conscience and people should be allowed to follow their conscience. But also, were very separate from the state, like even the idea of taking a state job, or serving in the military. I mean, we were called dunkers in Pennsylvania, because it was a duress of turn during World War Two because my dad’s family were all conscientious objectors. But it was just seeing that we were not part of the world. Now, I’m not saying I’m a pacifist, and I’m not saying that I hold to all those separatists doctrine, but it’s been helpful, it was so ingrained in me that we are not of this world that we should live counter culturally. And so, if we look a lot like the culture, it’s probably a sign (Yeah), that we’re off base.
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 20:42
Yeah, I think so the message of the New Testament and Jesus teaching is so upside down from the world’s values. I’m a fan for understanding culture and sort of fitting into a certain extent, and being relatable, like being a normal person, in the culture that we live in. But at the same time, our natural tendency is going to want to just not be countercultural, I think, for most of us, and that’s something that personally, you know, I need to watch and check my own ways of thinking to see whether I’m actually thinking in the way of Jesus or whether I’ve just bought the assumptions of the culture around me. But I think that’s got to be the first step, right? is at least asking the question, and being aware that I totally have that potential and tendency to just adopt the way people think around me, rather than critique it by scripture or critique it by the way of Jesus. I’m certainly would not claim to be perfect in any sense in that area. But I think the way forward has got to at least be well, let’s check ourselves. Right. Let’s see. Let’s see how we’re traveling in that way and be open to gentle correction.
JULIE ROYS 22:01
Well, and I will say true confessions as I was reading your book, there were parts of it that were very convicting.
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 22:07
Thank you for saying so. (Yeah) Me too.
JULIE ROYS 22:11
And that’s good. That’s good. I mean, even with a conversation I had with my daughter last night, you know, about my way of thinking and how I think it’s always right. Of course, as parents, we fall into that, but we have to continually be confessing pride and going back to humility, because we just that is our natural tendency. And with each success, it’s such a double-edged sword, because it’ll just often make you more proud.
But you come back, and I love where you land this book, I really, really do. You’re not rejecting Jesus, obviously, what you’re showing is that evangelicalism that I think, you know, what would Jesus say? He would come in and he would look at every single one of these symptoms that you’ve talked about and would go to the deeper illness, which is our pride, which is our desire for comfort, and ease and some of these things. And you really call us back to our first love. What would that look like if we were to return as evangelicals to our first love?
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 23:19
It’s the same thing that I feel like has happened in my own life and that needs to continue to happen, which is a profound sense of humility first. That Jesus does offer a different way from the way that I’m naturally sort of wired to think or to be or to relate to others, and that he critiques my way. And so, the first thing I think that a return to our first love has got to be is like, how am I failing to be like Jesus, you know, how am I failing to follow him? And there’s so many ways. I mean, let me tell you. I mean the book is a critique of American evangelicalism, but I could write 10 times the amount just critiquing me, trust me. But seriously, like, you can only really learn from Jesus if you’re open. And sometimes that will happen through a great personal tragedy will crack you open. Or maybe that will happen through something, someone says, or maybe, who knows.
But God uses these things, to make us open to humble us, and we need to be humble. And I do feel that if you are open and humble, then the rest is possible, because you can hear it, and you can take it on board, and you can correct where you need to be corrected. And again, this is why it’s the opposite of pride the most biblical sin because it makes you changeable and I think we need to be that way as individuals. But we need to be that way as the church, churches, our individual churches, but as a whole as well as sort of posture of humility that’s open to saying, you know what, maybe it was a mistake to throw all our support behind Donald Trump. You know, maybe it was a mistake to try to change the culture through political power. Maybe it’s a mistake to excessively punish some sins and let other sins go by. Maybe it’s a mistake the way we tend to treat divorced and remarried people, maybe it’s a mistake, etcetera, etcetera, just reassess. And honestly, I hope and pray that just that anyone who reads the book that it will, at a minimum have that effect that someone will be like, Okay, I just need to be open to rethinking my attitude about X, Y, or Z. And if it achieves that goal, then I’m really grateful.
JULIE ROYS 25:45
There are two pages from your book that I wish I could read the whole thing, but I know for the sake of time, I can’t. I will say this, get this book and read pages 207 and 208. I love how you right Faultline evangelicals celebrate an unhealthy church model the mega church that has adopted our cultural fascination with celebrity size, consumerism, and entertainment. Jesus “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”. Mark 10:43.
Again, we need to be soaked in Scripture because the Scripture confronts the way of our thinking and the way of our culture and the way of evangelicalism right now. But I thank you so much, Constantine, for writing this book, for your humble posture in doing so, and the love that comes through in your book because, again, love, humility, these are the hallmarks of followers of Jesus Christ. It was what made him so unique. And so, thank you, and thank you for this conversation.
- CONSTANTINE CAMPBELL 26:47
Well, thank you so much, Julie, that those words mean so much to me. And thank you for your time today. And thank you for your ministry, which I think is just so important for the health of the church going forward.
JULIE ROYS 26:58
Again, thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And if you’ve enjoyed today’s discussion, I think you’ll definitely enjoy Dr. Campbell’s book, Jesus Versus Evangelicals. And in April, if you give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report, we’ll send you a copy of that book. Plus, you’ll be helping support our ministry which is almost 100% grassroots funded. Again, we don’t have big donors or grants or advertising. What we have is you the people who are passionate to see evil exposed and the church restored. To give your gift and get a copy of Jesus Versus Evangelicals, just go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE. Also, just a quick reminder to subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcast, Google podcasts or Spotify. That way you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then please share the podcast on social media so more people can hear about this great content. Again, thanks so much for joining me. Hope you were blessed and encouraged.
5 thoughts on “JESUS v. Evangelicals, Part II: The Megachurch”
Even if you don’t attend a megachurch, do evangelicals realize how much influence megachurches have on the small churches? Those in small churches listen to the radio broadcasts and buy the books featuring the “pastors” of the megachurches. Small churches use their study materials. They attend their conferences and some smaller churches will even sponsor the live feeds of the big conferences in their buildings. It really is a pervasive issue.
Ten months ago the godly pastor of the smallish church that I attend retired after 37 years of faithful service. Within one week a Naperville megachurch approached our leadership to propose that we become absorbed into their fold as one of their satellites. As I said to our appalled youth pastor, that’s like going up to a grieving widow at her husband’s funeral and saying, “So – it looks like you’re available now, right?” Thankfully, when the idea of absorption was presented to the congregation it was rebuffed with polite versions of “Get behind me Satan.”
But this week has brought an encouraging development. A young co-worker of mine recently became a Christian after an extraordinary encounter with God. With little direction about where to go, he stepped inside Bolingbrook church and was put off to see that the sermon was “some guy on a screen.” Yep – it was a satellite of the same ravenous megachurch that tried to devour ours! The upshot is that this Sunday my friend will visit our church where he will meet our flesh-and-blood interim pastor and equally corporal youth pastor who are both eager to guide him and respond to his earnest desire to be baptized as soon as possible. Thanks be to God!
I’d be careful about idealizing small churches. Many (perhaps most) small churches are modeled on celebrity just like their larger counterparts, except their pastors appeal to a more niche audience. Celebrity-culture is really just another name for authoritarianism. I’d highly recommend Michael Kruger’s book “Bully Pulpit”. He does an excellent job of exposing the lack of accountability in most churches – a dynamic that encourages spiritual abuse. There’s nothing better for discipling humility into someone than healthy accountability and nothing better for discipling prideful arrogance than a lack of accountability.
When so-called “mega-churches” start using as ‘an example’ THE NEW OXFORD ANNOTATED BIBLE with THE APOCRYPHA…Revised Standard Version [ISBN 978-0-19-528335-8] and/or THE HOLY BIBLE 1611 Edition of the King James Version [ISBN 978-1-56563-162-5] as their “preferred texts” of the Holy Scriptures, then the “self righteous…holier-than-thou” teaching from these ‘very rich’ Protestant Fundamentalists preachers will “in due time” disappear into oblivion: Amen…praise 🙏 the LORD.
Large/small churches have the same issue. Sin! It is not about church size but culture. The other day, a friend from seminary said, “It is frustrating to prepare a message all week for 20 people.” I said “that’s your problem.” He said, “you know what I’m saying.” So I said, “I do not.” Problem is most people/pastors do not understand the point of the church. The Roys Report platforms a plethora of articles and responses that demonstratively prove that. More could be done with 20 people who know Christ and the scriptures. Compared with those filling a large auditorium with people (tares). Two of the greatest pastors I know never pastored a church more than 200. They could exegete the text as good as MacArthur. There is a danger in platforming Christian celebrities. Whether you are John MacArthur or Julie Roys. Not a personal attack on them. It is what the church is doing. They are platformed for the good reasons. They just aren’t always biblical.
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