Megachurches are not churches?

I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. ~ Eugene Peterson


Some years ago, my car was broken into and my satchel containing my diary and computer was stolen.

It was right on the eve of me going to the UK on a speaking tour and the loss of my diary and the notes that I stored in my laptop had a strange effect on me. I felt part of me had been lost.

I know that sounds dramatic, but it was as if I had stored not only notes and ideas on the computer, but my very thoughts. Part of me. And it really threw me. I felt a real loss of confidence going into the various events at which I was making presentations. Even though I’d presented those talks before and didn’t need the notes anyway, their loss tripped me up. I felt unsteady. It was as if I was in a light fog the whole time, and not just because I was in dreary England.

We store information on screens. We’re storing everything we need to know in apps, files, online diaries, websites and other screen-based ways. So the loss of our screens evokes in us an existential reaction.

I’ve seen a friend have a complete meltdown at an airport when they realized they’d left their phone at home.

But I discovered this week (or more accurately, was reminded this week) that we don’t only store memories on paper or screens. We store them in other people.

Listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest podcast, I was reminded of the social psychologist Daniel Wegner’s concept called transactive memory, which he defined as “a shared system for encoding, storing, and retrieving information.” Note the italics, they’re mine. Transactive memory is an information storage facility we share with other people.

Here’s how Wegner describes it:

People in close relationships know many things about each other’s memories. One partner may not know where to find candles around the house, for instance, but may still be able to find them in a blackout by asking the other partner where the candles are. Each partner can enjoy the benefits of the pair’s memory by assuming responsibility for remembering just those items that fall clearly to him or to her and then by attending to the categories of knowledge encoded by the partner so that items within those categories can be retrieved from the partner when they are needed.

On that basis, a lot of my memory is stored in my wife’s brain.

The other day, she reminded me it was the anniversary of my father’s death 33 years ago. I had no recollection of the date. I know the date of his birth (May 16), but had completely forgotten the date when he died. Well, maybe I hadn’t forgotten. Maybe I just stored it in Caz’s brain.

Wegner continues: “Such knowledge of one another’s memory areas takes time and practice to develop, but the result is that close couples have an implicit structure for carrying out the pair’s memory tasks.”

A couple is better together at remembering stuff than either of them individually.

And not just a couple. Transactive memory resides in teams and larger groups. You know how the individuals in a sports team come to know and anticipate how the others will move or behave or react in a certain situation? That’s transactive memory. It’s also how healthy organizations come to develop a “group mind,” a memory system that Wegner says is “more complex and potentially more effective than that of any of the individuals that comprise it.”

That’s transactive memory – the little bits of ourselves that reside in other people’s minds.

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that when one partner of a long marriage dies part of the surviving partner dies too. Wegner says that’s literally true. When your partner dies everything you have stored in your partner’s brain dies along with them.

What dies might be the knowledge of where the candles are kept, or what the account numbers are for your joint investment fund, or the date your father died. But also what dies are those beautiful fragments of personal memories and recollections that your partner holds that you don’t.

The panic we feel when we lose a screen gives us a clue to the far greater existential loss of balance we feel when we lose someone with whom we share transactive memory.

And this brings me to megachurches. I got thinking about churches and the degree to which their members also share transactive memory. Do we store bits of ourselves in the brains of fellow church members? Do we not only store shared memories with them, but our collective knowledge about God and the BIble?  And if so, why is it possible for us (or them) to so easily leave our congregation, often with barely a goodbye?

Surely, it would follow that if we were a healthy team or organization the loss of any member would be a loss of part of ourselves.

According to Wegner, transactive memory consists of both the knowledge stored in each individual’s memory combined with metamemory containing information regarding the different individuals’ domains of expertise. That’s just like what a church should be, right?

Just as the individual’s metamemory allows him or her to be aware of what information is available for retrieval, so does the transactive memory system provide the congregation with information regarding the knowledge they have access to within the church. In this way, a transactive memory system can provide a church with more and better knowledge than any individual could access on his or her own.

Isn’t this what Paul teaches about the church being a body comprising many different, but equally essential parts?

The fact that we can so easily leave a church or so easily see others leave and not be hit by some existential crisis is that we obviously weren’t being everything a church is supposed to be in the first place.

The fact that megachurch members can attend church with thousands of people they’ve never met and share no transactive memory with does raise questions about the kind of church experience they’re having.

No transactive memory, no sense of grief at the departure of a fellow member.

No transactive memory, no genuine church?

Recently Eugene Peterson caused a stir with his conclusion that megachurches aren’t real churches. He said:

I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that… I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches.

For all the benefits of being a large church, isn’t one of the downsides the loss of relationship and the associated loss of transactive memory with each other?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say a megachurch isn’t a real church. Neither would I say smaller churches all foster transactive memory merely by virtue of their size. But it is worth asking if any church without meaningful transactive memory is really fully being church.

I yearn for the deep, abiding intimacy that’s possible between a group of neighbors who share history, values, vision and direction, and who store their best and most beautiful memories, as well as their theology and doctrine, in each others’ minds for safekeeping.

Image credit: Ashley MacKenzie 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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30 thoughts on “Megachurches are not churches?

  1. I have never really belonged to a megachurch, strictly speaking, although I have attended some. The ones I attended tried to normalize small groups to create a solution to what you describe. I also have some friends who belong to very, very large churches and they have told me the same thing. The fact that the church is large means there are tons of resources (one can argue whether or not those resources are necessary to the life of the church); but the intimacy comes from people breaking off into neighborhood-based or affinity groups.

  2. As always, I appreciate your well thought out comments. Who likes unwell thought out ones. It seems my wife has all my memory files in her head. “Who were we just talking?” “Where are we going”? “What’s for dinner?”
    There is a pathway at every big church that is left unchecked. That is the pathway that leads from the baptismal to the back door. In their haste to get as many baptized, they forget to disciple and keep new believers in the fellowship. And, because it is left unchecked, no one in the big church notices or seems to care.
    The big church has the pride of enormity that takes them away from the quality of the gospel and leading of the Holy Spirit. Three Easters in a row, the glossy flyer is mailed out claiming that this will be the greatest Easter service ever. Two questions: How did they get those flyers glossier each year and didn’t God already have the greatest Easter service ever?
    The small church has the pride of settle that takes away from allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and counsel a congregation into serving their community where they are.
    The Holy Spirit says to both, you got this, to the large church with their smoke machines, and to the small church, in their lack of serving.
    In both, it is not about big or small, it is about do you have a large or little impact on those you set out to disciple, neighbors, fellow workers, family, homeless and widows and orphans.

    1. Rubbish, my brother. Greg The numerical size of the church has no necessary relationship with a church’s adeptness at discipling people. I’ve pastored a church over 5,000 in attendance as well as one under 50 in attendance (and many sizes in between), and in my view, your remarks smack of someone who is knocking down straw churches.

    2. As the wife of a person serving in the military I have moved around the nation to many churches. I have been in many congregations in which no one knows me. But I have always been comforted by the fact that even if others don’t know me – God knows me inside and out. I share transactive memory with other worshipers through scripture.
      1:1 relationships can and do occur in megachurches. I look forward to the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess to the glory of God that Father – and that’s pretty mega!

      1. My wife and I are a military family. After 29 years I have observed that the small base chapels we attended were almost family. Fifteen years after retirement we still are in contact with our brothers and sisters from military chapel.

  3. Brilliant reflection Mike. Mind blowing!

  4. It reminded me of a story you told in Incarnate about the affect, and effect, the availability of instantaneous information that causes us to lose concentration. The mega churches I have visited are fast paced and compartmentalized without much effort to build relationships. Numbers may reflect people, but focus on numbers is focus on numbers. Good post, Mike.

  5. Thanks Mike perhaps this is also implied in Jesus’ words “Re-member me”. It’s not only history, living presence but also connecting with God-in-Community and the community of saints.

    1. Great comment

  6. Great thoughts on transactive memory – a helpful way to inderstand the nature and power of true community. However having been fully immersed in all sizes of church from church plant to mid-size to mega,, it’s too much of a blanket statement to make size the enemy. The truth is that communal culture can be developed (or not) among any size church. Admittedly it is more difficult in larger numbesr (sociologists tell us that) but as Judson said, most megachurches will stress the importance of small groups to build community. It is just easier for people to opt out of these in a large crowd than in smaller churches..

  7. Nice article.
    Dunno. My gut feeling and observation is that the church as we know it pretty much over. Not the body of Christ but the denominational expression of the body.
    Most Mega churches have developed structures that mean they do have smaller communities within the big one. Smaller local churches are of course no promise of a more connected group either.
    It feels like (to me at least) every now and then a new “movement” comes along and some of us feel it’s the new thing but again my observation is true new thing is pretty much like the old thing just with decent coffee, or better songs, or a focus on mission, or a focus of cells/small groups/life groups/home groups/bible studies/growth groups/ next.
    Something gets lost whenever we try to organises ourselves that’s for sure. That said we do have to organise ourselves I think.

  8. Thanks, Mike.
    This is really great.

  9. Challenging. Wisdom resides in my wife’s mind, so I shall have to sit with this awhile.

  10. Transactive Memory is something I reflect on often though I never knew there was a name for it! Your article uses the example of a married couple but the reason I keep coming back to this concept is because I am a child of
    a. A mother who has severe mental illness and thus has whole segments of my childhood that she doesn’t remember or remembers in distorted or dubious details.
    b. A father whose survivalist extinct is to move forward and never look back therefore he has blocked out my childhood and says he doesn’t remember much (he has also moved onto other marriages/family).
    c. My parents divorced when I was 14 so the actual ‘unit’ that was my family ceased to exist.
    In relation to transactive memory , it had been a source of great frustration to me that the two people who are supposed to hold the most information on your childhood events were pretty much useless in that sense. I think for a child- even and adult child- to be able to recollect good or bad events to a parent and have that parent validate that experience is an important factor in creating a sense of identity for the child as well as sharing a bond with a parent who obviously loves the child enough to remember key details about the childs life. It establishes a sense of belonging, that we’re a ‘team’ (or at least were a team) and it’s very simplest, that you care enough about me to remember who I am and what I am about during a time in my life when I was developing and growing and didn’t have the self-awareness to log my own development.
    For me, having both parents come up empty in the transactive memory department has been a source of great pain and frustration that reinforces the dysfunction of my family and childhood. In having my own child I have been eager to both document his childhood through photos but especially through stories about his development and growth and our shared experiences. Not only does shared information help when you need to find the candles as such but also shared memories help create a sense of personal identity (who am I) but also collective identity (who we are).
    Connecting back to the church analogy, I think many of us come to church seeking connections to others and a sense of family. At least it is that way for me- both because I am a child of divorce and a single mother- to have a sense of unity and close relationships with others is a big part of what I hope to recieve from a church community.
    I’ve been to small and large (aspiring to be mega) churches.
    I found the smaller churches allowed for greater opportunities for friendships to development and that over time relationships were established. The first church I went to had a very dynamic and long history so the ‘church identity’ was something that had been established over time and that could be shared with new comers as well as being well known by regular attendees. Within that structure people’s growth in the church and in their Christian walk were celebrated and discussed as were collective activities and experiences (through sharing time at Sunday services, home groups, church notices, Church photos etc). There was enough intimacy within the congregation combined with a strong collective identity as a church to share and rely upon transactive memory to further build each other up.
    At the bigger church I used to attend there chyrch identity was built around the senior pastor- who while a great person- couldn’t emulate a trickle down effect of genuine relationships in the body of Chirst. While I was able to make a few great friendships with other Christians at this church it definitely did not have the same shared identity of who we are as a church and how is that celebrated amongst our congregation as the smaller church did. Much like my parents, while providing the structures needed for church ‘family’ to exist, without the intimate relationships and knowledge of who is part of the body and how they fit into our shared history, transactive memory can not develope and a sense of family/belonging/team can not be established with the congregation (though I’d argue the core group running mega churches def. feel united in growing a church)

  11. Thank you for the great reflection. Since I heard Eugene’s statement about megachurch is not church, it leads me to think about the same issue, ‘genuine intimacy among community members’. I heard the gospel and believe in Jesus in one of the Megachurch. A few years ministry in Sydney and now at mission field… one of the greatest difficulty is that people are okay with churches without genuine intimacy within community. Thinking about megachurch with good cell groups, even though good cells groups can provide chances for people to have intimate relationship, there is limit I think. Because people think whether you actively participate or not, it is okay. People think commit themselves to a church community is an option. If we leads people to think it is an option to commit ourselves to community, we are not teaching the community that New Testament portrays I think. The community that is belong to God, committed to each other and serving one another sacrificially, without that community how can we grow more like Christ? These days when short term mission teams visit our ministry, I often share with brothers and sisters that without committing yourselves to a community there is no mission. Maybe my thinking is not so balanced but these days realising the importance of genuine church community so much and it changes the way I read the bible.

  12. Fascinating post! Thank you, Mike. Oh for that kind of intimacy, oneness and “one another-ing” in our churches.

    All the best. Paul

  13. Great thought here. Important. Thanks. I was in a mega church as an associate pastor for 10 years and needed to move on for various reasons despite giving all we had to that place – and being quite successful too! Basically my wife and I no longer fit within the group culture that framed the church partly because we didn’t (couldn’t) have children. There were other reasons too, obviously. The day we left, no one ever contacted us again. Never have and that was 17 years ago. In fact one other pastor (someone who was so close that I was his groomsman) commented, ‘If someone leaves this community that is their choice. That means they leave my community and therefore I have no need to contact them.’ It really made me think about what church was meant to be. So, we can’t impose an arbitrary number for when a church is or isn’t real but the ability to enable transactive memory is a great thought.

  14. Amazing Mike Frost!!! After fellowshipping in small churches all of my life, until the last 2 1/2 years, where we’ve joined a 1000 plus people Church…..don’t know half of them, feel unsettled, not connected….it goes on….your article so revealing!!!!!

  15. As several people have said, it’s not really about the size of the church. It’s about the church’s commitment to fostering transactive memory. If people can easily leave your church without any wrench or grief, you’re clearly not that great at transactive memory at all.

  16. I was raised in a small church that my parents and their parents had attended for many years. It was in the inner city far from our home. I have scant few friends from that church. In my teen years I found a local church (1 block from my home) with a decent sized group of teens that became close friends. Still in contact with many of them. In my college years my girlfriend convinced me to go to her medium sized church. Made some friends but was only close with a few people. As an adult I attended a small close knit church where everyone knew everyone, little growth, and though we were accepted we always felt like outsiders. Now we are at a mega church. We have more close friends than any church we have ever attended. People we serve with, people we do Lifegroup with, people we look forward to seeing at events. It is exciting to be a part of a church that makes a noticeable impact on my community. Things a small church could never hope to do. The mega church has allowed us to meet people we never would have in any other setting. Do people come and go, sure, but they leave to pursue other ministries…they grow the kingdom!! Getting to see them grow and mature and move on to careers serving the Lord…and having a part no matter how small is simply amazing.

  17. Thanks Michael .. .insightful thoughts … prayerfully they lead us to living as God’s family … intertwined & knit together.

  18. Douglas Coupland wrote, “Beware the corporate invasion of private memory”.

    Whenever Facebook asks me to ‘share a memory’ I am reminded how powerful memory can be in solidifying connection to an institution as much as to people.

  19. so when is a church too big? 100? 500? 1000? Does the same go for conferences like KCC? The theory needs definition

    1. I don’t know what KCC is. As for how big it can be, I’ve heard somewhere around 120-140 is the upper end of the size for a group for the members to feel a good sense of togetherness and intimacy.

  20. This is beautiful and very true. Collective memory is the fabric of society and one of the keys to culture, and communitas. But I love what you add to it from just sharing memories to co-storing them in one another.

    Excellent reflection.

  21. At the end of the day the amount of ‘transactive memory’ or real deep seated relationship is often not in the hands of the church…but rather in the hands of the individual in that place. They often determine the amount of openness or the extent of closeness that is allowed in their lives. They define and control their boundaries and there are times that no one can get close…and often they are the ones that will leave without even a small good bye.

  22. I’ve been a member of a mega church and definately experienced a sense of community, connectedness and transactive memory. Large churches often develop internal structures to make this happen for those who will to connect. Im now involved with a much much smaller church. I honestly dont think its much different… ie i dont think its about the size of the church or the number of people. It realky comes down to having a cukture of connection.

  23. I wonder if the arena style of worship in mega churches might not also have some effect on lack of bonding between church goers
    When the service is very performance based , more like a concert, and less an experience that is one that is shared it is possible to feel very disconnected

  24. […] I read an article describing how we store up many of our memories outside our heads, whether online, in diaries, or […]

  25. whether a mega church or a small community church, both i have attended. i just wish it wasn’t so hard to make a connection. Pastors seem so far. Resources seem so far and its really starting to make me feel like the church is in a class of its own and once again i don’t fit. People really don’t reach for people and the turn to your neighbor approach isn’t enough anymore. its not about church nor isn’t about the number. its once again the people. i understand the pastor may never know you, he may not even care about you, forgive him he doesn’t have time to know you and do what God called him to do. but God does and sometimes that has to be enough. at the end of the day we all just passing through. God bless pastors and their wives and families for the effort and hard work. I have written letters to my pastor and to my church, no response but hey God knows and that must be what matters. it has to be

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