Monday, September 19, 2011

Mega church pastor: "We are completely off base with what discipleship means"

Shaun King stepped down on September 1st.

Shaun resigned from the church in Atlanta that he started three years ago.    Called "Courageous Church", it was, in Shaun's words, a "super cool Sunday worship-service-centered church with 700 people".  A mixed race congregation, it was seen as one of the cutting edge churches in the city.  Highly "successful"!

Leonard Sweet, scholar and author, called Shaun, "One of the most dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative and passionate leaders on the American scene today."  How could this guy possibly fail?  What would cause him to throw up his hands and give up?

Shaun stepped down not because of any scandal but because he was disillusioned and burned out.  He had followed the advice of church planting experts on how to develop an exciting, growing church by focusing on a dynamic Sunday morning "experience".  He writes, "I sold my soul for church attendance in our first week and I could never quite get it back."

Over time Shaun came to understand that "the overwhelming percentage of our time, energy, skills, budget and creativity were spent preparing for Sunday morning services, getting people to our Sunday services and getting them to volunteer for our Sunday morning services."  Then, Shaun made a big "mistake".  He tried to change all of this.  He tried to create a discipleship oriented church where the "time, energy, skills, budget and creativity" went primarily into caring for people and meeting needs in the city.  And, since he was the senior leader, he could make this work.  Right?

Shaun planned to move the whole congregation into small missional groups with one large meeting each month.  He worked with his leaders to develop the new structure.  He preached a whole sermon series on the new vision.  (Preaching changes people.  Right?) He reports that, as long as he was preaching about it, the people loved it.

But, once the "shift" took place, in his words, "all hell broke loose".  Three months later, 85% of the congregation wanted to go back to the "super cool worship-service-centered church".  Four months later, Shaun stepped down as the lead pastor.  Here's his evaluation...

"What I am saying is that church attendance, Sunday morning services, sermon-listening (or even sermon preaching), song-singing, hand-clapping, amen-saying and all the other things that "Christ-ians" have lifted up so high look so little like Christ himself that I am utterly convinced that we are completely off base with what discipleship means.  Considering all of this, I think I have given up on church as I knew it.  Big buildings. Hugh crowds.  Few disciples.  I'm not with it.  It's inefficient and just doesn't feel right with my soul.  This is not a rejection of big buildings or huge crowds, but an indictment on how few disciples are being made in the process of it all.  A better way has to exist."

Well, Shaun, welcome to the growing number of traditional church leaders (perhaps 1500 a month by some estimates) who are coming to the same conclusion.  That is, that the building-centered, Sunday big worship-service-centered "experience" (one mega church here in Denver calls this "the big magic") is a great way to entertain people but an inefficient way to make disciples.  Not only that, but it takes a terrible toll on the pastors and on their families.  (In my next post, I'll tell you what Shaun's wife wrote about this whole experience.  I'm telling you... this lady shoots straight!)

And, yes, Shaun a better way does exist.

What might that "better way" be?

Here's what Shaun's wife, Rai, had to say:

For more on Shaun's story:


  1. Thanks for posting this. God is raising up many and bringing down others to make His name famous. If we will get back to the actual mandate to go and make disciples first, then our churches will become filled with people who are not afraid of failure, ridicule, man or even death. Then His Kindom will be advanced in all the neighborhoods that most Christ-claimers are running from.
    Keep pushing ahead Shaun!


  2. OK, I'm there with this point, so what's the solution?
    Lost in 'church' Space,

  3. Hey Ted,

    Loved your comment: "Lost in 'church' space. lol

    So, my belief is that the solution is to return to the New Testament pattern of church. In fact, I think God is drawing people to this all over the world.

    What does that mean? Well, one aspect of NT church was that it functioned like an extended spiritual family. Our short hand for this is church = family. (This is a huge paradigm shift from church = organization or institution or event!) It's really in this context (we call this a "vibrant family of Jesus") that the kind of discipleship that Shaun King longs for can take place.

    There is a huge amount of information about what this paradigm shift looks like in the right column of this blog. Do some exploring under "Topics". Here's one you might start with:

    Ted, glad to interact more about this. If you are interested, you can email me at

    John White

  4. Thanks for posting. It seems just so critical to build a community not an event. But who really wants that, in their heart of hearts? I do.

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  6. HI Beloved brothers and sisters. Im crying too for the state of Father's house, but as much as discipleship produces disciples, it doesnt produce hearts and minds that are totally surrendered and dependant upon Jesus Christ. That only happens when we go past these foundations, to perfection. Jesus says love is what makes us perfect, and loving one another as He loves us is the fulfillment of all the requirements for righteousness. We are still avoiding simply doing what He told us to do, which is summed up in all the 'ONE ANOTHER'S" listed in the N.T.They cover every season and aspect of life.
    Jesus last words to us were "...teaching them to OBSERVE ALL THINGS that I have COMMANDED you". For the most part, leaders havnt done this, but we can do it ourselves, and with one another. If we will repent of trying to do His work our way,He will reciprocate with a release of His Spirit among us, and His love will transform us into a people that will once again be described as 'Behold how they love one another'. He wont give His Glory to another. He insists on the Lord Jesus being the life that draws us to Father, and nothing else. Our fellow secular citizens, many starving for God, aleady have what we are inviting them to join our 'family' for. They have leaders who are fleecing them, children that wont grow up into maturity,high divorce, loveless marriages, worldliness and love of money,temples of worship, backbiting, gossip et al.
    We need to be filled to overflowing with Jesus life and love before we can offer anything to anyone. We will only learn that kind of life by practicing on one another. That will be the hardest thing the church has done in centuries, and we are avoiding it. He's waiting for us to do our part so He can do His. Community is not built, it is born, of God only. His kingdom comes without observation, like the wind, and His presence is like a dove, who can easily be scared away when careless ones dont realize how gentle and patient God is. He has generations to wait while we try to fit meaningful lives into a few decades. We can teach our chldren how He turned history right side up in 33 yrs with 12 (Jesus and the 11 disciples) men. We took over running the kingdom, with good intentions, in a few generations, and and have found thousands of excuses and models to keep it in bondage for milleniums. We even use His Word to justify our usurping of His house.His house is Jesus and US.Its filled with Pharisses, Lawyers, Teachers of the Law and people that cant decide if they will follow Him or crucify Him.
    Im trying not to be melodramatic while Im also trying to get across that the Lord has spent most of history waiting for His people to move past being servants and slaves to sons and lovers, children and brethren.
    He gives us what we REALLY want. Cant we want what He wants this time?
    Blessings dear family.

  7. When we walk as He walked, it looks like... Nothing. Nothing except ordinary life infused with Eternal Life. Hard to get our minds around it, but incredibly freeing!

    You don't have to stop going to church to have this life. But church becomes completely superfluous.

  8. Shaun's story is so similar to what happened at my last church job it is scary... albeit they didn't have a super-cool service to hold onto they just wanted to hold on to mediocrity. Until Christians stop defending these dysfunctional and excessive institutions that they attempt to find validation from they will never believe that Jesus loves them AND (shockingly) even LIKE them. Me and mine will be praying for Shaun. I, liked him, blogged about my experience with not-nice results.

  9. Jesus said he hated the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans. I never heard a sermon on that one while in the camp. You will never hear it either while in the camp because because the hierarchal leadership is dominating(nico) the laity(laitens).

    I left the whole things a few years ago. I was experienced a protracted infancy and began to grow and mature once I left the confining walls of institutional religion.

    Hebrews 13:13 states:

    'Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.'

    You decide what that means, in light of so many leaving the camp.

  10. This event has garnered a lot of attention and generated a lot of good discussion.

    One thing I think that is missing is the reality that we are not all at one stage of growth but move through differing stages of maturity. One of those is the crowd at worship - kind of at a spiritual infancy level where they want to be taken care of. Another is a disciple involved in study. Another is a cross bearing servant on a mission for God as a member of an elite team where everyone shares the same radical commitment. Another is a worker in the harvest who helps people relationally walk the path toward God and spiritual growth. Another is a friend of Jesus (John 15) who helps the whole system and cycle of growth to happen.

    When you look at this story with these levels in mind, you have a pastor who is at the missional stage ... but who knew how to fill a church sanctuary with infants but did not know how to help them grow to the missional stage where he was at. Over time he felt more and more isolated and frustrated.

    He did not feel called to stay with those sheep and learn how to help them grow up and move through the stages.

    But he did feel called to move out into creating missional teams where a new disciple (conceiveably) in a missional context would move more rapidly from a spiritual infancy into that higher level of maturity.

    His new focus is "caring for people and meeting needs in the city" - I'm concerned that he will now burn out in a single minded focus upon doing that.

    The lesson to me in this is that the goal is not to be good at any one stage of growth, but to learn how rapidly move people through the stages ... because the whole body is not a worship service, nor is it is missional act; it's all these things working together, and at a high level of quality at each level.

  11. Hi David, Thanks for your comments! I agree with you that often the developmental nature of making disciples has been missed. My sense is that the primary metaphor for leaders in Scripture is that of spiritual parents. (ie, Paul in 1 Thes 2 - like a mother, like a father) The wise parent discerns the stage of growth of the "child" and has an understanding of how to help them to the next stage.

    One of the sad things about Shaun King's story is that the church planting "experts" had so little idea of how to do this. And, once the Sunday morning "experience" has "succeeded", making the change is often difficult if not impossible.

  12. We agree, John. I based my 2008 DMin project on trying to figure out the stages of growth as experienced by the disciples in the gospels ... it's a paradigm that really changes how you perceive things.

    Now when people say the church be more of this and less of that, I can frequently see them asking for ministry to their developmental level which they feel is lacking.

    I'm also, as I study it, coming to believe that one can't mature beyond the second level without some kind of "organic"-like experience of spiritual community.

    And of course, when your disciple makes a disciple, you become a grandparent ... there are four generations of disciple making described in 2 Timothy 2:2.

  13. David, I was at Fuller a little before you. (MDiv in 73) Had the privilege of being in the first Church Growth class ever taught to Americans with McGavran, Kraft, Wagner, etc. Interesting to see how that thing developed over the years.

    What we are working on is training house church leaders in how to develop a truly organic community. Most of them come from traditional church and try to implement what they learned there in the context of a home. Old wine in new wineskins. The result is what we call "Honey, I shrunk the church!" Traditional church shrunk down into a home. Which doesn't really work well.

    Here's how we are seeking to introduce people to the new wine:

  14. Interesting article but I always feel that people are missing it when they lay the blame for their spiritual dissatisfaction at the feet of a weekly meeting. I can't help but think that our perspective needs to change dramatically if we're to really engage with Jesus' mission. Following Christ is a battle and our biggest struggles are always internal.

    I find it disturbing that today's generation of church goers are so quick to blame external structures for their internal poverty. Why do I say that? Because for all of the talk about doing church differently history shows that the same dissatisfaction found in "mega" churches shows up in every other style of church given enough time. Methinks therefore the real issue isn't structural but rather a heart one?

  15. Thanks for your comment, Dermot! My thought would be that this might be a both/and situation. For sure it is an internal, heart issue. But, I also think the external context is also important.

    Frank Viola, in "Pagan Christianity", makes the point that the structure of a church building sends powerful (if unarticulated) messages. For instance, rows of pews facing a pulpit conveys something powerful about what is valued and what is not valued.

    I vote for both new wine (internal, heart connection with the Spirit) and new wineskins (external environment that allows church to flow from that internal connection).

  16. The Church has become a mass production Factory, pumping out mediocrity as fast as possible without: a) Meeting the needs of people, b) growing disciples who are lifelong Christians and EFFECTIVE christians in spirit and teaching, c) Giving people the encouragement and tools to be what God has called them to be as individuals, d) a community full of the Love of the Spirit (Agapae Love - God's love in us... not a petty human pretend love).

    Its so sad, and heartbreaking. I met a man who had been raised in a Christian church from birth, and didnt know who the Holy Spirit was or that God speaks to his children. What a tragedy. I really do hope we have a revolution, because its hard to see much difference in the Church than in the world...

  17. I guess God wanted me to find this page; maybe I should say something. Long ago, I became born again after an epiphany of sorts and I found myself in a growing exurban megachurch. Active, full of energy, I was firefighter in a big city's ghetto; I knew my way around.

    I founded and connected the church to urban ministries, recruited workers, got people enthused -- some experienced what the called miracles -- and then I was on the missions board. On my off days, I was either at the church or "doing" in the city. I knew everyone with a position in the church and I learned from many viewpoints how the church worked.

    Soon, the church's focus changed to building a campus, making room for more people and mysteriously many who helped with urban ministries stopped doing so.

    With much prayer and study of the Word, as well as my intimate knowledge of the church's inside, I concluded that the many pastors and elders were unwitting agents of the ambitious senior pastor who instituted a substitution of the Holy Spirit with business ethics. For example, a circumstance arises causing many to say that "God wants us to do this." "Not so fast," says the senior pastor and the elders in his circle.

    Such circumstances were not looked at with spiritual scrutiny and trust in God for provision and protection but, rather, a business model. Questions arose: Does it threaten us with liability; have you done a cost/benefit analysis; will our budget allow it; does it fit with our post-modern format?

    I could go on. I walked away 7 years ago when they chose to spend $26,000 on a parking lot improvement rather than spend one dime more on a troubled urban ministry with which they had a long and close affiliation. They lost many of the 10%ers who do most of the work in the following years but I've heard that under new leadership (the former senior pastor continued his stratospheric rise) it's more Spirit-led and I've thought to go back but I sense something like a dog's invisible fence around the property as if God is telling me not to set foot thereon. I just think a church is either led by the Spirit or it's not; how can there be a half way? I read Isaiah 58 and substitute the words fast and fasting with today's "going to church" or simply church. I just can't get away from the practical expression of obedience to God being righteousness exemplified by the demonstration of justice to those without means. Church attendance without such an expression is a meaningless act.

    There is a small, cinder-block community church down the road. Maybe . . .

  18. My problem is how does a man of God as he says vote for Obama. I mean he is for abortion and as Christians should we not be against people who are for it.

  19. Courageous Church never in any way qualified as a mega church. Ever.