The designation “Too Big to Fail” usually makes us think of large banks, propped up by taxpayer funds during the 2008 financial crisis. But the central questions it raises—When do we have a responsibility to save an institution? And who should be on the hook to save it?—apply beyond the finance industry. Each of us has our own ideas and interpretations of which institutions are the most valuable to society, and what the possible failure of an institution would mean in our daily lives.
For me, that resonates nowhere more profoundly than with our country’s churches. Megachurches, those with over 2,000 regular attendees, are a large piece of the American religious landscape. And as the big get bigger, they also have farther to fall.
Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of megachurches in the United States. According to Hartford Institute, now there are 1,300 churches in America with more than 2,000 weekend worshippers, and 50 churches with more than 10,000 weekend worshippers. Those numbers appear to only be growing.
We recently got a sense of their massive influence by witnessing the reaction when two major pulpits were vacated. Dr. Myles Munroe from the Bahamas Faith Ministries International died recently in a tragic plane accident. And Mark Driscoll, who led the multi-site megachurch Mars Hill, resigned over a leadership controversy—leaving behind a weekly attendance of over 12,000 people.
So what happens when these charismatic pastors, who galvanized their congregations’ growth, disappear? More often than not, there is no one waiting in the wings to ensure the church’s continuance.
Do we need the government to come in and support them? No. But the churches themselves should feel a greater responsibility to ensure that, as they grow bigger, they better brace against uncertainty—so they don’t leave those same followers, whom they encouraged to rely on them, in the dust.
Megachurches are, by themselves, an interesting phenomenon. Many of us think that we would be lost in a crowd that size, that our pastoral needs wouldn’t be met and that it would be too much of a faceless experience. Yet, according to authors Scott Thumma and Dave Travis in their book Beyond Megachurch Myths, 64 percent of megachurch attendees knew as many or more people in the megachurch than they did at smaller churches, and 80 percent of attendees felt satisfied with the level of pastoral care they received.
In the case of Mars Hill Church, the leadership made the decision to disband into several smaller churches, spread through three states. Meanwhile, the future of Munroe’s congregation is as yet undecided, and the needs of the faithful are not being met as they could and should.
And why? Because too often these institutions don’t plan beyond their star pastors. One of the core competencies of running a church, like running a business, should be to protect the future of your institution. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are just two examples of big-name corporate leaders who, despite their own iconic status, cared about succession planning. Ensuring an organization’s long-term health should matter just as much, if not more, in a faith-based institution. Especially one as large as a megachurch.
These institutions provide their congregants with religious meaning and the core guidelines through which they live their lives. I’m not suggesting that preparing for the unknown is easy, but one of the differences between a good leader and a great leader is the ability to plan for change and transition. Dissolution and destruction of a community they created should not be an option. True pastors can’t ignore the question of what will happen to their flocks when they’re gone.