As in other areas of American church life, the rise of megachurches is challenging older patterns of world missions and, in the process, raising questions about which party—the megachurch or the mission field— is benefitting from these new changes.
In the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April), Robert Priest, Douglas Wilson and Adelle Johnson present findings from a survey they conducted among 405 U.S. megachurches on missions and missionary involvement, the first study of its kind. The authors note that about 10 percent of these churches’ annual expenditures goes to ministries outside of the U.S., with financial support for career—or full-time —missionaries now competing against newer priorities.
In fact, world missions was one of the few areas of congregational life that has not received increase support in these megachurches. “Such a congregational softening of support for full-time missionaries is possibly one factor in the recent decline in the total number of Protestant full-time missionaries from the United States,” they add. The support for short-term missions, usually comprising youth groups that visit foreign countries for more than two days, is seen as the cutting edge in missions among megachurches, as for other congregations.
Fully 94 percent of megachurch high school youth programs organize short-term mission trips abroad for their youth, with 78 percent doing so one or more times a year. The authors estimate that 32 percent of the annual expenditures directed abroad to short-term missions—a figure that is close to nonmegachurch missions spending. The article finds that megachurch short-term mission trips are largely (82 percent) going to countries that are considered “new centers of global Christianity” (for instance, Guatemala, Uganda and Kenya) rather than areas where there are few Christians (six percent).
The researchers write that “megachurch [short-term mission activity] is largely a paradigm of partnership, connecting Christians in resource-rich regions of the world with Christians in regions of poverty in joint projects of witness and service.” This approach may conflict with the mission priorities of megachurches themselves, since they list “missions to the unreached” and “evangelizing the Muslim world” as key goals.
A related area of megachurch mission involvement is more formal church-to-church partnerships, which effectively bypass mission agencies. These partnerships are supervised or monitored by highly mobile megachurch leaders, often linked through short-term mission trips, and “carried out as an extension of the U.S. megachurch and its mission for ministry,” thus moving the locus of decisionmaking and power “away from the field to the North American congregation.” The authors conclude that the altruistic goals of mission giving are being diminished under the megachurch’s dual goals of meeting the needs of the givers and the sending church, and serving needs abroad. Any needs that the congregation is unable to fulfill (such as Bible translation), are “unlikely now to receive strong support.”
(International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 490 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511)