Thinking Out Loud

February 9, 2016

Abandoned Megachurches circa 2026

The interior of an abandoned church is seen on September 5, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. From the Huffington Post link below, click through to see 14 more abandoned churches.

The interior of an abandoned church is seen on September 5, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. From the Huffington Post, May 2015.

This weekend I heard part of a story that made me shudder. A megachurch. Mortgage-free. An issue arises. A split. People leave. Now there’s a mortgage. The future not as assured as it once was.

I very sincerely hope and pray that this one has a happy ending; that its best days are ahead. But it got us talking last night at dinner about the prophets of doom who predict there are going to be a long list of abandoned megachurches in North America at some point in the future. The ones who say that it’s only the personality of the founding pastor that is drawing the crowds. The experts who tell us that the move is going to be to smaller community churches and home fellowships. I hope they’re all wrong.

I mean it; well at least partly wrong. For all the negative articles in books, magazines and blogs about the downside to mass market worship, I think the specter of dozens of abandoned churches like the one in our picture above is far worse. You can take hundred-year-old churches now and turn them into trendy restaurants or antique shops, but unless a municipality arts group or a community college wants the space, it’s harder to do that with a 3,000 seat auditorium. Any decommissioned church is a sad story, but with today’s gigantic facilities, the buyers are fewer.

The scene is not totally far-fetched. Wikipedia lists 22 abandoned major shopping malls in the U.S. The internet abounds with photojournalism studies of dead malls. (That last link has literally hundreds of abandoned retail properties.) Ironically, the ideal location for megachurches and malls is identical: In suburbia at the intersection of two freeways.

The term sometimes used is Architectural Corpses. While some believe that churches which have sketchy theology are just a house of cards waiting to collapse, nobody wants to think that the congregation taught weekly by their favorite preacher would ever succumb to such a fate.

Three years ago Wade Burleson wrote:

…The pendulum is swinging back toward churches creating loose organizational structures in order to facilitate a wider array of ministries. For the next few decades, those evangelical churches that will continue to grow in numbers and Kingdom influence are those churches that spend less on facilities, learn how to worship in multiple venues and at various times, and focus more on building a network of effective small groups that collectively do missions both locally and globally. The climate and culture of the evangelical church has changed. Any church that focuses on large in-house productions, massive buildings, and ministries more conducive to “come and receive” instead of “go and give” is in for a surprise.

Let’s call it the Evangelical Fiscal Cliff.

Churches that have borrowed to build massive facilities are behind the proverbial eight ball. They must continue to focus on sustaining and maintaining the organization (utilities, repairs, staffing, and publicity to bring people into the high dollar facilities for “special events”), instead of empowering people to do the work of the ministry away from the buildings…

Most of the other articles on this topic simply use the subject as a means of attacking the doctrine of popular American pastors and churches.

In terms of church culture trends, Wade is probably correct, but an interesting thing happened here in Canada many, many years ago. They simply stopped building new shopping malls. This created a supply/demand equilibrium, and while some have indeed closed, and others are reconfigured as parts of outdoor power centers, many of the ones that remained are continuing to thrive, as evidenced by packed parking lots.

So in some respects, I know the future is going to contain a few forsaken megachurch buildings, but in general, I hope American Christianity can prove the doomsayers wrong.

The website said this church was designed to seat 10,000 but provided no further annotation.

The website said this church was designed to seat 10,000 but provided no further annotation.

Finally, I couldn’t help but pull this photo out of the files. I am sure that in its former days the members of this cathedral could never have imagined this, but what re-purposing of today’s churches exceeds our imagination? It’s sobering to consider.

The above is taken from a Wall Street Journal article about European Cathedrals being sold off, this one in Holland was re-purposed as a skateboard park.

The above is taken from a Wall Street Journal article about European Cathedrals being sold off, this one in Holland was re-purposed as a skateboard park.

Cathedral Repurposed as Skateboard Park



February 6, 2016

Can Internet Tirades Accomplish Any Good?

img 020616

It started with an article on Huffington Post. In A Tirade For The Trendy Church, writer Jack Levison described a field trip — he’s a professor at Seattle Pacific University —  to a hipster church where his non-conforming band of visitors was somewhat ignored by the regular attenders.

You don’t shake our hands.
You don’t smile.
You don’t tell us your name.
And admit it. You know we’re not one of yours…

And then:

I’m angry.
I’m bored by hipster inhospitality.
I’m irked by Bohemian indifference.
I’m annoyed by trendy aloofness.
No, that’s not right.
I’m sad. Disappointed that a church which, on its website, claims that thousands have been touched by its members, couldn’t greet strangers in their midst.

which I condensed and posted to Twitter with a link to the HuffPo story.

And then a longtime acquaintance replied:

I am bored of complaints about Churches, bored of complaints period, but I guess positive blogs don’t get noticed as much.

Which really got me thinking.

It got me thinking because the same thing happened to us, not once but three times as we occasionally frequented one of the more “cool” churches in another city. A church where the welcome time happens in the middle of the service with many types of beverages and snacks including fresh strawberries in February.

And we didn’t know anybody. And nobody wanted to know us.

So I Tweeted back:

I hear you. But the ignoring of visitors is a recurring theme in the modern church; something that needs to be addressed.

To which he replied:

I agree – but I still think to people who are not Christian it all sounds like whining and bickering.

I give him the last word:

Maybe instead of a blog post – they should request a meeting with the Pastor. This blog post doesn’t achieve anything.

It doesn’t?

So as I said I kept thinking about this for nearly two weeks. Here’s what I’ve concluded:

First, the airing of issues affecting the church on various forms of social media has helped bring about much positive change. Thanks to the whistle-blowers, the watchdog websites, the survivor blogs, the abuse confessionals; we have a handle on church life in North America, Australia/New Zealand, and Western Europe as never before. It’s now difficult for a pastor, or Christian author, or televangelist to act anonymously, secretly or with impunity. From megachurch pastors to shepherds of congregations that are lucky to get 50 people on a Sunday morning, everyone is subject to scrutiny; everyone is under the microscope.

As a result,we have unprecedented accountability. While this seems to reveal a horrid list of sins including financial improprieties, moral failures and control issues, I would argue that it also prevents a whole lot more from taking place. The walls have ears like never before. The internet makes it difficult for people acting inappropriately to do so in secret.

Second, with the internet there are few Christian-only websites, blogs and news feeds. Everything is open to the broader populace unless you go out of your way to restrict membership and require passwords. Even in those cases, there’s bound to be someone in the closed group who knows how to copy and paste. So my Twitter correspondent is correct, these things are seen by people who aren’t Christians.

To some, this probably does sound like bickering and whining; a tempest in a teapot if you will. But to me, it shows we’re willing to be transparent. It shows that our institutions, made up of people like ourselves, are fallible, fragile and fraught with failures. We, the church, are indeed the community of the broken. We get it wrong sometimes. And that hurts. We don’t meet our ideal targets.

Third, as a general rule, pastors are not interested in service reviews by people outside their community. As one church leaders said to me once in another context, “We’re here to serve our people, not the city of _______.” (Yes. Actual quote.) In other words, take it or leave it; we’re doing what we do, and if you come into it as an outsider, your perspective is irrelevant because we’re not here to serve you.

A meeting with the pastor is useless if you’re not part of the target demographic. It would be like me demanding to meet with my pastor to offer my opinions on having visited their women’s Bible study. (‘The leader didn’t make a single sports reference, and they served cupcakes instead of donuts.’) My opinion doesn’t matter in this context because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

…I would definitely send the pastor a copy of the blog article after-the-fact though. Well, maybe. There are times you have to choose your battles. I’d like to think the pastor would think about maybe doing something to create a more welcoming church culture. But maybe he already knows. Maybe he’s satisfied with the status quo.

One more time, here’s the link to Jack’s article: A Tirade For The Trendy Church


May 21, 2015

In Case of Rapture, Or Long Weekend, This Church will be Closed

North Point Closing

When we were given a midweek tour of Buckhead Church a few years ago, the thing that struck me was that there was a large infrastructure that was really only used for a few hours each week. The entrepreneur in me was trying to think of ways to leverage the facility to see greater exposure, so the idea of taking one week — no, make that two weeks — off each year is in my thinking, somewhat counterproductive.

But that’s exactly what the North Point family of churches in Atlanta’s north suburbs is doing this weekend; taking their cue from an already entrenched shutdown that occurs annually between Christmas and New Year’s, the church will be completely closed over the Memorial Day weekend, in anticipation of a major summer kickoff on May 31st.

Now, I’m not criticizing here, I’m just posing the question. I am a fairly rabid fan of Andy Stanley. I greatly respect and admire his ability to re-frame the Gospel in totally fresh ways. But let’s give this some context.

We live at a time when people are taking an extremely casual approach to church attendance. Families with children have already sacrificed weekly continuity on the altar of getting their kids into team sports: Soccer, baseball, three-pitch, t-ball, gymnastics, swim teams, etc. What hasn’t been destroyed by athletics has been decimated by dads working weekend shifts or moms working retail Sunday openings.

These days, if you can get a family out to church 26 out of 52 Sundays, you’re doing well.

So why chop that down to only 50 Sundays? Why create even the most subtle suggestion that taking time off church is perfectly acceptable?

Not being a regular attender, I don’t know if there’s room in North Point’s church culture for dissension, but I would rate this as one of their less-smart moves. I really feel for singles in this, people who don’t have family traditions on the long weekend, and especially, people who look for the fellowship of that weekly worship gathering as a boost for the rest of their week. Honestly, I get depressed as hell just thinking about people losing that sense of connection, to the point where I can’t imagine having to live it.

Obviously, some people, who place a sense of propriety on weekly church attendance will take the opportunity to visit another church. Some may stay home and watch an alternative presentation the church will offer at North Point Online. Some people, planning a visit to Atlanta for this weekend that includes a North Point visit, simply will not get the memo.

For this and other reasons, I have to say a resounding “No!”

What about you?



November 1, 2014

End of the Line for Mars Hill

The headline at Christianity Today said it all:

Mars Hill LocationsHere’s reaction from people you know, along with random comments from people you don’t on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that were posted in the hours immediately following the announcement:

Zach Hoag: In my opinion, this was the only right decision for a church organization with such a troubled history. It will allow for a truly new start, free from the arrogant defense of the old institution, and for the deep healing process to commence. 

Stephan Deliramich: This is crazy and sad. I appreciate Driscoll and have mixed feelings about his resignation, however this is such a lesson to all of us. A church cannot be built around one person unless that person is Jesus.

Warren Throckmorton: If anything has become clear over the last year, it is that the church was all about buildings and organization.

Rachel Held Evans: My heart breaks for those brothers and sisters from Seattle feeling wounded, exhausted, and disillusioned by the unraveling of their church. Even unhealthy churches have faithful, godly people working in them. I hope everyone will take the time they need to heal after this, and that the relationships that were truly life-giving will be preserved. Unfortunately, churches built around a pastor tend to rise and fall with that pastor. I hope the entire evangelical community will learn from this and re-prioritize accountability, character, respect for women and the marginalized, and I sincerely hope Mark Driscoll finds the help he needs…

Christopher Preston: Sad… But not so surprising… The pitfalls of building a church on personality rather than Christ?

Jim West: This is the major theological problem with megachurches: they have no idea what missionary minded churches are.  They do not distribute, they collect.  Rather than planting churches in various locations, they collect people like property and then boast of their multiple campuses and tens of thousands of members.  If megachurches understood Christianity they would plant churches and not establish satellites.  But whenever wealth comes the way of the greedy and controlling, it is only natural that they try to get as much of it as they can.  That is why Mars Hill has died: greed killed it. 

John Paul Ortiz: I’m actually sad to hear of Mars Hill’s demise. For all the people who now have to go church hopping, people now unemployed, hurt. etc.

Jacey Davidson: The mega-church/multi-site model is unsustainable as is it built upon certain gifted individuals that can’t help but assume inappropriate amounts of power and influence. God’s church is all about decentralization. The priesthood of all believers is a critical reformation doctrine. Multi-site is a relatively new invention of man and doesn’t seem to fit the biblical model of church government. It is pseudo-Presbyterian but lacks the proper accountability channels. 

Multisite Church SaleMatthew Wagner: Pray for Mars Hill and the 14000 Christians that called it home. Sad to see the church closing its doors. 

Spiritual Sounding Board: I’ve seen discussion [about] new “Mars Hill” churches. If these pastors failed to stand up to Driscoll and say he was unfit, they are unfit to lead. 

Drew Fanning: [referencing CT headline above] Describing a church as a human’s possession and using words like “empire” will have a terrible impact on Mars Hill’s congregation. We as christian contributors to social media, news, and even culture have to be so careful how we use any terminology. And more so than worry about the buildings Mars Hill owned, we should be worrying about the people that filled them.

Wenatchee The Hatchet:  In ten years Mark Driscoll managed to become pretty much everything he preached against from the pulpit circa 2000-2004.  How and why this happened may be explored and unpacked later on.  Whether the individual churches that have been constituents of Mars Hill can survive remains to be seen.  A number of them may and we’ll just have to see.  

Brian Shepard: Sucks hearing that Mars Hill Church is officially done.. but will be praying that from this ending, this moment also marks a new beginning. 

Bill Kinnon: If you need to shut it down mere weeks after the “founder” quits, was it ever really a church at all?

John Piper: Mars Hill Church will cease to be a single multisite church. May each congregation flourish in Christ!  

Click the image at the top of the article to read the details at Christianity Today.


October 29, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Orange Curriculum Parody Poster

Our graphic image theme this week is parody. The upper one is a supplement to the Orange Curriculum, a weekend service Christian education experience for children. You can click on the image and then surf the rest of the web page to learn more.

A bumper harvest this week; get coffee first.

The rest of the week Paul Wilkinson offers you a daily choice between trick at Thinking Out Loud, or treat at Christianity 201.

What a Mug I Have of Coffee

August 20, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Christian Coke

Time for your midweek break and some news and opinion pieces you may have missed:

Paul Wilkinson is available to speak or sing on any dates you had previously booked with Mark Driscoll, Vicky Beeching or Gungor and may be contacted through his blogs, Thinking Out Loud and Christianity 201.

July 31, 2014

Picketing a Place of Worship

A bunch of people plan to carry signs in a demonstration outside a Belleville, Washington church on Sunday morning. That’s hardly news. Heck, Fred Phelps was doing that for years.

But there’s more at stake with this one. The little protest has already garnered some mainstream media interest, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

The whys and hows of this story are complicated, and unless you’ve been following this for some time, it’s rather hard to catch you up. Suffice it to say that the volcano involving Mars Hill, the church co-founded and led by Mark Driscoll has been waiting to erupt for several years, though really the church culture is causing something more resembling imploding than exploding.

Social media has played a major role in getting the story told. I’m fairly certain Jesus didn’t have blogging in mind when he said this, but even if the context is different, the words, as Luke records them, certainly fit: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (12:2,3)

Mark Driscoll - Not many of you should be teachersOne blogger has suggested that Driscoll really only has two options, to really repent (i.e. not the repentance seen in a recent half hour video) or to resign. Perhaps. He could also wait; i.e. try to ride out the storm.

With all the Christian movie-making that’s been happening lately, I would be very surprised if a movie about Driscoll’s life to date is not already in the works.

The point I want to make here is that that this Sunday a small protest will take place in the upper left corner of the U.S., but it is one that has repercussions in a much larger arena. Whatever single issue the demonstrators think it’s about, it raises visibility on so many other issues about Driscoll and Mars Hill.

It’s about church structure, secrecy, accountability, finances, hiring, firings, spiritual abuse, and how each of these things impacted the lives of countless families over the years. It’s about the overtones of everything from the role of women, to plagiarism, to how the authority structure in some Calvinist settings mitigates against truth and transparency.

Like I said, it’s the stuff that movies are made of, though perhaps only those who are ecclesiology nerds or theology nerds would buy the tickets.

But it impacts your church, and my church, and the church our children will inherit.


July 16, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Abraham Isaac Jacob postage stamps

Summertime and the linkin’ is easy…Our biggest collection ever with 40 bullets!

How Cats Ended Up With Nine Lives

While not curating the internet, Paul Wilkinson blogs at Thinking Out Loud and C201.

Rapture Survivor Card

February 7, 2014

Churches with Loud Worship Bands May Need More Than Earplugs

Browns Bridge at Church Stage Design

As someone whose hearing hasn’t exactly been helped by exposure to loud music at Christian rock concerts in my 20s, I have a special interest in today’s topic.  It started with a Tweet by Kyle Idleman, who apparently visited Pete Wilson’s church in Nashville last Sunday, and noticed the availability of earplugs at the door. Kyle likes his music loud, so he was excited at the prospect of extra decibels. His wife thought they were packages of breath mints.

Is this common, we wondered? (The earplugs, not the confusion with breath mints.)

Sure enough, a search revealed a host of results, including a review of a church in Nebraska,  or this worship apologetic from Mike Pittman, church location not specified:

At Vertical we like our music a little louder than a lot of churches. How loud? Loud enough that you can sing out and not feel like everybody around you is listening to you (and all of the people who can’t sing said “amen”!). We have great sound technicians who work hard to ensure that our sound is full and consistent from week to week.

One of the things that is difficult about music volume is that people’s opinion is subjective and personal. Not everyone likes their music the same volume and with that in mind we have made the conscious decision to let the volume of our music be defined by the people we are trying to reach. This means that a few people thinking it is too loud is not reason to turn it down in such a manner that it affect our what we believe Vertical Worship sounds like. Our worship to Jesus is alive, loud and vibrant. With this in mind we decided to make earplugs available to anyone who feels that our music is too loud.

emphasis in original

Evidence of the widespread use of earplugs turns up in articles like this one “And don’t offer me any of those blasted ear-plugs; I shouldn’t have to wear earplugs in church!  I should just like what is being played and how it’s being played.”  The topic also appears on discussion boards like this, “if they handed out earplugs to me it would be goodbye time;” or, “It seems to me that earplugs would be the bandaid, not the cure.” (Link broken as of this morning.)

The earplug phenomenon has been around churches long enough it seems that it’s already fodder for blog satire.  “Handing out ear plugs says to the congregation ‘The volume is as low as it’s gonna go'”

The question churches need to ask however, is this: “Is providing earplugs sufficient to avoid potential liability issues resulting from hearing loss?”  I’m willing to wager that the average visitor isn’t expecting rock concert volumes at a church service. Last summer, we attended a youth service held in a former nightclub on the east fringes of Toronto and I was reminded firsthand of the volume levels that have no doubt contributed to the loss of high-end sound definition I sometimes experience. Really. Isn’t. Necessary.

And it’s not just the music. A while ago we carried this excerpt from a bulletin at North Point:

“This service contains flashing lights which may cause problems for people with photosensitive epilepsy.”

North Point Church Lighting Warning

There’s no doubt in my mind that excessive volume levels simply puts people at risk and exposes churches to liability issues, but all of this is simply another example of the modern church using youth ministry models to guide what takes place on Sunday morning. I doubt the early church house meetings in any way resembled what megachurches do on the weekend, nor would they even recognize those gatherings as religious in nature if they simply walked into the back during the worship set. 

I also believe that handing out earplugs is an admission that something is not right. Furthermore, there are all types of contextual issues at being presented with a rock concert at a 9:00 AM service versus the same band, same volume at 6:00 PM, at least for this writer.

I like my music loud enough that I can sing out, even try some harmonies, without feeling intimidated. I love the energy. I love the passion.

But it isn’t supposed to hurt.

Upper Image: Browns Bridge Church story at Church Stage Design (click to link)

Plugger Feb 25 2012

January 9, 2014

Megachurch Miscellany

Filed under: Church, technology — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:10 am

Lighthouse Church Florida at Church Stage Design Ideas

So on Saturday night we made a return visit to a large (redundant adjective) megachurch west of Toronto.  Here’s a few things that stand out after several days…

What do the colors mean?

A family of five had sat down just a few rows in front of us. When you’re visiting, you just assume everyone else is a regular attender. But after the service, the man approached an usher and asked, “What do the colors mean?”

It’s a standard feature of today’s modern church that as much or more will be spent on lighting as will be spent on sound. In this auditorium, LED panels on the stage are complemented by LED ‘pots’ on the walls; so the entire room changes from green, to blue, to yellow, to red — all at the same time — with a new color for each song.

The problem is, that in Anglican or Episcopal churches, the colors of the day mean something in reference to the church calendar. The color of the cloth that drapes the altar. The color of the stole rector wears. For that matter, the temples in some sci-fi stories often have walls that change color denoting something of deep significance.

It’s just not something Evangelicals would think about. The usher dismissed the question with “It’s just aesthetics,” but personally, I think that (a) it was a fair question and (b) it’s indicative of the wide range of people who are slipping into our church services.

Will that be smoking or non-smoking?

Honestly, the ushers at this place were a major distraction. I can now say I finally get the “Usher Contest” jokes that Garrison Keillor does. Many of the people in leadership in this church came out of a Baptist tradition. Maybe that explains it. Actually, they had been a distraction on our first visit as well, which you wouldn’t expect considering we had been sitting in the third row.

However… ushering a group of seven people from the very back to the very front in the middle of a prayer? Seriously. That one crossed a line for me.

I also now understand the 80% rule: When 80% of your seating is being used you are ‘comfortably full’ and people will continue to invite friends and/or become regulars. Over 80% and you’re starting to get a little crowded. This church already has three weekend services, so I don’t know what the solution is, but they were determined to pack people into every last chair from the front to the back.

Maybe that’s the problem.  They should fill the front completely before the service, and then let latecomers find seats nearer the back.

Oh…and this church really needs to get with the program when it comes to requesting people accustomed to wearing scented products to knock it off. It’s a new world, filled with new people with new kinds of environmental allergies. But we’ve already discussed that here and here. So we upset at least one usher by not moving in because Mrs. W. desperately needs to have an aisle seat.

Why are they wheeling in a giant screen TV?

Even though I watch Andy Stanley online each and every week, it never occurred to me that the giant monitor he teaches with is somewhat redundant in a large auditorium that already has a couple of Jumbotron-type screens.

So I’m watching on the mega screen as a man teaches pointing at a somewhat smaller screen, which of course, is being picked up by the mega screen.

Of the spending of money on A/V equipment by churches, there is no end.  The growth of megachurches means this is a great time to invest in companies that make sound and lighting and broadcast equipment for large auditoriums.

I thought perhaps the idea was to keep the preacher in the shot at all times, but then Mrs. W. correctly pointed out that earlier, the announcements had been done using a split screen, and with much clearer results. 

I guess the answer to this, as it often is where technology is concerned, is “because you can.”

Image: Lighthouse Church in Panama City, Florida; click image to read details at

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