Beliefs

The megachurch boom rolls on, but big concerns are rising too

Megachurches such as Alfred Street Baptist Church, a historic, predominantly black congregation in Alexandria, Va., continue to grow, a new report shows. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks.
Infographic showing major findings from Megachurch 2015 survey. Graphic courtesy of Leadership Network

Infographic showing major findings from Megachurch 2015 survey. Graphic courtesy of Leadership Network

(RNS) Change is coming to American megachurches — those behemoths for believers that now dot the religious landscape.

There are more participants in megachurch worship than ever.

“Last weekend 1 in 10 adults and children who went to a Protestant church went to a megachurch — about 5 million people,” said Warren Bird, director of research for Leadership Network and co-author of a megachurch study released Wednesday (Dec. 2).

But individual attendance is down to once or twice a month — or less.

“They think ‘regular attendance’ is ‘I get there when I can,’” said the second co-author, sociologist Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The study examines megachurches (2,000 people in weekend attendance is the basic qualifier) in comparison with other, smaller congregations.

“We found many of these large, successful congregations still have many of the same challenges of smaller congregations. They are not immune to the cultural dynamics in society,” said Thumma.

“Everyone is trying to attract new people and hold on to them and make them disciples. But, today, people are seekers and shoppers looking for a temporary experience of worship, not a long-term commitment,” said Thumma.

Megachurches, many launched a quarter century ago by baby boomers, now see slippage in the younger generations. Participation by millennials, ages 18-34, has flattened out at about 19 percent since 2010. But Gen-X attendees, ages 35-49, are drifting out the door — down from 28 percent in in 2010 to 23 percent today.

The fickle, fast-moving faithful have prompted other changes.


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Megachurches are still being built. Indeed, the study finds those established since 1990 are growing at more than double the rate of older megachurches. But the study, funded by the Beck Group, which builds megachurches, finds the new churches are constructed very differently.

Congregations are “getting bigger by getting smaller,” said Bird. They’re building smaller main sanctuaries (median down from 1,500 seats to 1,200 seats) but holding more services on more campuses.

Bird recounts a comment from Pastor Larry Osborne, who built North Coast Church in Vista, Calif. “A woman told him, ‘I like your church because it’s so much more intimate and personal.’”


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She didn’t realize North Coast Church serves 10,000 people in dozens of services — all with the same sermon but varying in worship styles and music — on four campuses, from a 40-acre plaza of worship settings in Vista to a recast movie theater setting serving San Marcos/Escondido.

Five years ago, 46 percent of megachurches had multiple locations. Now it’s 62 percent. And the number of their sites bumped up, too — from an average of 2.5 sites to 3.5.

Older megachurch congregations, such as North Coast, have a more diverse age range, higher member involvement in programming and $500 more in per capita giving than the big churches founded since 1990, the study finds.

Younger megachurches have advantages but also drawbacks, a new report shows. Graphic courtesy of Leadership Network

Younger megachurches have advantages but also drawbacks, a new report shows. Graphic courtesy of Leadership Network

The report, based on a survey of “key informants” — senior pastors or executive staff of congregations — also found a shift in how these churches describe their religious self-image.

Every year since Thumma and Bird began studying megachurches in 2000, the percentage that describe themselves as “evangelical” has gone up. Now, it’s 71 percent, no matter what their denomination, said Bird.

About 40 percent of megachurches are nondenominational, and for those that do have ties, “it’s not really a draw. God and Rick Warren know Saddleback Church is Southern Baptist,” said Bird, but most people who worship there don’t.

Most pastors said denominational ties were unimportant or not very important to their congregation.

What is increasingly important is service to others outside their own congregations.


READ: Rachel Held Evans defends exit from evangelicalism, calls Christians to celebrate sacraments


Thumma said that “for a very long time, the focus of megachurch programming was inward — taking care of our own people. Now there’s a huge shift to outreach: 43 percent said global missions were a specialty of their congregations, and 44 percent said one of their specialties was community service and helping those in need.”

Worshippers care most, Bird said, “about finding a church that knows where it’s going and what it’s about. They like clarity of vision in a church.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national correspondent for RNS.)

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues

25 Comments

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  • Thanks, Cathy. A great story. Lots of excellent research.

    “Gen-X attendees, ages 35-49, are drifting out the door…”
    They see Republican money is Church money.

    The rise of megachurches over the last 40 years
    has coincided with:

    Denial of Science.
    More $Billions to Right Wing Christian lobbies in Washington.
    More funding of Fox ‘News’ and Right wing radio.
    The rise of Republican absolutism in Congress (Tea Party).
    A decline in women’s rights wherever religion is strong.
    A decline in education (these churches dare to call themselves ‘campuses’)
    A decline in American living standards.

    Madrassas and Megachurches are very expensive to society.
    America can’t continue to ignore Education, Climate Change and Evolution!
    Religious superstition has done serious damage. It is time walk away from these theories from ancient times and seek better ideas.

  • So many pastors of megachurches are self-appointed pastors with no background in moral and sacred theology. They are religion entrepreneurs making a lot of money.

  • You are right about that Jim. It’s also true of many of the small, nondenominational churches started by individuals. They become very cult-like. Both forms are bad for the religion. Think Osteen’s cancerous “Prosperity Gospel.” There is no such thing, but it does asuage the guilt of the greedy.

  • Greed is Good
    “The generation of the upright will be blessed with wealth and riches
    in the house, And his righteousness endures forever.”
    – GOD (Psalm 112:3)

  • To say, “the megachurch boom rolls” on is grossly misleading. The rise of the religious “Dones” is a reality. Over 30 percent of those who claim to be Christian now do not attend church at all, and if Josh Packard is right (Church Refugees), another 15 percent are “Almost Done.” The mainlines were gutted years ago. So the “Dones” are now mostly refugees from Big Evangelical Christianity. No doubt, there are many reasons people are either leaving for good or just attending less often. But having worked with megachurches and their leaders closely for two decades, what is clear to me is that the salvation Story is no longer compelling enough. Many developmental psychologists believe most adult Americans are adolescents – emotionally, socially, and morally. An escape-hatch theology of salvation that doesn’t include a big helping of personal transformation is not only irrelevant in a world desperate for maturity, authenticity and leadership. It is non-Christian at its core.

  • “what is clear to me is that the salvation Story is no longer compelling enough.”

    The ostentatious spending of megachurch leadership coupled with constant, obnoxious requests for donations by some of the poorest demographics, doesn’t do much for image in the long run. The constant entanglement of the evangelical pulpit with conservative politics also makes such churches look petty and coercive.

  • The ostentatious spending of megachurch leadership coupled with constant, obnoxious requests for donations by some of the p00rest demographics, doesn’t do much for image in the long run. The constant entanglement of the evangelical pulpit with conservative politics also makes such churches look petty and coercive.

  • “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been lead astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10). A balanced view of money is important.

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