World’s Largest Churches: Report from the Field (Part 1)

Published on 10/15/2013

By Warren Bird

Faith Church, Budapest, Hungary, has birthed a significant movement from schools to churches in key cities.

In my quest to learn about global megachurches, I’ve had the privilege of visiting the largest church of many countries. These have ranged from Asia’s China, Korea and Singapore to Europe’s Ukraine and United Kingdom. (I’ve also created an interactive list of several hundred global megachurches at www.leadnet.org/world, where I also field several FAQs like why big churches have emerged in some countries but not in others.)

I recently went to Budapest, Hungary, to attend Sunday worship and interview the pastor, his wife, and senior staff at Faith Church where worship attendance exceeded 6,000 at their primary campus. The next weekend I traveled to Drachten, Netherlands, a small town where worship at Bethel Church averages more than 4,000. I likewise had a delightful interview there with the pastor, his wife and other staff.

Yes, you read those country names correctly – not Korea or Nigeria, but Hungary and Netherlands. Both congregations were inspiring. Both are passionate about spreading the gospel in culturally relevant ways. Both have been led by long-term, solid pastors. And both model much that other churches can learn from, including insights for churches in my home country of the United States.

Reviving Eastern Europe from … Hungary?

Hungary’s largest Protestant church started 34 years ago as an evangelistic Bible study in an apartment. As it grew and became a church, it had to meet secretly, facing harassment and threats from Communist authorities.

Today the church can take over the city’s huge public square with 1,200 of its young adults performing a vibrant, moving Resurrection Sunday Dance. What a change since its early years when it had to be an underground congregation!

 

As Communism fell, Pastor Sandor Nemeth, a native Hungarian, led Faith Church to emerge as a significant player in reshaping society. In 2001 the church began broadcasting its worship services on national television. Today a church-related organization owns and runs the country’s leading news channel. Station management works hard to model truth and fairness in its programming – and it also continues to broadcast the church’s weekly worship service.

Pastor Sandor Nemeth (below, right), standing with the author at a church-related television station.

Other efforts to change the spiritual landscape of Hungary have targeted education. The church runs a state-accredited seminary for training future pastors with current enrollment of 400. It also sponsors eight elementary and secondary schools with 6,100 current students.

Most exciting to me is this innovation: Faith Church employs 195 accredited teachers who offer classes on faith and religion for state schools. Under the current law, parents choose either ethics classes or faith-and-religion classes for their children. The latter are organized by the country’s 14 recognized church groups including Faith Church. This means that whenever there are at least 10 pupils whose parents say that they want Faith Church to organize these classes, it is obligatory for the school to make it possible.

But the hub of Faith Church continues to be its passionate worship and preaching, from the original campus I visited in Budapest, to a network of almost 100 other Faith Churches across the country, totaling at least 50,000 in worship on any given Sunday.

Starting in Small-Town Holland

My next visit was to a town of 45,000 people two hours north of Amsterdam. Bethel Church there was not always more than 4,000 strong. The church was started in 1923. But in 1988 when leaders called 36-year-old Orlando Bottenbley as pastor, they were a deeply divided church of about 60 older people. He led them to seek God, to reconcile with each other, and to ask forgiveness from all who had left the church in pain.

“The Lord blessed us with a unity that became strong,” this pastor-evangelist says. Most of all “we trained our people to be a witness for Christ.”

The young pastor knew he also had to renew the worship services. Besides trying to preach in ways that were both “theological and practical,” he began making the worship a better match for the culture. “The organ played too slow,” he recalls, “but we didn’t have any other options.” So he invited the church’s young people to find the funds to go and get music lessons so they could play on Sundays. “And they did!” he reports.

This idea of empowering people, raising the quality bar, and learning from others has become a hallmark of Bethel Church from that point through today. When they wanted help with evangelism they tried London’s Alpha Course. When they saw an opportunity to do Christ-centered recovery, they adapted Saddleback’s program.

Dozens of people ride bicycles to Bethel Church, two hours north of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

When growth required yet another facility expansion in recent years, they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead they sent a team to Willow Creek (led by another Dutchman, Bill Hybels) not only to learn at their Global Leadership Summit, but also to tour Willow’s latest facility expansion and learn as much as they can from other models. Their gleanings from others show up from their adaptation of Willow’s Promiseland for children’s ministry to their partnership with various mission organizations (the week I visited, Netherland’s representative of Compassion spoke about child sponsorship).

Pastor Orlando still puts high priority on “inspiring people to have a burden to reach non-believers.” One of their own innovations is working well for them. Once a month on a Sunday night they invite four guests for a lively panel discussion. One is an atheist, one has no church background, one has church background but no relationship with Christ, and the fourth is an enthusiastic born-again Christian. “So many of our people are bringing non-Christian friends who are curious,” he says, “and then we put it on the internet and thousands more watch it.”

Megachurches: More Than a North American Trend

My visits to these two churches are a good reminder that with all the explosive growth of large churches in North America in recent decades, it’s easy to overlook the impact of global megachurches. Part 2 of this report, to be released 10/29/2013, will focus on the big picture of the global megachurch landscape.

Leadership Network has recently opened a European initiative. If you are associated with a growing church in Europe, see http://leadnet.org/page/europe.

Warren Bird, Ph.D., research director at Leadership Network, with background as pastor and seminary professor, is author or co-author of 24 books for ministry leaders including Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Jim Tomberlin. His most recent title is Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller. Some of Warren’s recent online reports include The Heartbeat of Rising Influence Churches,” Pastors Who Are Shaping the Future and A New Decade of Megachurches.” Follow him on Twitter @warrenbird