Missouri, meet ‘Mr. Megachurch’
The world comes to Bolivar when it wants to learn the facts about megachurches
By Allen Palmeri
July 26, 2005
BOLIVAR – John Vaughan, a member of First Baptist Church, Bolivar, has spent the last 20 years developing a reputation as a leading expert on “megachurches.”
Among his innovations is that he is widely credited with having defined what constitutes such a church – one with at least 2,000 weekend attendees. His research and consulting work takes him into large, rapidly growing churches all over North America and into several foreign countries. In the last six months, he has visited more than 200 megachurches in 16 states. He is also widely read as a church growth columnist.
“Megachurches represent only one percent of the churches in America, but they are a very influential one percent,” Vaughan said.
He has been faithful to his unusual calling since 1985, when Southwest Baptist University (SBU) President Charles Chaney offered him the chair of church growth position at SBU. Back then it was the first position of its kind at an American university. Vaughan taught on the Bolivar campus until 1995, when he decided to launch his own ministry as founder of Church Growth Today. He is passionate about megachurches, yet complimentary toward smaller churches.
“The guys who are the real kingdom celebrities are the guys who lead small churches,” Vaughan said. “Half of the churches in the country run less than 100. Eighty percent run less than 200. And we cannot say enough about the bi-vocational pastors. They deserve honor and the highest respect.
“The only reason we should look at a church that is faster-growing or a church that is larger is to find out how they have learned to cooperate with God.”
Vaughan, who earned a doctor of ministry degree in church growth from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif., after earning a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, was asked by Elmer Towns, dean of the School of Religion at Liberty University, Lynchburg, Va., to co-author The Complete Book of Church Growth, which was published in 1981 as a major textbook. Vaughan went on that year to write The World’s 20 Largest Churches.
Chaos soon descended upon him in his first year at SBU.
“I did something that I have never done since and don’t plan on ever doing again,” Vaughan said. “I sent out a press release. I went ahead and published the first listing of the 500 fastest-growing churches in North America. When I did that, I had so many media sources call (me that) it shut me down for a month. Since then, they know who I am and where I am, and I’ve never, ever, ever had a problem.”
After completing his teaching career at SBU, Vaughan plunged into a full-time study of what he calls rapid-growing churches.
“I’ve shifted gears,” he said. “When I was a pastor, I gave everything away. When I was at the university, I was expected to give everything away. But when I left the university, I could no longer just give things away. What I have is very expensive information.
“I shifted totally to research and consulting. Research drives everything that I do. Consulting pays the bills, and it helps churches, but research is what I’m all about. Easily 85 percent of everything I do is research-related.”
Vaughan has tracked the emergence of five Missouri Southern Baptist megachurches – Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, Liberty; First Baptist Church, Raytown; Second Baptist Church, Springfield; Ridgecrest Baptist Church, Springfield; and First Baptist Church, Arnold. He said that churches that rise to this level typically have done well with the only five resources that any church has at its disposal—the Bible, the Holy Spirit, time, space and people.
Southern Baptist churches have more large, rapid-growing and new churches than any other denomination, Vaughan said. Typically this has led to other denominations looking to Southern Baptists for wisdom, but Vaughan is concerned that he may be witnessing the changing of the guard.
“We need to recognize that as Southern Baptists, we are in fact God’s ‘A Team’ in this country,” he said. “There are emerging churches, groups and forces that would like to claim that leadership role. We need to recognize that as Missouri Baptists, we have no one to blame but ourselves for either our lack of vision or our lack of growth. We have state leadership who understands what the problems and the solutions are. It is not a large church/small church issue. The issue is to build Great Commission churches and to rebuild Great Commission churches that understand how to maximize ministry with limited resources in the shortest time possible, by all means.”
Vaughan and his wife, Joanne, who is assistant athletic director at SBU, have been members of First Baptist Church, Bolivar, since 1985.