Some Thoughts on Thir.st’s “Megachurches and their extravagance: How much is too much?”

Recently I chanced upon an interesting article that tried to address the issue of megachurches and the justification for the extravagant amount that was often spent. To be honest, I think I would have fallen under the slightly more skeptical category of questioning the use of money though for slightly different reasons. As I read the article, I found myself agreeing with some basic points that the author made. For instance, the temple that was built for God was remarkably grand. Perhaps more grand than any of the churches here in Singapore. The closest imagery of grandness I have in mind are that of the churches in Italy. During a short visit to Italy, I visited multiple churches. Each time I entered one, I would never fail to be amazed by the detailed architecture and paintings on the ceiling. To help you visualize, here’s a picture taken using my phone:

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Church of the Gesu, a painting by Giovanni Battista Gaulli titled “Triumph of the Sacred Name of Jesus”.

I also agree with the author that part of the church’s mission necessarily includes the spending of money. However what I find slightly troubling is the underlying ethos and theology that is espoused in this article. If I may put my thoughts across in a direct manner, it seems that for the author, the spirit behind the justification of spending money is driven by a desire to either impress or see people entertained so that they can be reached out to. To be fair, this impression may not actually be what the author intended to portray. But that impression certainly comes across when the justification for Hillsong’s expenditure concludes with “The crowd was constantly entertained; it was nothing short of amazing.”

Yes, the author does say in the 4th last paragraph that for Hillsong, it wasn’t merely a performance but rather an outreach. But that doesn’t quite address the deeper question as to whether churches should reduce their worship services to a form of entertainment in order to evangelise (I blogged about this here). The use of 1 Cor 9:22 as an argument for such an approach is in my opinion a bit problematic. I agree that the church should try to use a language that can be understood by the public. The recovery of worship services in the vernacular attest to that. But to speak in a way that can be understood by the public is not the same as making the public the point of reference when it comes to structuring or even planning our worship services. As Dr Jeffrey Truscott, lecturer in worship and liturgy remarks:

…is it not one thing to say that Paul will accommodate his lifestyle to the recipients of his preaching and quite another to suggest that the source and inspiration of worship should be the recipients themselves? A doctor will speak plainly to an uneducated patient, but it will not allow that patient to determine the treatment![1]

I also want to say that I agree with the author’s opening statement that the money spent on a nice church building does add to the experience of the people. But we have to consider whether the experience that the people are seeking is in line with the theology of God revealed in scripture and what the Church is meant to be. In other words, the experience of the people cannot be the start point. The starting premise must begin with who God is and whether He is being properly reflected through the money that is spent. Along this process, the ontology of the Church must also be discussed. For instance, will spending X amount to install strobe lights properly reflect the role churches play in countering culture? What about spending money to make worship services look more like professional performances that can be found in pop concerts? Does the use of such money reflect and endorse the Church’s understanding of communal worship? Or does it diminish that aspect by portraying the congregants as mere audiences? What about the musicians? With the money invested, does it better help the musicians realise that they are not in fact performing for the congregation but rather leading the congregation in a time of worship? Of course the handling of money alone does not provide answers to these questions. Underpinning this approach to money lies a person’s theology. While nobody can have a perfect theology, this does not suggest that all theologies are equally erroneous. Clearly there are some theologies that are more biblically faithful and accurate. In the case of this article, I found the theology quite troubling despite the good intentions and passion for outreach.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that my objection lies not in the spending of money. I affirm the need and think that there is some justification for spending money in making the Church look beautiful. What I have concerns with is whether the spending of money retains, enhances or diminishes the theology of God and of the Church. In the case of this article, I found that there was little concern for this (it could have been due to the word limit). Rather the issue of spending money took on a very pragmatic approach of just trying to draw people in for outreach. Don’t get me wrong. Drawing people in for outreach is important. But it is not the most important question. Ironically, while the author correctly recognises that David wanted to build God a temple, she fails to realise that the reason why David wanted to do so differs significantly from her conclusion. For David, being extravagant for the temple was worth it not because the people were worth it but because God was. At its basic level, the question of who God is and who we are as the Church must be addressed. Only then can we talk about what is worth spending on and what is not.

[1] Jeffrey A Truscott, Worship: A Practical Guide (Singapore: Genesis Books, 2011), 74.


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