The number of megachurches may have exploded in the U.S. over the last few decades but the landscape is changing and people are seemingly less attracted to the big box churches or the "come and see" experience, two pastors observed.
"The megachurch is kind of like the great shopping malls of America," said Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, during a forum Tuesday. "They emerged at the same time and for the same reason and with the same mentality. And the malls haven't disappeared but there are a lot of them being shuttered and not a new mall has been built in America of any size in the last eight years and none are now planned because the retail activity shifted to different kinds of centers.
"We're not getting our ecclesiology by watching that but it does tell us that the 'Field of Dreams' vision is gone – if you build it, they don't necessarily come and they shouldn't."
What Mohler is seeing is a different missiological context in which people today are visiting churches by invitation more than anything else.
Dr. Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas, made a similar observation during the SBTS forum.
"It's no longer about maintaining the place; it's about going on mission with God," he said.
"The 'come and see,' the 'come and experience' moment – that's just changed. People are drawn to fellowships that are on mission, how can we go on mission."
According to Leadership Network, there are nearly 2,000 megachurches – those averaging 2,000 or more in weekly worship attendance, adults and children – in the U.S. Megachurches represent only about half of one percent of the almost 350,000 Protestant churches in the country yet almost 10 percent of Protestant churchgoers attend a megachurch.
Mohler recognized that the megachurch model was "a real missiological adaptation to this massive explosion in suburban America."
"It was made possible because it really was kind of a 'Field of Dreams' model – if you build it, they will come. They built it, they did come," he said.
But today, more people are moving into the cities rather that the suburbs and more people are interested in being out in the communities than in a large building with other Christians, he observed.
This doesn't mean megachurches will be disappearing any time soon.
"I'm certainly not suggesting the megachurch will now pass away," Mohler stated.
But one adaptation that churches are making today is going multisite, essentially creating smaller church communities in more communities.
Both Mohler and Floyd are part of a multisite church, with Floyd leading one that now has four campuses.
"If I had the privilege to redo everything ... I would build half of what I have on half the size of real estate that we have because things have so changed," Floyd remarked, noting that he doesn't see large churches investing in big buildings or real estate anymore.
Floyd went multisite 11 years ago, hoping to take the church to parts of the city that they would otherwise not have reached.
"I think God blessed the heart of it (multisite approach). We want to reach people, we want to touch people and bring people the Word of God where they live," the Arkansas pastor said. "The Lord has blessed it."
A 2012 report by Leadership Network reveals that there are over 5,000 churches with more than one location for worship, up from 200 in 2002.
"This rapid rate of growth for the number of multisite now outnumbers and outpaces the number of megachurches," said Dr. Warren Bird, director of Research and Intellectual Capital Development at the Leadership Network.
While more churches – both large and small – may be adopting the multiple campuses model, both Mohler and Floyd still find themselves figuring out the ecclesiology of the multisite church.
"I find myself somewhat continually double-minded on the question (of how does congregationalism function in a multisite church?)," said Mohler. "I'm not sure how to fit this into my own ecclesiological expectations. I also see the almost necessity of some of the missiological adaptation."
Floyd added, "I haven't figured it all out ... It's kind of like the more kids you have the more challenges you have."
But Floyd is nevertheless convinced that the heart behind the multisite model is biblical and genuine.
"I really believe we're a local church that is driven to reach the community for Christ," he said.