Rise of the Megachurch
By Ryan O’Meara Nov. 11, 2015
Are megachurches a side effect of good services, or a phenomenon within themselves? Staff writer Ryan O’Meara looks into the change, and what it means at Harvard.
Seventeen thousand people attend each weekend, many of them arriving in cars with an iconic orange and white bumper sticker on the back. Despite the noticeable excitement and energy, the crowd is not there for a football game or a concert.
It’s a normal crowd for a weekend of services at Flatirons Community Church. Flatirons’ rise in recent years has been meteoric, placing 13th on Outreach Magazine’s annual list of the largest churches in the United States in 2014. In 2012, the church placed second as average weekly attendance increased from 10,000 people to 15,000 people.
The Colorado nondenominational Christian church has grown to include two campuses: the original and largest location in Lafayette and its new West Campus in Gennesee. In a time when megachurches have been maligned by both Christians and atheists alike, the church’s fast-paced growth has created new challenges for its leaders in many ways, raising methodological questions about such things as the potential for anonymity in a large church and practical questions like physical expansion into multiple campuses. For Flatirons Teaching Pastor Scott Nickell, growth presents many challenges.
“The differences between a church of 3,000 people and a church of 15,000 people is pretty significant in regards to the leadership structures you have to have in place, the strategies for simple things like getting information out, right down to basic logistical things like parking,” Nickell said. “The challenges are pretty much endless. Things that were simple when we were 3,000 people are no longer simple now that we’re 15,000 people.”
As a leader, Nickell was forced to confront the continually increasing congregation size directly. Things that worked well in a church of 3,000 were no longer sustainable in a church of 7,000. Predicting the pace of that growth is crucial. Typically, the attendance Flatirons has on Easter is reflective of what their average weekly attendance will be in two years.
“The pace of the change is also a challenge,” he said. “We would go from 3,000 people to 5,000 people to 7,000 people sometimes in the course of a year or two. Just as you feel like you’ve arrived at a place, you can lead this place, structure this place, the game changes again. You have to redo it.”
Nate R. Otey ’15 has attended Flatirons with his family for many years and has seen its growth and change.“I think the church is doing a lot of good things in the community,” he said. “It’s getting a lot of people to church who would otherwise never go to church. There’s a heavy emphasis on grace and on accepting people where they’re at and setting the bar fairly low. You don’t need to be perfect when you walk in the door to a church. You can just be who you are and God will meet you where you’re at.”
The church’s rapid growth hasn’t been without controversy. For example, Nickell and Lead Pastor Jim Burgen were criticized in March 2013 for each posting statements online in opposition to same-sex marriage. Several locals were quoted as saying that the statements caused them to stop considering attending Flatirons.
Burgen emphasized the biblical basis of his beliefs while still stressing that there is a place for everybody within Flatirons: “Everybody has fallen short of the Glory of God (that’s sin), everybody is dependent upon Jesus for grace and Flatirons will never single out one sin as worse than any other sin… nor will we not call anything a sin that the Word of God has defined as sin. Instead, we say, Me Too,” Burgen said in a written statement to the Daily Camera Newspaper in Boulder.
One of Flatirons’ biggest teaching points is its idea of the “me too” attitude which leaders like Nickell see as a way of emphasizing their goal of meeting people where they are spiritually.
“We wanted to provide a simple way for people to realize on a daily basis you’re not alone,” he said. “Me too. We are in this together, more than just on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Otey understands criticism that Flatirons does not make it easy enough for people to change their lives. He believes that the anonymity offered by such a large organization prevents people from changing their lives.
“There’s something great about a mass worship session and the spirit is there and everyone is into it and it could be powerful. I’m all for that, but there’s also a sense of which I need real accountability and real friends who know me for me to actually change,” Nickell said. “They need to see the ways that I’m self-deceived because I can’t see them. People don’t really change unless they’re in community with other people.”
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a megachurch is defined as a Protestant church with a weekly attendance above 2,000. With an average weekly attendance of around 17,000 across four services, Flatirons certainly meets that definition.
Despite its incredible size, Nickell distances Flatirons from the term “megachurch,” describing his organization more simply as a big church.“We don’t like the term megachurch just because of all the connotations that go with it in our culture,” he said. “A lot of big churches have a tendency to try to do everything for everybody all the time. We’ve never felt compelled to do that. We really really really heavily on volunteers. This is not just the staff people’s church. This is our church—the community of people who take ownership of what we do and how we do it.”
According to the Hartford Institute’s website, there has been a massive increase in the prevalence of so-called megachurches since the 1970s that has been a direct result of cultural changes.
In Cambridge, an upstart nondenominational Christian church called Aletheia Church has gained prominence in the community. Although not a megachurch, its unique style of worship has drawn the interest of Harvard students like Peter J. Hickman ’16, who is also active in Harvard College Faith in Action.
“It meets in the YMCA gym, so we have to set up everything each week and tear it down, which I think is great,” he said. “A lot of times church spaces are empty most of the week anyway, so this is making use of a space we can use inexpensively. After the second service, you tear it all down, put it back in boxes and put it in the closet. First time I saw it I was amazed. All of this just happened. Church happened and then it’s all gone.”
With an emphasis on production quality, the church’s non-traditional location allows for a dynamic atmosphere. “I think my church is pretty fun and pretty energetic, but I don’t think in any sense for the people involved in leadership, it’s about just going and having fun,” Hickman said.
For leaders of Flatirons like Jesse DeYoung, the pastor of the West campus, growth is not the goal. It’s merely a side effect of faithful service. Both he and Nickell cite the pattern of the New Testament Church’s rapid growth as their primary motivation for increasing the membership size.
“The early church grew like crazy,” DeYoung said. “The early church was continuously expanding. As you read through the letters of Paul, he was regularly going to other cities to try to reach them. Paul specifically was going all throughout the Mediterranean. For us, we’ve done both local and international outreach for a long time. The way that we do church just seems to resonate with people in Colorado.”
Although the leaders of Flatirons certainly value attendance numbers, those numbers are not their primary goal.
“Reaching people and being faithful is the goal,” DeYoung said. “I don’t know what the motivation behind just wanting to grow a church is. I get the motivation to want to reach people, the motivation to be faithful. I don’t get the motivation to just grow…. If we can remove the distance between us and people, I think the future is really bright.”