Church Cannibalism: Should Pastors be Called Out for Pac-Man Tactics?

images-1There are churches in America who regularly move into a new locale, set up a “site” complete with video screen, 8 or 9 pastors, an array of religious goods and services, a massive children’s ministry, a spectacular worship band and then either beam in or present live their celebrity pastor for the opening Sunday. Because there are a couple hundred fans of the celebrity pastor already in the area the church starts out with several hundred appearing the first Sunday.

Often, on that first Sunday, the celebrity pastor will laud the efforts of this new site to bring the gospel to this neighborhood. He will perhaps even say something like  “no church preaches the Bible more faithfully in this community like this church will do.” (I know of situations in greater Chicagoland where this actually has taken place.) But what we discover over the ensuing weeks is that this church now attracts hundreds more attenders from the surrounding smaller less spectacular churches. The new ‘site’ mushrooms to a thousand attenders in a matter of months filled with people from other churches. These large churches call this “church planting” as if they are engaging non-Christians and their neighborhoods for the gospel.

The next step is even more insidious in my opinion. Some of the smaller locally engaged community churches of say 300 people have now lost half their congregation to the new ‘site.’ They now struggle to pay their bills. The large church behind the “site” now contacts that church and says “we’ve heard of your struggles. Perhaps we can help?” They then offer to come in, assume the mortgage and other bills, share the church facilities and help with various needs. Within months however they have ‘pac-manned’ the church. The properties have all been assumed by the video church (with accrued equity). The leadership has all been replaced. The new sign out front now boasts “the brand” of the mega church that these sites all are part of.

My question is, is this Kingdom building or empire building. I see these tactics doing three things specifically that work against the Kingdom.

1. This Destroys Community. By taking people out of local community churches that are smaller to more convenient larger churches, we individualize the church and consumerize the church. It is a function of the bigger video church, that the focus is upon the teaching delivered and the various religious services offered. Community engagement moves down the pecking order and now becomes a program of the church. Getting to know and be present with each other as a congregation is diminished. This in turn diminishes the wherewithal for a church to present to its neighbors and neighborhood. It segregates Christians into more narrow minded defensive enclaves trained to adhere to one very charaismatic often authoritarian pastor’s teaching. This works against engaging the world for Christ and His Kingdom.

2. This Encourages Christianity As a Spectator Sport. This is the flipside of 1. Big churches take less participation and offer more paid-for services. Small community churches require participation to survive. It is a part of what church is. Given the option, I believe less mature, more busy Christians will be lured to the former. Before they even have a chance to be in a community of mutual life and discipleship, they are warehoused into a more spectator-ized Christianity. This works against engaging the world for Christ and His Kingdom..

3. This Decontextualizes Christianity and insulates it all the more from mission. Anytime you import a celebrity pastor from even 30 miles away (never mind two hundred miles away) you are in essence decontextualizing church. This takes place, for example, in preaching. Yes teaching the basics of the Bible can span across cultural contexts. But when it comes to actually proclaiming gospel over the specific circumstances in a local community – the needs and dynamics of a community’s life in context – this kind of proclamation must be done locally with a preacher who lives in and among. When this is lost, we lose the ability to fund imagination for mission through proclaiming gospel. Instead the church attracts people who already agree with celebrity preacher and his or her view on hot topics. This dynamic separates a church from its context as opposed to engaging it. These same dynamics happen when leadership is centralized in a place detached from the context of its various multi-sites.

For all these reasons then, I believe church cannibalism is a bad thing for the Kingdom. Why then is there so little discussion of these pac-man tactics? Why no accountability within these mega structures for this kind of activity? Where are the elders and directing boards and what are they thinking when such tactics are carried out again and again? (I’ve even heard one of these pastors acclaimed for the gift of real estate acquisition). I agree there will be times when old churches need to die, and congregational life renovated. I believe there are times when fresh works of the Kingdom need to be birthed amidst other churches. But this should be done with care and dialogue and cooperation, not hostile merger and acquisition tactics. And so I believe the tactics described above work against the Kingdom of God and should be called out. But I hear nothing?  Should they be called out? At least questioned? Do you know any churches that have done this? What do you think? Help me out here please?


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Posted in Church Planting, consumerism, Cultivating Mission, Ecclesiology, Incarnational, Kingdom, Mission and Culture, Missional Ecclesiology
42 comments on “Church Cannibalism: Should Pastors be Called Out for Pac-Man Tactics?
  1. Jeff Keady says:

    David, I agree with you. I don’t think any church should come into a neighborhood without first contacting the other churches already there. That is just ethical and moral. It highlights the body of Christ as one body. It respects those who have labored in that community for years and perhaps decades.

    Any church that grows primarily through member acquisition from other churches is just doing it wrong. That wreaks all kinds of havoc in those churches.

    We have two choices in church growth – just get bigger and bigger, or plant more churches. That initial service should consist of people from the planting church’s crowd – not Christians in the area who attend other churches.

    Good post David!

  2. Tim Hoekstra says:

    I have attempted to engage some large church pastors about a willingness to ask the tough questions of themselves and their leadership. Generally there has been an overall defensiveness…and sometimes I pick up a fear to ask because it could lead to a significant crisis in their own life and leadership. I know because I was there some 20 years ago and paid the price of questioning my own leadership and my own leaders but made it through to the other side with some still remaining scars and a church community of 40 rather than one growing by 100 persons a year.

    I think what often happens is that once the momentum moves like this for these churches it simply keeps asking for more and more and more of the same and often asks for further tactics to keep the momentum moving forward. The leaders then are blinded by the momentum to the extent of being unable and unwilling to ask the tough questions…questions with the same heart that Jesus had in confronting the “religious machine” of his own day with really good questions.

    Also, long time leaders of small communities, like myself, are easily written off when we seek to ask these questions – we are written off by the empire leaders and by their members and often by the broader Christian community that has been taught a very simplified approach to “success” evaluation.

    I keep prodding with these difficult questions in my own denominational circles and places of potential influence…so much so that my own informal reputation has become “the pain in the ass guy.”

  3. Mark Votava says:

    David I love your thoughts here! I think people should be called out into a different path, to shut down the whole thing they call church and start over where living within and engaging the local context is the first priority of the church. My opinion is if there is no embodiment in everyday life together there is no expression of embodied love in our culture. The cannibalization of the church with pac-man tactics is destructive, colonial, disembodied, excarnate and inauthentic to use a few words. When there is no faithful presence in the parish in everyday life together there is no expression of the body of Christ Monday through Saturday. This is tragic to see how the church does not consider where we live as important. Proximity to a particular place is devalued and ignored for the sake of church growth as church is defined as a meeting or a building we go to. This decontextualizes everything and creates a duality between our spirituality and our everyday lives. We are not healthy in this kind of duality which is so common in Christianity in North America today. Thank you for your voice which is for community embodiment not the destruction of it!

  4. Yuck! I hadn’t realized that this was actually going on. I thought it was just my cynical stereotype.

  5. Doug Paul says:

    Dave, appreciate the article here as this has become an almost normal part of the church landscape in more populous places (it’s not just big cities).

    Curious what your thoughts are: Not all of what you mention above, but a chunk of it is the unintended consequences of video preaching/celebrity, etc. Perhaps not entirely, but remove the celebrity and/or the level of extraordinary communication gifting and you may not get the same line of dominoes falling.

    I’m curious what your thoughts are about places that are driving towards more multiplication of small neighborhood congregations (parishes in the cities, called different things in hone suburbs) where preaching and pastoring is married in the he local context, there is often a shared name, leadership support and admin. Obviously Trinity Grace seems to be the model example of this.

    Do you see places like that having similar delitirous consequences, or is the smaller congregation, local pastor and lack of a true celebrity pastor on the giant video mitigating against that?

    • David Fitch says:

      From what I know of Trinity Grace, there seems little correlation between what they do and what these churches do. There’s nothing predatory about their work. Jon does find good pastor/leaders in different districts of NYC and then they work together. I love that. I am sure there is cross recruiting based on some “celebrity” factor … but again, nothing predatory. I see what we do at life onthe Vine and the mutual support we provide each other in the two …soon to be three church plants as not too dissimilar from Trinity Grace … although we are somewhat diofferent in preaching culture etc.
      I don’t even see all mega churches who do satelites as being in the same mix when it comes to these Pac-Man tactics. So we must discern, how are we working together with other churches? How are we working together to build the KIngdom in a locale. Blessings ! DF

  6. Russ says:

    About 15 or so years ago a book titled “Sheep Stealing” by Bill Chadwick addressed some of these concerns. He argued that the great church growth movement of the 90′s had a zero net effect on expanding the Kimgdom. All of the growth being seen in evangelical circles was simply transfer growth.
    Excessive transfer growth does nothing to unite the Church. The pastor is out to protect his or her own flock (and job). This breaks down trust and creates a competitive kingdom environment rather than a collaborative one. “We’re all on the same mission, just don’t mess around in my yard…”

  7. David Hardin says:


    love your thoughts.

    I have heard from several people of a church in your neck of the woods that is quite aggressive at what you call “pac-manning.” I have even heard of people joining a community for the specific purpose of swaying the vote for a merger (takeover?) This should give us great pause because it does damage community and promote consumerism.

    I read about satellite churches being the new thing, and I have a hard time understanding how it can be the church as Jesus intended.

    I do know of a church here in Northeast Ohio that is active in attempting church revitalization. They regularly send a portion of their community to join with another struggling church to try to breath new life into it. They are a bit more “do it this way” than I would like. However the churches have their own leadership teams, their own pastors, and I do believe the goal for a vibrant local church is genuine.

    I believe this is a far more helpful approach because, in theory, it encourages those attending larger churches to step up into smaller community, and challenges established communities that, through there own consumerism, have turned inward to refocus.

  8. Lydia says:

    This has gone on like crazy in the South over last 20 years. It starts out like you describe and ends up with them gobbling up smaller churches in other parts of town the same way using the sat campi tactic so that name brand church ends up putting many small ones out of business or taking them over. The big church preacher’s sermons are downlinked so he is the only “preaching” guy they hear. The church no longer has a real pastor. It is conformity. And it is empire building.

    The SBC Seminary here is big into this business. They send small churches seminary pastors to help them and he ends up getting the church to vote on merging with bigger church. The problem is often the vote is rigged so that those in nursing homes who still tithe cannot vote becasue they cannot get there. You have to be present to vote. (Many churches need to recheck they bylaws) Seen it quite a few times here. Often the big church ends up with a free church building and they remake it into their own image from there.

    But I blame the pew sitters for being attracted to the glitz and so easily manipulated. There will always be charlatan empire builders. So why are the pew sitter’s heads turned so easily? That is the real question. They are not keeping up with what is going on. Church has become a commercial enterprise.

  9. Dianne says:

    Another point is that when the leaders of the pac-man churches come to retire often the church falls apart. Sometimes even has to recall the charismatic pastor back from retirement. Not a good model.

  10. zev goldman says:

    Wherever resides the Holy Spirit thereto resides the spirit of Judas cloaked in the garb of righteousness. The latter is how I describe the multiplex church. The arrogance of the ministers involved in these undertakings is staggering. More importantly it is destructive and harmful to the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ultimately their proof will be in the bearing or not bearing of fruit.

  11. Neil says:

    All of that being said, here are my thoughts. If the large, spectator-like church wasn’t attractive to people, they wouldn’t be successful. The alternative is to have only the small, community-based churches, which perhaps doesn’t appeal to some people. So if the people leaving the small churches prefer the larger, mega-church model, then so be it. I think it’s a reflection of the success of the model more than of some nefariousness on the part of the mega-church pastors.

    On the other hand, if the small, community-based churches had a more compelling model, still while being small and community-based, then the people probably wouldn’t leave. They’d love their church and not want to leave the church experience it gave them. So someone must be lacking in these small churches that are losing members and then getting swallowed up.

    It’s easy to say that the members are being swept away by glitz and excitement. And maybe they are. Or maybe they’re not. Either way, something is making the members leave in the first place, and that should be the issue, not what the results of them leaving are.

    Do they find the large church more of a “vibrant” experience? Do they feel more in a family (ironically) in the large church than in the smaller, community-based church? Do they find they relate to the message there more?

    Whatever it is, something is drawing those people away. And if they find a church that they relate to and prefer to be at more, then so be it. The alternative is to only have the small, community-based churches that people might not be totally satisfied at, until, at some point, they just stop going. At least here people are finding a church experience they want to be a part of.

    Now, one may say, these people aren’t committed Christians in the first place. Because, if they were, then they wouldn’t leave their church for some new, exciting church down the street. And that may be. But, in that case, then what harm has been done? And perhaps they’ll find a commitment at the larger church.

    But if they were committed Christians, but have just found a worship experience they prefer, then so be it. Better that than to have the church stagnate with a particular model that perhaps doesn’t fit the needs of the times.

    All of that being said, I’ll add this: if a pastor goes into a location with the intention of “swallowing up” other, smaller churches, then I condemn that wholeheartedly. If, on the other hand, that’s just the result of his church being successful, then perhaps he’s bring a more relevant model to the community. Or perhaps people are just shallow. One of the two.

    • Jeff Keady says:


      All of the above, right?! I do think the article was talking only about those larger churches with an unethical method. Large churches and small churches just need to be healthy churches. Size is not the issue. Half the people like large, and half like small – broadly speaking. We need both.

      I think that a little good natured competition will make both churches better. Of course someone could take that statement and run in the wrong direction with it, but you make a good point. Maybe the larger church is just really good, and the smaller church only has themselves to blame. That happens probably in many situations, so the small church shouldn’t call foul.

      I think we should all be rejoicing more over people connected in community with other believers, and care a whole lot less about the size of the church. Anyway Neil, I think you make great points.


      • Neil says:

        Thanks, Jeff. Appreciate your reply. Agree with that “a little good natured competition will make both churches better.” Good point.

        Regarding that the article was only talking about larger churches with an unethical method, I’m not so sure. See David Fitch’s reply to me and Chris below. In it he questions whether churches that are “instantly appealing” to young Christians or consumer-oriented Christians would meet the needs of discipleship for those Christians.

        So this seems to imply that the issue is with the church itself, not with their methods of attracting members.

        Also, the fact that he calls it “instantly appealing” implies that he sees the decision to go to that church as a superficial one, based on instant appeal, rather than one that weighs the values of both churches and chooses the other.

        So it is my belief that David’s article deals with the churches themselves, not with their method of obtaining members. But I could be mistaken, of course.

  12. Chris says:

    Very interesting article – whether nefarious or not, I believe it is happening and is akin to an economic theory called the “wheel of retailing”.

    Before I go on, let me just say I have been in business in both large and small companies and I have pastored at a big church (WC) and am now at a small church. So I can see both sides.

    The wheel of retailing theory has been seen in our country especially when you look at Walmart in small towns. WM moves in and puts many other stores out of business. Why? because they offer a greater selection at a better price. So, consumers flock to WM to get more for less “Save Money, Live Better”! So we go there and get more than we need and save money and the local lumber yard, dress shop, and bike shop go out of business. But, then after time, people realize that if they want a really good bike, with good service, they can’t get that at WM. So someone opens up a bike shop and sells better bikes with better service and you get to know the owner and the salesperson and mechanics. So, what basically happens is, after a time, people see a need for better quality and service and the wheel turns again. McDonalds vs Starbucks for morning coffee would be a good example. Why go get a cheap cup and a lacking environ when you could get a quality cup with a community feel.

    How does this affect the church. Well, first we are a bit behind on the wheel as Megachurches got successful awhile after walmart – we Christians are always behind the times :) Second, it is too bad that Christians have become consumers vs contributors – a desire to attract with poor discipleship has caused that. Third, the GOOD NEWS, I believe the wheel will turn in the small church favor. People want to “know and be known” and that will always be a challenge in the large church, I also believe people want to meaningfully contribute (if they are really converted). In a small church, one can tell who is really “walking with Christ” better than an anonymous large church.

    My hope is that small churches can specialize and add value where bigger churches can’t and that both sizes of church can work together, not to shuffle sheep, but to grow the entire flock!

    • Neil says:


      I think what you’re saying agrees with what I’m saying: that the needs/desires of the people will drive what’s successful. If megachurches are successful, then that means they have something that people are looking for. And, as you say, the wheel turns back, and people see the advantages of small churches, and a sort of equilibrium is reached. I think it’s all part of the process.

      We live in a time when so much is changing. Newspapers being replaced by online news site; retail establishments being replaced by Amazon; family relationships being replaced by online family; etc. It’s to be expected that the church model/structure would change as well — both due to technology, and as a result of technology’s effect on people’s lives and way of thinking. That’s just the reality.

      We have to trust the Lord that he will guide his flock as he wishes, even if there are temporary detours here and there as people learn the value of one type of community over another. As long as they’re preaching the Word of God, I think a certain equilibrium will be reached over time, and people will be the wiser.

      If the overall church model changes permanently, as so much else in our society is changing permanently, then so be it. Let the church evolve to what meets the people’s needs. As long as the Word of God is being preached, then God will work through it.

    • This comment is precisely what I would have said, but you said it first, Chris. This is merely The Wheel of Retailing Applied to Church Life.

      I’m not saying it isn’t at times destructive, I’m not saying that it doesn’t creep me out to compare a “church” to Wal-Mart… I’m just agreeing that the deeper problem is consumerism.

      We might wonder if we have done little in our little churches to curb consumerism if they are so easily drawn astray by these tactics.

      There is also hope: just like the Wheel of Retailing… another “competitor” may come along that offers better quality, more of what is wanted, or in some cases cheaper.

      Now, the church is not Whole Foods, but perhaps a Holistic local church Ministry in the long run might be a healthy option for those that find the Wal-Mart Ministry Campus lacking and shallow. Or, even better, those congregants in a holistic local church wouldn’t leave their authentic Christian community in the first place. That would be my dream.

      Of course, Wal-Mart and the MegaChurches are doing just fine, and they don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

      Do we get bitter about this, or do we get better in light of it? I’m not a Celebrity Pastor (and even that label is a bit dehumanizing to them, which I don’t agree with) but perhaps that guy on the screen with the million dollar smile and the funny illustrations is not the real problem. Our culture of consumerism is, and he’s trapped in it just like most of us.

      May the Church counter such culture with authentic community.

  13. Les Evans says:

    If there is sin there is accountability to be had. If there is sin. However, if it is done while championing justice and the building of factions not only will it fail, it will have been done wrongly. Every pastor who is accused in anything, is first our Brother in Christ and by extension the Bride of Jesus. I would offer the suggestion of individual accountability. If it is unwanted or ill received, the next step is a bit more proactive with a couple additional witnesses. (not a gang up party) And if it is still not received then it is time for the public confrontation. (Not to be right but to have rightness accomplished) it seems we find this example of “calling out” if it should ever have such a barbaric tone somewhere familiar. When we assume it to not work because it is too idealistic, disregard this approach, or see it not work and decide to do it our own way instead, not only are we wrong but we sin ourselves. Ultimately, do we care about our peers liking and agreeing what we have to say because we like our ideas or do we love the leaders who God will still use inspite of themselves. If we assume we are right in our thoughts then being right in the right way and at the right time are equally important. But now we have the approach. I confess I am not close enough to the circumstance or the leaders to actually engage the direction of their hearts intent to judge if it is being done in malice or sin so I will not put my boat in and paddle in this water full of steam engines.

  14. Wil says:

    When the flock is fed fodder, it will roam to find that which fills them. The flock sees greener grass on the other side of the fence, and goes roaming to which they want to investigate to see if it fills them better than the fodder. Flocks don’t roam too far from where they are familiar,but as long as they can see their former grounds, they have a tendency not too return even though they have found out that the greener grass was no better, but they stay put because it won’t make a difference where they are not being filled, but can view their familiar ground and will still call the original ground home. The problem is that the flock is being fed fodder and not being filled because if the flock is truly being filled he does not roam.

    “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me”…

    they tend not to follow the voice of a stranger, especially a “celebrity preacher”…

  15. Simona says:

    I’m from Oradea-Romania, and this situation happened with our church, if I recall well, it was last year. The pastor heard about some people spreading tracts regarding a new church, led by some American preacher that focuses on healing. What my pastor did, was to expose this healing preacher in front of the audience, telling that if he wants followers and members in his “church” better to look out in the lost world, not in churches. They didn’t come back in our church, and we never heard again from that healing preacher. Perhaps, when this happens to a church, it is the pastor’s responsibility to take action against these kind of schemes.

  16. chad says:

    i grew up in salt lake city where christian churches had terraformed for fifty years just to get small congregations of two hundred. then one of these operations moved in and cut churches in half. i’ll never forget the quote in the paper that justified their move because none of the local churches were doing a good job. this practice is disgusting, but sadly the new normal for american evangelicalism.

  17. katya says:

    On one hand it sounds like big problem, on the other, especially reading it from another part of the globe, it looks like just another distraction for proclaiming the Gospel. I have started tree churches in my 100 sq. feet apartment , all three are different denominations, started two more churches in the neighborhood, never stayed in a leadership in any of them in order to move on. If half of your people left for the bigger show, repent, that you have not taught them any better. They should of leave you ant way , but to make disciples and start more churches.

  18. David Fitch says:

    The comments above that ascribe to the idea that Christians must be free to go to the best/most attractive worship for them … ignore the reality that worship/discipleship is a fomrative process into which we are invited … that is not instantly appealing or even makes sense to the young Christian or the Christian discipled by the consumer ideals of American culture. So the question of this post is, “to what extent are our churches reponsible for this kind of discipling?” “to what extent do the Pac-Man churches undercut true discipling in a mass culture of consumer narcissism?” This kind of reflection seems to be lacking in some of Chris’s and Neil’s comments above, No? I’d like to hear Chris, Neil’s response to this level of the issues here in this post.

    • You say this:
      “worship/discipleship is a fomrative process into which we are invited … that is not instantly appealing or even makes sense to the young Christian or the Christian discipled by the consumer ideals of American culture. ”


      We might wonder if perhaps such people leaving churches are in fact Christian Disciples in the first place, as opposed to consumers of Christian sub-culture. And what’s more, perhaps many of those in the sites are the same.

      It makes us all do a gut-check, I hope.

    • Neil says:


      In reply to your comment about the comments left by me and Chris, first let me say that I am wholeheartedly opposed to churches that actively try to recruit from other churches. That is predatory church-building in my opinion, and it is wrong.

      What I was referring to was more when a mega-church is established and people organically gravitate to it because their friends who go there talk about it, etc. As such, I think people should be able to find the worship experience that fits them best, even if it means leaving a church they may have been at.

      The goal here is that people are fed and discipled. And if people feel they’re being fed and discipled at a different (albeit larger) church, then that’s wrong with that? (Again, though, to the exclusion of predatory church-building practices.)

      Your comments about the need for discipleship seem to imply that a person would not get fed or discipled at a mega-church. (I am avoiding using the term “Pac-Man Church” because I think that would apply to those who actively try to take from other churches, not to churches that just grow naturally, even if it means some leave other churches.) And I think, perhaps, that is how you see the situation: actively discipled at a smaller church, or attending a larger church for the glitz and glamor, but not necessarily being discipled. (Correct me if I’m wrong in my interpretation of your views.)

      With that in mind, let me share a little bit from my own life, which perhaps will address that point, as well as perhaps give insight into why I stated previously what I stated.

      The first church I seriously attended after coming to the Lord was the First Foursquare Church of Van Nuys, CA, also known as The Church on the Way, which was Jack Hayford’s church. Jack Hayford is what you would call a “celebrity pastor.” He’s written books, is on Christian TV shows quite frequently, his church has a syndicated radio program that has been on the air for decades, etc., etc.

      Jack Hayford is also an excellent Bible teacher. He knows the Bible better than most teachers I’ve encountered. He was president of Life Bible College for a period of time. And he started a Bible college at The Church on the Way, called The King’s University, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees.

      I share all that as a way of emphasizing the point that during the time that I attended The Church on the Way, I was fed with the Word of God in a way that I haven’t experienced at any church I’ve been at since. There was a strong emphasis on Bible study there, and a great teaching of the Word on Sunday mornings and at other times.

      I found my time at The Church on the Way enriched my life and set a strong foundation of studying the Word, as well as one in prayer and worship, that I might not have gotten at a different church. Certainly the other churches I’ve been at did not come close to The Church on the Way in the level of Bible teaching that they offered (though some of them did excel it in other ways).

      So, my point here is that simply because one may leave a small church for an “exciting” mega-church with a “celebrity” pastor does not necessarily mean that one has fallen prey to “consumerism” or the “glitz and glamor” of such a church. Sometimes mega-churches have a lot to offer, and may meet the needs of an individual more than the smaller church that they are attending.

      And, again, I say that with the caveat that I am not including churches in that sentiment which actively recruit from other churches, a practice I find to be abhorrent.

      But if a person feels they are better fed and better discipled at a large church vs. a small church, then what is wrong with that? Again, I think a person should be free to be a part of the community they feel best fed at.

      Your reply is appreciated.

      • Jeff Keady says:


        I attended a Consultation 1 with Jack Hayford (and 35 others!) back in the fall of 2005. It was wonderful! One of the most pleasant weeks of my life with other fellow pastors.

        Of course you know that to compare the Van Nuys church to the other megapac megaman churches :) is really not even close. Hayford is one of those unique exceptions that throws all the averages off. He of course was huge, is huge, on discipleship, mentoring, training, teaching, etc. You absolutely will have a hard time finding another church with that type of quality – I agree.

        But you said something in your reply that jumped out at me. You said:
        “I think people should be able to find the worship experience that fits them best, even if it means leaving a church they may have been at.” I would say that when that happens, it is not the best in at least a majority of the instances, and likely a vast majority.

        The body of Christ isn’t about someone’s “worship experience”, or if one church is going to be better than the one you are at. To really experience the body of Christ, there needs to be commitment, longevity, and faithfulness to the process of relationships and discipleship, and living out all the “one anothers” of the the New Testament.

        Kingdom life in the body of Christ is so much more than the Sunday morning experience. If I want a better worship experience, I will be changing churches every couple months. That just cannot be the criteria.

        I would suggest that people who change churches, even infrequently, are sabotaging their spiritual development. Just maybe when they are beginning to build meaningful relationships, they jump ship!

        I pastor a “200church” and the growth has happened huge in the people who have stayed through thick and thin, learning, growing, (sometimes through difficulty and struggle) and developing along the way, and then building into others.

        So, if a person is attending a church already, and all that person needs to leave it is to discover a worship experience that they feel fits them better…??? Oh, that’s just bad.

        Okay, now, get ready to roll your eyes… :) I know… here it comes…

        There are a lot of women in my state that would likely “fit me better” than my wife, and a lot of men that would be better to live with than me – but we are committed to each other. That commitment means that our struggles and differences will be weathered, and we will get better – together.

        Okay, there, are you rolling your eyes on that illustration? :^D I am. I couldn’t resist.

        Having said all of that – yes, sometimes, in a vast minority of instances, the church a person might be attending literally might not even deserve their attendance, and they should leave. But I do think that is likely quite the exception. In my most humblest of opinions! And if I’m anything, I’m humble! :)

        Thanks for reading the longest reply I’ve maybe ever given online!


        • Neil says:

          Jeff, thanks for your most thoughtful reply.

          First, let me clarify something. I used the term “worship experience” far too loosely. To me, everything we do is an act of worship to God. So when I said “worship experience,” I really meant the entire church experience, both in services as well as in activities beyond the services. My apologies for the vagueness in my use of the term. But I certainly didn’t mean just the experience of singing worship songs! And, yes, I agree with you: if someone leaves for that reason, then that’s not an adequate reason to leave one church for another.

          So, with that being said, let me address your points.

          You say that Jack Hayford is the exception. While I agree with your admiration of the man, I don’t know if he’s the exception. I really can’t say one way or the other what the “average” megachurch pastor would be like in terms of discipleship.

          If, as you say, and as David seemed to imply in his response to me and Chris, the megachurches are a barren wasteland of discipleship, offering nothing but a feel-good experience at the expense of a true church experience with discipleship, then I’d have to retract everything I’ve said here so far. It certainly wouldn’t be true that people should just choose which type of church to go to if the alternative (megachurches) are so substandard when it comes to discipleship.

          But something tells me that’s not the case. Like I said, I can’t say for certain. But I really don’t believe they are just glitz and glamor and feel-good Sunday morning services. I could be wrong. But I don’t think that’s the case.

          I would continue to attest that if someone doesn’t feel they’re being “fed” at a church, or that they’re not growing there, that they should be free to leave if they find another church that will meet their spiritual needs better, even if that church happens to be a megachurch.

          I agree with you that people should have long-term commitments to their churches and the members of it. But then, on the other hand, commitment for the sake of commitment is an empty work. So many times I’ve seen people who have attended a church for, say, 20 years, and they’re proud of that fact. But what they talk about is the church, and how long they’ve been there, etc. They don’t talk about Jesus and growth in the Lord or reaching out to the lost. It’s church for church’s sake. And that’s an empty work.

          So there are two sides to the coin: jumping ship and not being committed because something new and exciting comes along; or staying and being committed for the sake of being committed to that church without really growing in the Lord. I would say that both sides of that coin are bad.

          The coin that we should embrace, I believe, is one with commitment, but with the flexibility to move elsewhere if one feels it is the right thing to do, for one’s own personal spiritual growth and experience.

          Regarding your marriage analogy, I have to reject that. While, again, I think a commitment to a local church is a valuable thing, I don’t thing it’s the same thing as a lifelong commitment to one’s spouse. Our lifelong commitment is to the Lord and to his church, the body of Christ, not to an individual congregation. (But perhaps you were just making an illustration about lack of commitment, rather than implying that we should have a lifelong commitment to an individual congregation.)

          Re. “in a vast minority of instances, the church a person might be attending literally might not even deserve their attendance, and they should leave. But I do think that is likely quite the exception.” I think I would disagree with that. Without judging whether or not a church “deserves” their attendance, I think different people prosper spiritually in different places — some with large churches, some with smaller churches; some with this kind of pastor, some with that kind of pastor. I’m just saying that people should be able to go to a place if it meets their needs better, and I don’t think it’s the “vast minority of instances” where someone leaves because they find a church that fits them better. But maybe I’m giving people too much credit.

          “And if I’m anything, I’m humble!”

          That ain’t nothing! I’m so humble people once gave me a badge for being the most humble person around! (But then they had to take it away from me because I wore it. :-( )


      • David Fitch says:

        Neil …
        I think we’re talking past each other … again (smile) … You say “Your comments about the need for discipleship seem to imply that a person would not get fed or discipled at a mega-church.” Not so! I do believe discipleship is possible in a mega church. And even I didn’t (and I do have my qualms and qualifications), that’s not the point of my post. I’m arguing that Pac-Man tactics undermine communal engagement. Then after that, in response to some posts, I argued that discipleship is an engaged process which requires a community life. Initiation into such a life of discipleship can be difficult and prolonged for the new believer amidst the consumerist impulses of American society. By a large mega church entering in and appealing to those impulses, it undercuts that process. I’m not saying that by inference all mega churches don’t disciple. I’m saying this Pac-Man tactic undercuts discipleship.
        I hope I’ve clarified myself … thanks for pushing on the issue eh?

        • Neil says:


          Thanks for the reply. A couple of questions.

          1) If I’m understanding you correctly, you seem to be focusing exclusively on the disruption of the discipleship process when the “Pac-Man church” takes over the small church. Is that correct? You have said that you’re not saying that mega-churches don’t disciple. So that implies that discipleship would happen after the “Pac-Man church” takes over. But your main complaint (again, if I’m understanding correctly) is the disruption of the already-in-progress discipleship at the small church. Is that correct?

          2) Continuing with #1, you also seem to be focusing on the members of the small church who are left there when the “Pac-Man church” takes over. That is, you don’t seem to have any qualms about the members of the small church who left it to go to the “Pac-Man church.” Is that correct?

          3) You wrote:

          “Initiation into such a life of discipleship can be difficult and prolonged for the new believer amidst the consumerist impulses of American society. By a large mega church entering in and appealing to those impulses, it undercuts that process.”

          In what way, specifically, does the mega church appeal to “consumerist impulses”? This is not clear to me. You did mention “celebrity pastors” in your article. Is that primarily it? Or are there other ways, as well?

          4) Last, I had noted that, based on my own experience, and what I assume is many other people’s experiences, that many join mega-churches, not because of “consumerist impulses,” but because they find themselves being fed there and find themselves growing there more than they perhaps would at other nearby churches. How does that line up with your view that people join mega-churches because of “consumerist impulses”? Would you say that some join because of shallow “consumerist impulses,” while others may join for more substantial reasons, such as that they just feel it’s a better fit for their spiritual needs? And, if so, what would be the rough estimate, in your opinion, of those who leave small churches for mega-churches due to “consumerist impulses” vs. those who leave for more valid reasons? Just a rough guess is what I’m looking for.

          Thanks for your reply and for helping me to understand more clearly what you’re saying!


  19. Chris says:

    To capture all churches big and small is impossible – there are big good (non-nefarious) ones, and bad little ones and everything in between.

    Should a Christian pick a church solely on what appeals to them? That’s hard to say, we would have to know their desires to guess. There is no one answer here.

    My experience at the mega church is: Put on the best possible service with music, video, engaging speaking, parking attendants, lattes, etc to attract people in. Which people? Well any- they hope for the non-believer, but Catholics came in large numbers, and others from other churches to get access to better goods and services. Once there many avenues for discipleship were offered – and a big church can offer a lot of good quality options. Small groups, recovery groups, classes with sem profs teaching, mission opportunity, serving opportunity, etc. The % of people entering into that process was always lower than anyone wanted, but it did happen.

    Sure some came to the big service, were wowed, thought that was all there was to Christianity and went home to return every 2.4 weeks and call it good. But they did so bypassing many chances for discipleship. Hopefully, their kids learned about Jesus in Kids Church. One can only try at discipling others, after all it is an invitation to “come and die”, is it not?

    I guess you could have a church that attracts with milk and attracts babes and offer them meat later. Or you could offer meat and wonder why there are no babes sitting at the table. Simplistic yes, but most churches are not locked into that dichotomy – its some of both. In fact, mega churches would probably balk at calling their weekend teaching “milk”.

    While I was at WC, I saw many that came to saving faith there and then some would move on to smaller churches, or even to more “meaty” ones like Harvest Bible Chapel. They thought they graduated from Hybels to McDonald! In that area of the country there is room for both, and both have issues – good thing God works through faulty people like us!

    David, I dont’ know if this is the answer you are looking for. Am I happy with the state of the American church? HE@@ no! Are pac-man churches causing problems, yes. Are they causing good, yes. It’s no fun being on the small church end of things when this happens – as I am now. It is forcing us to change, the rejection of those leaving to go across town is difficult to bear. The other church has the momentum, attracts the happy shiny wealthy successful and leader-like people. They are organized, they mean well, they are well funded and staffed – they drop Easter eggs from helicopters for the whole town!

    But, I hear other pastors wonder where the young people are and we have them. We are young and that is our specialty in the wheel of retail. We have young guys/gals discipling young guys/gals because that is what we model and encourage and empower. We don’t have many old people and our income is dwindling, but God is sustaining us.

    We are messy and loud and have tatoos and many have left because they couldn’t stomach the change. They were consumers and they can leave to consume a better product elsewhere. We are left with contributors and I am eager to see what God does with us! With an unchurched population of 90% here, there is plenty of market share to gain.

    I have to go now, gonna get some coffee at a cool new place the Arnold’s own, then maybe to the bike shop to see if Derick will tighten a few spokes on my wheel for me. I’ll go to Walmart later for some razors and TP.

  20. CJ Pankey says:

    I would say the same thing happens in a more subtle way when small church leaders only listen to and adopt things from megachurches without filtering it through any kind of local context filter.

  21. A. Amos Love says:

    Seems to me…
    This Persisting Problem, “Pastors Performing Pac-Man Practices,” Points to the Pulpit.
    Remove the Pulpit, and the Pulpeteers, and the Problem, can be Prevented.

    In 1 Cor 14:26 KJV – ALL believers can, and are expected “To Participate.”
    ALL can Teach – ALL can Hear from Jesus – ALL can get Revelation.

    1 Cor 14:26 KJV
    How is it then, brethren? when ye come together,
    every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue,
    hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

    When folks experience the Exciting Adventure of Participateing in the Body of Christ…
    Where, the whole body, joined together, and every joint supplies… Eph 4:16
    And, ALL can Participate, using their own unique Spiritual Gifts….
    “Pastors Performing Pac-Man Practices” have NO allure, NO chance.

    BUT – The Pastor in a Pulpit model, teaches folks to be passive “Spectators.” Hearing from the pastor and following “church leaders” – BUT – NOT teaching them to Hear from Jesus. And follow Jesus. John 10:27 KJV. The “ONE” Leader. The “ONE” Shepherd.

    Jesus, often taught, Proclaimed the Kingdom of God, in the streets, and Healed the Sick.
    Then, in a short time, Jesus, sent His Disciples out to do the same…

    Luke 9:2 And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.

    Now that sounds like an Adventure, and Exciting. Pastors in Pulpits, NOT so much. ;-)

    In my experience…

    Paid – Professional – Pastors – in Pulpits – Preaching – to People – in Pews…

    Prevent – Public – Participation – and – Promote – Passive – Pew – Potatoes….

    Procuring – Power – Profit – Prestige – for the Prevailing – Parsing – Pastor…

    Pressuring – Peons – and Patrons – to Pray – Pay – Stay – and – Obey… ;-)

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “hear My voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    If not now? – When?

    One Voice – One Fold – One Shepherd – One Leader

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  22. Randy says:

    Living in a large metro area (population 5 million), I have seen much of this – multi site growth/cannibalism. About 10 years ago, city planners and housing developers targeted for build-out, a small semi-rural community (population 2500)located 15 miles outside the contiguous development of our metro area. As you might imagine the big name/deep pocket fast food chains, department stores etc, began scrambling for the best land, building permits and hiring future employees. At the time I was a seminary student and we were well-intentioned believers – loyal to our local mega church’s published goals of “reaching the lost”. So we blindly joined the announced plans of our mega church to plant a daughter church (with years of financial loyalty ahead) in the soon-to-be suburb of our larger metropolis. We personally didn’t realize 10-15 other large churches in our general area were also getting in line to buy land, rent yet-to-be-built school buildings, hire new staff etc, all while prices and hype about that undeveloped area skyrocketed. We also didn’t think to personally ask the questions or consider the things we should have before joining the bandwagon: “What possible need would one “church” have, to go into another community (where lots of equally-Spirit-Empowered, pre-positioned Christians already live and gather as the church)go start an extension campus? (Surely we didn’t think we, (the “expanding church”) were more empowered by the Holy Spirit to reach people than those Christians already living there – did we? Did we think He had given us mega-church folk, a better mission than the Christians living there – with deep ties to the community? Certainly it wasn’t: that we knew we had the resources, professionally skilled staff & “brand recognition” to be “successful” was it? After all – that’s a business motive right?))It didn’t take long for God to show us through painful, gut-wrenching & costly circumstances, that sadly, our boldly published mission, vision and values statements (MVVS), captured very little of our attention, resources or daily effort. Further, the things we were mostly focused on, (attendance, income, excellence, marketing etc), were often processed with worldly attitudes and tones. I’m not saying our MVVS weren’t true or honestly hoped for, but if giving up our lives to “go and make disciples” was our highest and truest calling, then why is it that those churches/pastors who didn’t make the cut in attendance/income soon closed their doors left the area – often returning/being reabsorbed by their parent churches? Out of the 10-15 “lead pastors” I knew who started churches in that community – none remain today – and only 1/2 of the churches started remain. Most of those churches mostly exist with the Christians who helped plant them. And now 2 have now become relative mega-churches in the area (but now plateauing), while the other remaining churches continue to decline. But all is not bad. God has walked many like us, through the hurt, disgust, then isolation, and now into disciple-making mode. Many have come to understand through the pain, God intended good for us – enabling us to rediscover the biblical/organic/simple church. Many have embraced/are starting to embrace the unconventional/spiritual life as a part of Christ’s body. No longer driven to “go to a church”, we gather in coffee shops, homeless shelters, parks and homes – for the purpose of taking the Gospel to the lost/new disciple-making. We now know of 3rd generation disciple-makers who are continuing to love one another/share Christ – apart from any “formal church” connection (and in our view that’s a really good thing). While the institutional church in the area has continued the common path of saturation, competition, cannibalism, consolidation, plateau (and heading towards demise)- the movement of the below-the-radar church in the area is expanding beyond any human’s ability to measure!!! Christ is alive and moving!!

  23. Ryan Mahoney says:

    The only good news resulting from this insidious business model is that the coffers are fat. A pastor who does this said in private he wished he had never planted autonomous versions of his brand, but he wished he would have done campuses in his AO because it brought in far more money.

  24. The Western church has always confused Christianity with material culture. Early Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries introduced Christianity to non-European people as material culture (i.e. hymn books, pews, altars, church and school buildings, clinics, vestments, musical instruments, etc)–thus insuring that generations of Christians would invest more energy in acquiring the material goods necessary for Christianity than in following the Lord. The “Pac Man” approach to church planting is simply the logical extension of the uniquely American addition to the material culture confusion of early years: Church as a business enterprise.

    Hostile take-over is the strategy d’jour in the non-profit religious world. It is just as “dog-eat-dog” vicious as anything you might see in the secular business world. Any successful medium sized parachurch ministry can be a target–usually these take-overs are funded and directed by major donors from the successful business world. What does the larger “Pac Man” organization get out of it? The donors who helped to build the smaller ministry…the physical assets…the intellectual property rights (if any), and the network of ministry relationships.

  25. Carl Tenney says:

    Sifting through all this makes me think of the Holy Basics. Just one of the big ten.

    Goes like this — Exodus 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

    Seems to me we need to get back to practicing the Word, from both sides of the pulpit and both sides of this arguement.

    The Church is Christ’s Bride not ours and nothing happens to her that He isn’t aware of.


    • I was visiting in a church in Florida last month and was shocked to see the Jehovah Java coffee bar in the foyer. I mentioned this in a facebook post and was immediately pilloried by people defending the church…and, labeling me as out of touch. Absolutely no one saw what had shocked me: The implications of the 3rd commandment and the name of the coffee bar.

  26. Russell says:

    In looking at this, most stimulating, article (together with the variety of responses and contributions made) I am reminded of what a former theology professor of mine once said: “Populism and free market capitalism determine most of North American Christianity”. Likewise, or at the very same time, I am also reminded of what another former theology professor of mine once said: “Most Christians have no sense of the historical”. Accordingly, or in light of the above two quotes, I think that the more important question, here, in this discussion, is: “How did the Church, historically, get to this consumer-driven (or “Pac man”) place, where it is at today, in the first place?” In other words, or as the old adage goes, “In order to understand where we are, we need to know where we came from”.

    Therefore, in examining this issue (or related issues), at hand, two scholarly works that have, tremendously, helped me to understand, and deal with, this “ consumerist-predatorial” mindset and dynamic in the Church today are: 1. “The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy”, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, and 2. “The Democratization of American Christianity” by Nathan O. Hatch.

    The main thesis of Finke and Stark is as follows:

    “Where religious affiliation is a matter of choice, religious organizations must compete for members and that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market place is as unforgiving of ineffective religious firms as it is of their commercial counterparts … Religious economies are like commercial economies in that they consist of a market made of a set of current and potential customers and a set of firms seeking to serve that market. The fate of these firms will depend upon (1) aspects of their organizational structures, (2) their sales representatives, (3) their product, and (4) marketing techniques … Where many faiths function within a religious economy, a high degree of specialization as well as competition occurs” (pp. 9-11)

    What I believe to be the most salient point, here, is: “Where religious affiliation is a matter of CHOICE, religious organizations MUST compete”(emphasis mine). In other words, as soon as Christians are offered (or rather “were” offered, historically) ANY possibility of choice, a religious free market economy of: 1. supply 2. demand 3. (cut-throat) competition and 4. efficiency is automatically (or should I say “idolatrously”) created.

    Furthermore, it was a result the advent of the American Revolution, together with its violent outcome, that the effects of the historical process of the democratization of Christianity contributed, even further, toward creating a massive explosion of competing religious sects within a religious market economy. And all in the name of “FREEDOM” no less! That is, a freedom within the “voluntary principle” of “liberty” (or should I say “licence”) “to think for one self”, “decide for one self”, “choose for oneself” etc., as the “democratic-sovereign self” … or dare I say “the divine self”. The consequence? A Church, within America, wherein “religious diversity gave way to religious multiplicity.”

    And so, the democratic impulse, together with the capitalistic impulse, has created a monstrously FREE religious market economy … or “Idol of Our Time” … an idol (or false god) that has, in the end, betrayed us!

    As such, I personally find that the REAL question, in all of this, is: “Would we REALLY want any other way?”

    Lastly, or in coming back to the “Pac man” (or predatorial) issue of the, recent, “mega church” phenomena (i.e. as it was raised in this article) I really only have one thing to say, at this time: “We reap what we sow”!!!

    Finally, I believe, that the present, mega-church, consumer mentality (or predatorial “Pac man”) is, in essence, ONLY a thick pair of glasses (or lens) for us to FINALLY see the, proverbial, elephant in the living room; an elephant that has actually been in our face for over 200 years!

  27. #MOONDREW says:

    I agree with your thoughts Dave. In particular the point of destroying community. Smaller churches are mostly built around relationships. Here in Africa a church is a home. It is family and people share their joys and pains there. They celebrate their marriage and bury their dead as a community. ‘church cannibalism’ therefore would have more devastating consequences here in Africa where communities are relatively more closely knit than in the western world

  28. Ming says:


    I agree with everything that you have said in the post. At the same time, I think we need to think about why are the community churches struggling to keep young people and families in their churches.

    About three months ago my family left the mega church you alluded to after taking McKnight’s Paul class for the same reasons that you mentioned in the post and comments by others. To find a local, community church, my wife and I decided 4 criteria that will be a fit for our family. The 4 things are vibrant worship for my wife and I who are Gen Xers, biblical preaching, good children program for my two young kids, and small group ministry for fellowship and accountability. Some people might call this consumerism, but when you are finding a church, you have to sort out the all the churches on a practical level.

    After visiting about 4 churches in the past couple of month, I have to say it is hard to find a church that fit our family. I am not talking about finding a perfect church that meets all 4 criteria, but finding a church that meets couple of the criteria and grow with the church.

    So there are some things that the mega church is doing right and there are some things that the community church is not doing.

  29. Steve Hayes says:

    I’ve seen this happen in many places, and one of the sneaky tricks is to say that the new site is “non-denominational”, so many people go along and then discover they are being asked to join yet another denomination.

    And what happens when the celebrity pastor dies, or loses faith, or goes off the rails? When the Pope of Rome (probably the best-known celebrity pastor of them all) dies, there is an established procedure for electing a successor, but not so in the upstart megachurches that usually seel a consumer Christianity.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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