If megachurches were a denomination, they'd be the second largest Protestant group in the country, researchers say.
With that, Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research decided to take a closer look at the large churches (2,000 or more attendants) that draw a total of nearly 6 million worshippers in a weekend. Their findings are in a report titled "A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States."
According to the study released this month, while 15 percent of megachurches did not grow or were in decline over the past five years, the stated average attendance for megachurches grew from 2,604 in 2005 to 3,597 in 2010. Growth, the researchers concluded, continues to be steady for America's largest churches.
"Megachurches," the study's authors say, "remain one of the most robust religious organizational expressions within North America."
Notably, these churches believe they're spiritually strong despite what critics say. In fact, 98 percent agree that their congregations are "spiritually alive and vital" and that they have strong beliefs and values. A majority also say they have a clear mission and purpose.
Another finding that debunks popular perceptions about megachurches is that they place a strong emphasis on personal accountability and Christian spiritual practices among attenders.
According to the study, at least three-quarters of megachurches say they promote "quite a bit" or "a lot" the practices of personal Bible study, prayer or devotions, talking with children about faith and stressing abstinence from premarital sex.
Sixteen percent also emphasize fasting and 13 percent stress observing the Sabbath.
Other emphases in megachurches include youth activities, community service, cash assistance, financial counseling and food pantries.
Less than half of the surveyed churches stress voter education/registration.
Providing a glimpse of the attendees, the study reveals that 70 percent of participants are under the age of 50 and 82 percent of the surveyed churches have a majority Caucasian participation. Forty percent of regular adult participants are new to the congregation in the last five years and only 20 percent are identified as life-long members of the congregation.
Other characteristics of megachurches:
- Half are multisite
- Nearly half (48 percent) have one or more Saturday night services (in addition to Sunday services)
- 71 percent identify as evangelical; 8 percent say they're pentecostal
- 70 percent say their church is part of a denomination, network, fellowship, or association of churches
- 79 percent say the church’s most dramatic growth occurred during tenure of current senior pastor
- 88 percent say their church/pastoral leadership uses Facebook or other social media regularly
- A quarter of megachurches were founded in 1949 or earlier
- Nearly all megachurches use drums, percussion, electric guitar and visual projection in their worship; only 43 percent use a choir
- 94 percent describe their worship services as joyful; 46 percent say their services are reverent
Data is based on a survey of 336 churches with attendance of 1,800 and up; 304 of the respondents represented churches having attendance of 2,000 or more. The report was authored by Warren Bird and Scott Thumma.