How to spot a mega-church refugee


Okay… they are out there. They slip into our churches, wanting to be unnoticed. They are the mega-church refugees.

After two decades of hand clapping, arm waving, and metal chair sitting, they gave themselves a reprieve from church. But now, they want something, and they’re pretty sure they don’t want their parent’s boomer church, with the charismatic pastor and the Limbaugh-induced sermons. And so a few of them are slipping into our pews. Looking around, wearily, cautiously.

What do they look like? How can you spot them? I have a few pointers, since I was one of them.

•Even though they love the environmental aspects of the screen, they might break out into a bit of a cold sweat when they see it in the sanctuary.

•They might bring their Bibles to church. Do not be alarmed when you see the book. Try not to stare. And don’t worry. They will figure out quickly that they’re not supposed to bring it.

•Their personal Bible in their pew does give them a little comfort because they can’t immediately tell the difference between hymnal, prayer book, and Bible in the pew. They will pick up the wrong one. At least until they figure out that no one else really follows along with the readings, because they are the only ones who know how to look them up.

•If they’re particularly moved by a solo, they will clap following it. Once. Until they figure out that it’s not okay. Then they will die a little bit inside.

•They never missed a Sunday at church growing up, but they don’t know the Apostle’s Creed. They are the ones mumbling “watermelon” when the rest of the congregation is proudly articulating every word.

•They might say “Amen” after the pastor says it. It’s just a reflex. And don’t laugh at them if they use “just” in their prayers. At least they know how to pray in public.

•They are the people who would rather leave their right arm than leave their email address.

•They may not have been going to church for the last ten years, because they were afraid that they couldn’t afford it.

•If they happen into a denominational church during Stewardship Sunday, they may never come back. Only because, in their mind, asking for money is what church is about every Sunday.

•If they hear how much your church is involved with helping the homeless and poor, then they will start to breathe. And they might be able to leave something in the offering.

•If you mention that your church supports LGBTs, then the muscles in their neck will loosen. They will be utterly confused, but very relieved.

•They are confused by communion. They might not have even ever participated in communion before.

•If someone tries to hug during the passing of the peace, they will have finely-developed defense mechanisms in order to shield themselves from the Holy Spirit chest crunch.

•If the pastor learns their name after a couple of weeks, they just might faint dead away.

•If the church has a discussion about having a “contemporary” worship service in order to reach out to more people, they will assume that you’re trying to get their parents to come to your church.

And what would you add? Have you been there? Have you seen them?

24 thoughts on “How to spot a mega-church refugee

  1. Obviously, my evangelical bent colors my comments, but I should say up front that I’m not a fan of megachurches, and “wanting to be unnoticed” actually does describe me pretty well a lot of the time (not that this is a good thing).

    “They might bring their Bibles to church. Do not be alarmed when you see the book. Try not to stare. And don’t worry. They will figure out quickly that they’re not supposed to bring it.”

    I consider this a tragedy. People should be encouraged to bring their Bibles. (Of course, my current church has ancient Bibles that desperately need replacing, too, so I’m not unbiased)

    “They never missed a Sunday at church growing up, but they don’t know the Apostle’s Creed. They are the ones mumbling “watermelon” when the rest of the congregation is proudly articulating every word.”

    Although most people I know do have this memorized, I’ve long advocated not only for having it printed (and it’s in a lot of hymnals), but for having the worship leader specifically instruct folks to find the printed version.

    “If someone tries to hug during the passing of the peace, they will have finely-developed defense mechanisms in order to shield themselves from the Holy Spirit chest crunch.”

    Passing the Peace is my own personal version of Hell.

    This is a very good list. Thanks for sharing it. It nicely captures some of my experiences (and others that aren’t mine, but I’ve seen firsthand).

  2. why so hesitant to give an e-mail address? we ask for one for our weekly newsletter, but it is in no way necessary. and does this also apply to snail-mail addresses?

    confused cradle presbyterian

  3. Carol:

    At the risk of revealing how dense I am, I was confused by this post. If it was tongue-in-cheek, what was the actual target? (Seemingly discouraging Bible reading is inconsistent with everything else I have read of yours.) Was it the mega-churches or the traditional church? Was it the boomer generation or the up and coming generation?

    Or, was it something else entirely?

    Your brother in Christ,

    Bob Davis

  4. No, I’m not discouraging Bible reading. I’m poking fun of Mainliners who have those Bibles in the pew, and a hundred years later, they’re still in the pews, and have never been cracked!

    I’m just remembering the funny looks when I brought my own Bible to the Presbyterian Church for the first time.

    The target is the people in the middle. Those who don’t feel comfortable in the mainline, or the evangelical church.

    And… for mainliners, who don’t realize all the things that they do that makes outsiders feel uncomfortable.

    But, mostly, I just wrote it for fun. I was remembering the evangelical—>mainline culture shock.

  5. Your writing is interesting. I am pastor of a pentecostal church, Assemblies of God, to be exact. I pastor a very small, very conservative church (Conservative by pentecostal standards at least.) in central Texas. I have been encouraged by a number of article I have read lately that people are coming back to the small conservative church. I think you would feel right at home at our church. We are quiet energetic in our worship, but do spend some quite times. We allow hand clapping, but not usually back slapping after a solo. No one would look at you strange for carrying your Bible or saying Amen. I even have people make comments to me during my sermon, and that does not bother me or the congregation either. I do not have the Apostle’s Creed memorized and never repeat it in our service. We have a large food pantry for a small church, but have no idea what LGBT is. So, I assume from you comment that is a plus. We often allow a time of greeting each other, but no chest crushing advised. Our people are not overly forward, but very friendly. In fact I advocate that “Friendly” is our church’s middle name (We have a two name title). The pastor WILL know your name when you return, at least more than twice. (I am not good with names, but I have a “cheat list” on the podium.) WE are not even thinking about Contemporary, so no need to be concerned about what you would think. But, we would encourage you to bring your parents along, they would fit right in with our over 60 members. And, since they might be retired, we could use them as volunteers in our food pantry, even if they are in a wheel chair or on oxygen (We already have those volunteers and they do an excellent job.) So, Mega Church Refugee, come on down. We will be looking for you no matter what you look like (leather, tatoos, cowboy hat, or red neck dress accepted, as long as it is decent.)

  6. Nice, Rev. David. It sounds like a beautiful community.

    I love my Presbyterian Church… I just like to poke at it a bit.

    Although there is a lot about the AG church I don’t always agree with, we have a lot to learn from AG’s ability to accept people, no matter what their socio-economic standing is.

    And… depending on the community… you have a wonderful vein of allowing women to live into their callings (or spiritual gifts) that should make us humble.

  7. If the mainline congregation that these megachurch refugees visit is in the south there is a good chance that at least one third of the membership were refugees from a large southern denomination 20 or more years ago.

    I have described myself as a “refugee from southern revivalism.”

    So how can older refugees welcome the new generation?

    I think this topic came up a year or so ago. One thing I recall is that younger refugees did not appreciate the snarky comments that older refugees tended to make about that large southern denomination.

  8. Around these parts, we have way more start-up churches than mega-churches (although there are a handful), so we get refugees looking for someplace with roots and are happy not to be meeting in a school cafeteria, etc. Funnily enough, the start-ups are like mini-mega-churches in the way they function and worship, so a lot of these attributes apply. I think you were spot-on!

  9. Like some of the others, I have found this post to be rather confusing. I’m actually an interfaith minister – but before that I had attended quite a variety of churches, and it seems to me that your post just doesn’t fit the stereotype you are trying to caricature here. None of the churches I attended – from mainline denominations to bible-thumping to mega-churches – would have been surprised to see anyone carrying a Bible, I have yet to hear the name Limbaugh, or even the conservative agenda spoken of in any of the churches I enjoyed attending (they were so afraid one of the watchdog organizations would be on them in a heartbeat), I have however heard a lot of liberal political speak in liberal churches and unitarian fellowships(which I find appalling). I would venture to say most people from the mainline denominations could probably recite both the Apostle and Nicene Creeds. They might not have participated in communion before? This is a joke, right?

    I could go on and on, but it might be wise for you to step out of your comfort zone and attend some of these churches you’re cutting down. While I may have changed my views a bit, I have no problem with the way these churches are practicing their religion.

    If you’re just joshin’ us here, well forgive me – for I know not what I do – but if you’re serious – you have made several fallacious assumptions.

  10. Osri,

    Yes, it’s a joke. The post is about growing up in a mega-church and attending a mainline church for the first time. Which is my experience. It was not written out of malice.

    This post feeds through different forums (Twitter, facebook, etc), and while some reaction here has been confusion, the reaction in other places has been “So true, so true.”

    You said: “it might be wise for you to step out of your comfort zone and attend some of these churches you’re cutting down.”

    Let me tell you a bit about myself. I was Baptist, went to a mega-church, that church split, and I went to a mega-church start-up. I went to Willow Creek and I was a member of a Calvary Chapel church during college. I attended Moody Bible Institute, and then became Presbyterian and attended Austin Presbyterian Seminary. I have been ordained in the Presbyterian Church for over 10 years, and now I’m a pastor of a liberal Presbyterian church (and yes, there is a lot of liberal speak).

    I have written two books about church, culture, and younger generations. I lead conferences twice a month with different mainline denominations, and worship with them… on top of Sunday mornings. I co-host a weekly radio show with the Moderator of the GA of the PCUSA. My husband is a pastor at an ICCC church as well. Anyways, you would be hard pressed to find someone who goes to church more than I do! I enjoy being out of my comfort zone.

    I’m not one of those people who “loves Jesus and hates the church.” I love church. And…I have been to church! It takes a lot of the funny away, when you have to explain every punch line, but since you didn’t see any humor in it, I guess I’ll explain away.

    None of the churches I attended – from mainline denominations to bible-thumping to mega-churches – would have been surprised to see anyone carrying a Bible.

    Again, it was a joke, but when I grew up, we had sword drills, we wrote in our Bible, highlighted them. We got gold stars for bringing them to church. Now no one brings a Bible to church in our congregation. That’s why Presbyterians have them provided in the pews. But, it might be geographical location too. It was more expected in the church that I pastored in LA, than the one I pastored in RI.

    I have yet to hear the name Limbaugh, or even the conservative agenda spoken of in any of the churches I enjoyed attending.

    It might have been because 20 years ago in central FL, my parents were in the hot-bed of the formation of the religious right, but I often heard Limbaugh quoted at coffee time. There was a very strong political agenda and voting guides were passed out after the service, which is difficult when you’re a young progressive.

    We have a huge shift in our culture. A politically conservative Evangelicalism has been the driving force in our religious landscape for the last 20 years, and now most people in their 20 are progressive (last time I checked, only 16% claim to be Republicans). That means there are a lot of people in their 20s who are disaffected from religion right now. How are we going to welcome them?

    I would venture to say most people from the mainline denominations could probably recite both the Apostle and Nicene Creeds.

    Right. My point was that the mainliners can say them, but people who didn’t grow up in the mainline church cannot. It’s very embarrassing, going to a mainline church and not being able to say the Creed.

    They might not have participated in communion before? This is a joke, right?

    Nope. I did not participate in communion for the many years that I went to a megachurch. I think now they have those pre-packaged wafer/juice packs, so they can do it. But, they sure weren’t doing it when I was growing up.

    While I may have changed my views a bit, I have no problem with the way these churches are practicing their religion.

    Of course not. The point of most of my writing, is to let Mainliners understand what we do that confuses outsiders, the ways that we create barriers between us and a new generation.

    But… these are not assumptions. This is my experience. Although it does seem like you’ve made a lot of assumptions about me!

    Take care.

  11. The closest I think I have ever gotten to attending a MegaChurch is when I used to attend Calvary Chapel of Albuquerque. I left that church in the early 1990s when it got just a little too Mega for my tastes.

    After a lifetime of Protestantism in one form or another, I now attend (occassionally) a Catholic church with pretty liberal leanings. Outside of the drastic doctrinal differences that I had to get used to, there were other, more trivial, differences and signs that I was not in Kansas any more:

    Do not bring your Bible to mass. It belongs at home with your horseshoe, rabbit’s foot and other lucky charms.

    Learn your creeds.

    Be able to say ‘peace be with you’ while simultaneously looking for the next hand to shake. I think some people try to set hand-shaking speed records in the time alloted.

    Get used to communion without the grapejuice, wine, or any other representation of Christ’s blood. Apparantly, drinking from the Holy Chalice spreads germs.

    Catholic churches have no nurseries. Get used to it. Catholic mass is not a staid lecture hall. Neither is it charismatic. Don’t shout Amen at any time. Catholic mass is theater and their liturgies are artistic drama.

    No coffee and donuts in the foyer. OK, that one should be a sign of the MegaChurch Refugee.

    Hey, not bad considering that was off the top of my head!! So, do you have any signs to watch for in the ‘Jesus Movement Refugee’??

  12. Carol,
    Thank you for the detailed response – the time and effort is appreciated. I guess all I can say is that I’m from the midwest and your descriptions just do not resonate with me. I have not spent anytime on the east coast, and apparently things must be a little different there.
    Blessings & Joy to you,


  13. HIS,

    That was great! I forgot about the donuts… dang, they would hand out those Krispy Kremes by the truckload.

    I don’t know how to spot Jesus Movement refugees. Where have they migrated to? The Calvary Chapel church had a lot of them.

    Brian and I have had fun watching some JM documentaries–Frisbee, and there was another one…. They were so interesting. Do you have pointers?

  14. CHM asks:
    Do you have pointers?

    I think you hit one of the biggies – they migrated to Calvary Chapel and many became CC Pastors. Chuck Smith took lots of these displaced hippies into his church back in the day. Most are now at, or nearing retirement age. Yikes – time flies.

    The only other sign I can think of at the moment is that they still mourn the passing of Keith Green and still wait for The 2nd Chapter of Acts to reform.

  15. I would say the mainline church is full of evangelicals. I would be surprised if even a large minority of the Presbyterian Church USA supports LGBTs. I would even think there are more Presbyterian that would fit your somewhat negative view of evangelicals than would support LGBTs.

    I did find your post funny. I just do not think Mega church is what most evangelicals are about.

  16. You know Carol you have reached the point in your career where you are no longer a child living under your parent view and approaches. You have reviewed those approaches, kept some and rejected others. Have developed your own approaches which have received national attention (chances are your parents did not reach the level of national respect that you have).

    It will be interesting how your approaches to life and church works out. Who knows, some 20 to 30 years from now your child may process your approaches too (that is unless the religious right is correct, and Jesus comes back and takes us home).

  17. I hope my daughter is able to work out her faith and beliefs for herself! That would be wonderful.

    Actually, my mom is a much more successful writer than I am. She wrote four books, that sold over a half a million copies altogether, and she was a regular writer for a religious magazine. My parents were on the 700 Club, etc. She wrote funny/embarrassing stories about us growing up… so it’s pay-back time!

    Just kidding. Of course.

    Mom and Dad have been very supportive of my choices, even though they don’t always agree with them.

    I’m open to change. That’s one of the scariest things about writing. It can be a such a permanent imprint in an evolving world and life.

    I didn’t mean to keep this post up for so long. I’ve just been in North Carolina preaching for a sermon series.

  18. Carol — I don’t know how I stumbled on your blog site, but I’m glad I did. I’m an aging Boomer who has gone through an amazing (for me anyway) faith transformation over the last 30+ years. Fortunately, I have been blessed to having been married to a Godly Woman for 28 of those years who is being transformed along with me.

    My wife and I grew up in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). I’m sure you’re very aware that the RCA is almost theologically and doctrinally identical to the Presbyterian Church. I’m presently an Elder on Consistory (Session) and my wife was ordained as a Deacon in the PCUSA in the church we attended until early 2002 (National Capital Presbytery, coincidentally). Our childhood/youth RCA congregation in upstate NY was a typical conservative & traditional church. I eventually became the organist/choir director in college and my wife was the cornerstone of the alto section before I departed on my Air Force career after college.

    The first measurable transformation event occured in 1985 when I was assigned to Los Angeles AFB, CA. We knew that the RCA had been in southern CA since the 1920s and we found an incredible congregation — Emmanuel Reformed Church in Paramount. It was the largest church we had ever attended — over 1000 members. They were growing and bursting at the seams — not because of a big campus or glitzy programs. We grew (and they are still growing) because the church was externally-focused and relevant. ERC’s mission work in the community was relevant, met people’s needs, and was non-judgmental. People who had never set foot in a church or who had turned away from the church came to ERC and stayed. It was because it wasn’t about us. As a matter of fact, we never made a big deal about who we were or what church we were from when we were out in the community. The cool thing was 1-1 ministry without preconditions or prerequisites; the “God thing” takes care of itself. Isn’t this exactly how Jesus conducted his earthly ministry?

    Just down the freeway from Emmanuel was the largest church in the RCA — the Crystal Cathedral. In stark contrast, we found a church focused more on growth and programs than serving people in a Christ-like manner. The ministries and missions were there, but, it was hard to find them because outreach wasn’t the CC’s highest priority. Perhaps this is the kind of mega-church of which you write?

    We moved here in 1991 and we started attending a PCUSA congregation in NOVA. We joined the music program and I eventually, once again, became the organist/choir director. The people were nice (on the surface anyway) and the building was historic. The affluence of the congregation was readily apparent just by observing the price range of the cars in the parking lot on Sunday morning. Somewhere in the next few years, we realized that the congregation was focused on themselves. They worshipped their historic building, their denomination, and themselves. In the fastest growing county in the DC region, the membership remained static and the giving was just enough to keep the church functioning. There was strife, division, cliques, gossip, pastors and lay leaders driven away, etc. I would go running on a bike path and would see homeless people living under highway bridges. This church had the financial resources in the congregation to be a relevant God-force in the community, but, they weren’t interested.

    About the same time, contemporary music entered my repetoire. I became very interested in what was going on in Australia at Hillsong Church and in the music of some of the 1980s and 90s writers. It occured to me that these people were doing exactly the same thing which Bach and Handel had done 350 years ago — taking contemporary music which the people knew and writing God-words instead of secular lyrics. The Church understood how powerful a worship tool contemporary music could be, but, the mainline denominations generally forgot this truth somewhere in the early 20th Century. Today, some of the writing of Hillsong writers and other young Christian musicians is extraordinarily insightful and theological well beyond their years. 20-something Christian songwriters writing what they’re writing these days is truly a gift from God.

    Lots of God-things came together in late 2001. We had continued to diverge from our church’s inward focus and became objects of gossip and criticism ourselves. We found an RCA congregation in Maryland not too far from where we lived. While I was overseas on a trip, I encouraged my wife to check them out on the Sunday I was gone. To make a long story short, we found a growing congregation which accepted each other without condition and which was passionately focused on people and what was going on in the outside world. We knew this was God’s plan for us and we left our local Presbyterian church a month or so later. Our new church is a church plant in 1991. We met in a school until moving into our new building in 2003. We found that a church like ours has these characteristics:

    1. A congregation made up of mostly previously unchurched or formerly churched people who had drifted away because of a bad experience;
    2. An informal worship style — Why be a different person on Sunday than you are during the other 6 days of the week?
    3. Contemporary music — What people are used to hearing on the radio

    The growth happens — sometimes even into mega-church size — if you are relevant and meet people’s needs. We tithe each week’s offerings to mission work. Our on-the-rolls membership is about 230, but, on a typical Sunday, we attract anywhere from 350-400 people to our two services. On a given Sunday, we laugh, we cry, we clap, we say “Amen” and some lift their hands in abandoned worship when the Spirit moves. We have a projector and screen for lyrics, Scripture readings, pictures, You Tube videos and DVD excerpts used during messages. We do all of this and are still completely Reformed in our doctrine and polity. I’m not propping up our congregation any more than anyone else. But, I am saying that my observations have been that churches in the U.S. and abroad which I have attended that are growing are doing so because they are relevant and are committed to being “out there.”

    These “mega-church refugees,” like the rest of us, have a story. It would be interesting to find out if they would be willing to share it with you on a Sunday morning.

  19. Could you explain — what is the function of bringing a Bible to church? I don’t remember anyone ever doing that, but I was raised Lutheran. Exactly what is done with these Bibles, do you know?

  20. Barbara,

    Evangelicals tend to take their Bibles to church, while Mainliners (like Lutherans) often do not.

    In the Evangelical church that I was raised in, we were taught to read our Bibles and mark in them during the service, as a part of studying. As children, we were given gold stars if we brought our own Bible from home.

    But, in most Presbyterian or Lutheran churches, there are Bibles provided in the pews. So, if you want to follow along, you can. There is also more of an idea that the spoken word is important and so a person can listen without necessarily having to follow along.

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