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Megachurch Myths





A groundbreaking study on U.S. megachurches shatters every myth we had about America’s 1,200 largest congregations.

In 1960 there were 16 churches in America with attendance of more than 2,000. Now, fewer than 50 years later, there are 1,210 such churches—nearly twice as many as there were five years ago.

Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.

In 1960 there were 16 churches in America with attendance of more than 2,000. Now, fewer than 50 years later, there are 1,210 such churches—nearly twice as many as there were five years ago.

Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.

In 2005, four megachurch pastors had books on The New York Times bestseller list, and one of these books (Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life) has become the best-selling hardcover non-fiction book in U.S. history.

The attention these churches and their pastors generate is not entirely flattering. In an interview in the Feb. 22 edition of Australia's The Age, World Council of Churches General Secretary Samuel Kobia describes megachurches as "two miles long and one inch deep." The decision of several prominent megachurches to cancel services on Christmas day drew the ire of American evangelicals and became fodder for discussion on secular newscasts. Books from Os Guinness' 1993 Dining With the Devil to this year's Left Behind in a Megachurch World by church historian Ruth Tucker and O Shepherd, Where Art Thou? by seminary professor Calvin Miller have criticized what they see as the commercialization, materialism or shallow theology perpetuated by megachurches.

In almost schizophrenic fashion, American evangelicals have been quick to either uncritically embrace the numeric success of megachurches as a sign of spiritual renewal ... or cynically attribute it to cultural compromise. But the truth may be somewhat less obvious, as recent research would suggest.

Released February 3, Megachurches Today 2005 is a research study of more than 1,800 churches conducted by the Dallas-based Leadership Network and Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary's Institute for Religion Research (HIRR). The study follows on the heels of the 2000 Faith Communities Today study conducted by HIRR and reveals shifts in the growth patterns, geographical distribution and ministry dynamics of America's largest churches. In the course of the research, key characteristics of megachurches distilled—often corresponding with commonly-held myths surrounding the growth, leadership and activities of megachurches. Ministry Today got a sneak-peak at the study shortly before its release and had a chance to talk with the researchers behind it. Here's what we discovered:

MythOne

All megachurches are alike.

There are several characteristics that most megachurches possess—well-educated pastors, youthful attendees and conservative politics, according to Megachurches Today 2005. (As expected, only two percent of megachurches describe themselves as politically "liberal.") In fact, the study notes that they often "have more in common with each other than they do with smaller churches."

However, the monolithic stereotype of the suburban, white, theologically "vanilla", newly-established megachurch may need to be adjusted. For instance, while many churches have earned the status of "mega" in recent years—giving the impression that large churches are sprouting in places where there were none to begin with—the median year that these churches were founded is 1965.

Diversity most vividly shows in the worship styles of megachurches—60 percent of which claim they have changed the style of their services "some" or "a lot" in the past five years. Increasing accessibility and openness to using technology has led to implementation of multimedia aids such as video projection, increasing from 65 percent in 2000 to 91 percent in 2005.

But nowhere is this diversity seen more than in music styles, where, in the past five years, the use of traditional instruments such as pianos and organs has declined and the use of drums, bass and electric guitars increased to 80 percent. This trend in itself is intriguing—particularly in light of the fact that the percentage of megachurches that identify themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal has declined from 25 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2005.

Geographically, megachurches are most prevalent in the Sunbelt, with California leading the pack as the state with the most megachurches (178), followed by Texas (157), Florida (85) and Georgia (73). With the exception of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming, every state has at least one church with more than 2,000 members.

In spite of these apparent regional concentrations of megachurches Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, as well as a researcher on the Megachurches Today 2005 study, believes that a geographical "decentering" is occurring.

"I fully expect to see more megachurches in New England, in the midsection and up the northwest coast of the U.S.," he notes.

MythTwo

Megachurches are fixated on raising and spending money.

The average megachurch brings in about $6 million per year in income, with expenditures at $5.6 million. This can give the impression that megachurches spend a lot of time raising money to support burgeoning staffs, buildings and programs.

However, according to the survey, fundraising ranked lowest on a list of activities that respondents viewed as important—behind study groups, religious education, prayer, pastoral care, evangelism, music, fellowship and social service.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this lack of pressure is the relative ease with which megachurches attract volunteer labor. The study noted these churches employ an average of 20 full-time, paid leadership staff positions and nine part-time positions—in addition to 22 full-time and 15 part-time administrative support staff positions.

However, megachurches manage to engage the labors of an average of 284 volunteers, who each donate five or more hours a week to church work—a ratio of 10 attendees to one staff or volunteer.

MythThree

Megachurches all meet in cavernous sanctuaries on enormous campuses.

In the age of sky-high real estate prices and building-supply costs, large churches must sometimes improvise to accommodate growth. In the Faith Communities Today 2000 study, a majority of respondents felt they had "insufficient building space for many areas of their ministries," and this trend has only become more noticeable in the past five years.

For instance, the average attendance at a megachurch in 2005 is 3,585, but the average seating capacity is only 1,400. (In fact, only five percent of megachurches have sanctuaries of 3,000 seats or more.) As a result, 97 percent of megachurches hold multiple worship services, and five percent hold nine or more each weekend.

Another way this disparity in congregation size and seating capacity is remedied is through satellite locations. At least 50 percent of megachurches use a combination of multiple venues and satellite locations to accommodate growth.

A recent book on this trend, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird) predicts that 30,000 American churches will be multi-site within the next few years. The authors suggest this phenomenon is driven just as much by missiological goals as it is practical constraints and cite churches as small as 30 that have launched satellite congregations.

In a recent interview with Ministry Today, Bird (who was also one of the researchers in the Megachurches Today 2005 study) noted one of these missiological goals is more effectively reaching youth and teens.

"Many new megachurch facilities are smaller in worship capacity but proportionately bigger in their children's and youth facilities," he says. "For example, consider Christ's Church of the Valley, Peoria, Ariz. [www.ccvonline.com]. Eleven thousand worship on a typical weekend, and the sanctuary—which seats 2,800—is well-designed and wired for all kinds of media. Yet the bigger square footage and expense has gone to the facilities used for children and youth."

MythFour

Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about personal devotion or theological depth.

Because of their size—and the multiple services that most offer on any given weekend—megachurches must painstakingly plan each aspect of their services for efficiency and consistency. Arguably, this level of routine could constrict the flow of authentic ministry on any given Sunday and give congregants the impression that they are merely spectators at an entertainment event.

However, 78 percent of survey respondents described their congregations as holding "strong beliefs and values," and the study noted that practices such as personal Bible study, prayer, tithing and family devotions are emphasized by the church as important aspects of the Christian faith.

Perhaps nowhere is the personal devotion of megachurch attendees more evident than in their propensity to invite friends, neighbors and family members to church with them. 58 percent of megachurches report that evangelism and recruiting is a key emphasis of their ministry. Although megachurches harness mailing lists, TV advertising, newsletters and events to draw new congregants, their most effective method is to encourage members to invite others to services.

When it comes to theology, megachurches are sometimes described as shallow in their approach—with sermons focusing on practical topics often beginning with "How to ..." rather than theological exposition. Warren Bird cautions against the universalization of this stereotype, however.

"In some camps of the seeker model this statement might be true, but the major trend in megachurches is toward life application of Bible truths," he notes. "Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle [www.marshillchurch.org] and John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis [www.bbcmpls.org]—and many old line denominational churches—are almost entirely theological in their teaching."

MythFive

Megachurches are nondenominational.

The majority (66 percent) of megachurches are denominational in connection, although, whether because of their nondescript names or their styles of worship, many are not easily identified with these denominations. The most represented denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, claiming 16 percent of America's megachurches.

However, Megachurches Today suggests there is a subtle shift toward megachurches being nondenominational in affiliation, noting that "megachurches founded since 1991 are more likely to be nondenominational and less likely to describe their congregation as traditional, moderate, Pentecostal or charismatic." Younger megachurches gravitate away from the use of labels in general—preferring the more general moniker of "evangelical."

Warren Bird notes several exceptions to this rule.

"New Hope Fellowship, Honolulu, pastored by Wayne Cordeiro is an exception in that their literature and Website clearly proclaims their Foursquare connection. But even they didn't put 'Foursquare' in their church name," he points out. "Charismatic and Pentecostal churches tend not to play down their denominational connection too much, although some newer ones, such as Matthew Barnett's Dream Center [www.dreamcenter.org] and Angelus Temple [www.angelustemple.org] in Los Angeles, are leaving the denominational connection out of their name."

While it is clear that some megachurches downplay their denominational affiliation (the 2000 survey showed only a third said they expressed their denominational heritage very or quite well), very few changed affiliation (three percent in the last five years) or became independent (three percent since 2000).

They predict that, although a few churches may leave their denomination in the next few years, more will either drop the denominational label in favor of a more generic name, or form a quasi-denominational network of like minded churches. Twenty-two percent of megachurches have already done so. Further pointing to this trend toward independence, 37 percent of the megachurches surveyed say they helped plant at least one new congregation in the past five years.

"We are definitely seeing a renaissance of church planting by megachurches, both locally and internationally," notes Leadership Network vice president, Dave Travis.

MythSix

Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming and transfer growth from other churches.

While some would argue these congregations just happened to sprout in the right place at the right time—or even embraced some form of compromise or "secret formula" to ensure growth, researchers note that such formulas don't guarantee success:

"Almost none of the many evangelistic programs and efforts (such as advertising, creating recruitment plans, sponsoring visitor events, contacting persons new to the community or actually contacting persons after they visited the church) we tested had a strong influence on the variable growth rates of these megachurches." Instead, they cite spiritual vitality, adaptation to change, clear mission, youthfulness of the congregation and the tendency of megachurch congregants to tell others about their experiences at church. (They also noted the use of electric guitars and drums is also a factor.)

The common denominator among the fastest-growing megachurches is the extent at which members are involved in recruiting new members. 64.7 percent of those churches that experienced more than 100 percent growth in the last five years say that a lot of their members were "heavily involved."

But are these new congregants being stolen from less dominant and successful churches? Some are.

"The transfers that come from other local churches typically come from churches of all sizes, big and small," Bird notes. "When a church grows past about 400 in attendance, it often becomes what [church-growth consultant] Carl George calls a 'feeder-receptor' church. That is, whether it likes it or not, it becomes a magnet for transfer growth because it usually sports the biggest youth group around or the most 'happening' singles group around. As a result, the larger a church grows, the more intentional it has to be about reaching lost and unchurched people; otherwise the transfer-growth factor can be awkwardly high."

Travis cites reasons people will transfer to a megachurch (e.g., major life change, church strife in the previous church attended, attendance of other family members—even if one is not thrilled with the music) and reasons they never would leave to attend a megachurch (e.g., membership and active participation at the same congregation for more than 10 years, regular giving, deep affection for the fellow attendees and leaders, satisfaction with one's spiritual growth and the likelihood that your children and grandchildren would not want to attend this same congregation.)

"Most church transfers occur because people have opted out of their previous church, and no one chased after them," Travis notes. "It was dropping out and then eventually reconnecting with another church at a later time."

Additionally, dramatic growth can be connected with senior pastoral leadership: 83 percent of churches tracked their most dramatic growth during the tenure of the current senior pastor.

Perhaps less predictable is the connection between the senior pastor's education and the rate of growth. Megachurch pastors are generally more highly-educated than pastors in smaller churches. Thirty-five percent possess a D.Min. or Ph.D., and only eight percent have not completed a college degree.

However, the study noted that "as the education levels of pastors decrease, the rates of growth of these churches increase. ... It raises interesting questions about the mentoring of young pastors and the role of seminaries in producing clergy to fill these very large congregations."

"Today's culture values leaders who are proven doers more than leaders with appropriate educational credentials," Dave Travis notes. "If a pastor can preach and lead in credible ways, and is a lifelong learner, most folks don't care about titles or level of formal education."

Thumma points out this phenomenon may coincide with the prevalence of nondenominational megachurches—many of which do not have educational requirements for their pastors.

"These pastors do not have a pattern of going to seminary," he notes. "They're much more likely to become a pastor through mentoring with another megachurch pastor—their real training is at the feet of their fathers."

So, what does the future hold for America's megachurches? Experts point to an increasing interest in church planting, as well as a growing commitment to education and leadership training—particularly in the customized and resource-rich environment that a megachurch affords.

"An increasing number of megachurches are training the next generation of pastors," Bird notes, citing The Vineyard Columbus [www.vineyardcolumbus.org], a congregation that houses Vineyard Leadership Institute, a center responsible for training Vineyard pastors across the country. "Some become an extension site for a seminary, while others become their own program."

Ultimately, as Thumma notes, megachurches are a product of their times. The urbanization and customization of American culture that has provided a fertile environment for Wal-Mart and the Internet has also been a nursery for our largest churches.

"There's a tendency to think of megachurches as a unique phenomenon—a result of God's blessing or revival. This is a religious interpretation of what I see as a social phenomenon," he says. "But we should also be exploring how megachurches reflect and represent what's going on in culture and society in general."


Matthew Green is managing editor of Ministry Today. For more information on The Leadership Network, visit www.leadnet.org, and to download a copy of Megachurches Today 2005, visit Hartford Institute for Religious Research at hirr.hartsem.edu.

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