“Given our culture’s growing sensitivity to economic injustice, including among younger evangelicals, how would you respond to accusations of hypocrisy against megachurches with costly facilities?” That was the question Skye Jethani posed in his recent post, “Do Megachurches Hurt the Poor?” I started to write a reply which quickly grew into this response. If you haven’t already read his article, I strongly encourage you to do so now. As usual, he makes some very thought-provoking points.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, Pete and I go to a megachurch. Last I heard, our regular attendees number in the 10,000 range. Our “living room” (as our auditorium is affectionately called) is one of the largest venues in Colorado Springs, with full stage lighting, huge screens, and an elaborate sound system. While the basic building design was an economic one, it cost millions of dollars to build, and we’re still paying off a mountain of debt on it (incurred by our previous pastor).
While it’s all very nice, and we enjoy the facility with its coffee shop, Christian gift & book store (which carries my greeting cards!), and spaces to gather with friends, I admit that when I first walked into the newly constructed building a number of years ago, my first thought was, “We could have given this all to the poor!”
What was the justification for spending so much money on a facility? There were several given to the congregation. See what you think.
Bigger is cheaper
First, there’s an economy of scale. Yes, the average megachurch pastor makes around $147K a year, as Jethani pointed out. But he’s pasturing 10,000 people. That’s $14.70 per person. Compared to our previous church in another state, with 350 members and a pastor earning $80K a year That works out to about $228/person, no bargain. If you add in the 50 staff members (compared to the three additional staff we had at our previous church), it works out to about double the cost per pastor for the smaller congregation.
That’s just salaries. But the same could be said for facilities. Our building holds about 4,000 people. Our old church held about 250 (we had two services). So while our new sanctuary cost more to build, on a cost per seat basis, it was much cheaper.
If you build it, they will come
But do we really need all those theatrical embellishments? I would be delighted to get rid of our deafening sound system, although many people seem to expect loud music. The huge screens provide me no benefit—I have to close my eyes to avoid being blinded by the wandering searchlight or distracted by the dancing colored spotlights.
However, every year at Easter, our whole congregation comes together and produces a passion-play-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil event called The Thorn. It’s now nation-wide; you may have seen it. The expensive sound system, the trap door in the stage, the lofty catwalks with their spotlights and cables—it’s all used to create incredible special effects. Angels fly, demons appear in clouds of smoke, fireworks accompany the resurrection. Church members invite their un-churched friends and neighbors, we pack the house for both weekends leading up to Easter, and thousands (yes, thousands) of people commit their lives to Christ.
How much is a soul worth?
Another big production at Christmas also takes advantage of our resources, and draws additional visitors who are presented with a clear explanation of the Gospel. During the summer, we host two Desperation youth conferences—again with lights and loud music. As one young visitor exclaimed to us, “Worship here is amazing! With the lights and all, your church is like a cathedral for our generation!”
It’s about more than the building
And finally, while a lot of money has gone into our facilities, the building is not at all the focus of our church. We have opened a Dream Center in town that provides free healthcare to low-income women, and another one in Swaziland that provides food, shelter, education, hope and love to orphans and their caretakers. We own an apartment complex that provides shelter for homeless families. We host huge give-away events—like a garage sale, except that there are no price tags. We send vast amounts of resources—food, clothing, and other essentials all over town and all over the planet. While I might disagree with some of the strategies involved, I can’t fault the church for ignoring the poor.
Actually, I mostly agree with Jethani. I’d rather spend money to buy a sewing machine for a mother in Bangladesh, or a goat for a farmer in Haiti, than contribute to enlarging the air conditioning in our church building. I wonder just how much of our evangelical passion for construction is a matter of pride and the need to keep up with the megachurch across town. Maybe we should do away with church buildings and paid staff entirely, go back to meeting in houses, and give only to support missionaries and provide for the poor.
What do you think? Are megachurches bad stewards of our money?