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Hallo again to all.

On occasion we have seen, in some news medium or another, references to 'megachurches'. There seems to be no precise definition of the term, and there's no global directory of megachurches. Common usage seems to be that a megachurch is one whose average Sunday attendance is measured in the thousands.

The notion of a megachurch seems to be culturally centred in the USA, and more or less to have begun in the middle of the twentieth century, but there are counterexamples. C.H. Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle in London was a Baptist congregation that drew many thousands of worshippers every Sunday in the late 19th century. And Korea's Yoido Full Gospel Church, said to be the world's largest, has close to a million worshippers every week. A goodly number of churches in the USA have attendance in the tens of thousands per week; the largest seems to be a 'nondenominational' church in Houston that averages 40,000 worshippers on Sundays.

(We find it interesting that the term 'megachurch' seems never to be applied to Roman Catholic congregations, even though it is not at all unusual to have hundreds of thousands of people attending a special-occasion mass in a venue that can accommodate them, such as St Peter's Square in Rome.)

We've attended Anglican worship services in cathedrals here and there whose attendance was in the thousands, and have a few times been to a very large Presbyterian or Baptist church. We must confess that sitting in a nosebleed pew, so far from the pulpit that it makes more sense to watch the pastor on one of the various television screens, has not for us been a powerful worship experience. There seems to be diminishing differential advantage of attending a megachurch in person versus staying home or in the hotel room to watch the same service on television.

Woman alone in a churchLarger churches seem to have more money than smaller churches. This makes sense, as a building that holds 5000 people does not cost 5 times as much as a building that holds 1000 people, and you don't need 5 times as many staff. Smaller congregations struggle, and we have become inured to the heartbreaking reports of parishes closing because they can no longer support themselves financially.

That said, we have found poorly-attended worship services to be an incredible experience. Not long ago, one of us was the only worshipper in a midmorning Sunday service that usually draws dozens. One priest, one person in a pew. Both of us remembered Matthew 18:20, adjusted our expectations and carried on. The congregation became the lector. We sang the hymns face to face, across the altar rail. How appropriate and timeless that we sang a cappella. The layperson read the first reading and the priest read the Gospel passage. Never did the confession and absolution seem so potent.

The sermon evolved from an address into a dialog. We discussed a few words in the Gospel and what the writer might have meant by them. The highly-educated priest had studied these passages extensively and knew a great deal about the historical context, yet his style was conversational and not pontifical. When you are the only recipient of a sermon, you really do have to pay careful attention, if for no other reason than good manners. If you are one of many in a congregation and your attention drifts, the event is diluted but not ruined. If you are the entire congregation, then you simply cannot let your attention drift, lest the entire worship service become pointless.

We've thought that one reason why megachurches seem always to be protestant and evangelical is that they do not consecrate the elements. That means that, before the service, thousands of doses of grape juice can be poured out into thimble-sized cups and placed in every pew. When it's time to drink the communion beverage, there is no need to come to the rail to receive; you can just pick up a little cup from the rack in your pew and drink it down at the signal.

In our two-person Anglican service, the elements needed to be consecrated. The priest invited the congregant to come up to the altar and stand across the table. During the words of consecration, both people could smell the wine and smell the bread; its essence as food and not as object became real. Surely every priest has experienced this when consecrating bread and wine, but how often is anyone else close enough to share that experience? It would seem very wrong, we think, for a priest to explain to the congregation 'you don't know what you are missing by being so far away that the elements are just a symbol to you'. It would be liturgically absurd and logistically impossible to invite the whole congregation to come be part of the sensory experience of the consecration. It can only happen in special situations, like this one.

Should you ever find yourself to be the entire congregation (or a major part of it) at a scheduled worship service, don't be embarrassed. Don't be disappointed. If the congregation were that small every week, your church would soon be gone. But if you are lucky enough to be part of an accidentally small worship service, rejoice and join in with all your heart. As Matthew noted, God will be in your midst.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 27 March 2011


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