Megachurch Movement in US Marches On; Report Reveals Steady Growth

The megachurch movement in the United States is not dying or slowing down, according to a recent, end-of-year report that shows a growing number of attendance, averaging 2,000 people in 46 states.

"With each passing year, megachurches are more in both number and size and the ones at the top of the list are larger than the ones at the top of the list in previous years," Warren Bird, director of research and intellectual capital development for Leadership Network, told The Christian Post.

Megachurches tend to be more protestant in nature and, by definition, hold services for 2,000 members or more. In the U.S., several congregations surpass that figure by large numbers, including Rick Warren's Saddleback Church based in Lake Forest, Calif., and Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, among others. According to Bird, there are currently 1,650 established megachurches in the country, many of which draw a sizeable percentage of young adults.

"Many megachurch pastors are under age 40. So it's a myth that megachurches are solely a product of the baby boomer generation, although younger-led megachurches do tend to be different," said Bird. "[They have] less emphasis on grandeur in facilities, less formal, and greater eagerness to be an active participant in their local communities."

Although 55 is the average age of today's megachurch lead pastor, Bird's analysis revealed that 5 percent are under 40. A prime example is Hillsong NYC, led by 34-year-old Carl Lentz who has stirred the Pentecostal movement in the city with his unconventional, young and urban, congregation of 5,000. Lentz's down-to-earth persona and celebrity magnate attraction has placed him among the forefront of the quintessential "less formal, under age 40" category. Another relatively young mega congregation is Elevation Church, led by 33-year-old Steven Furtick, has 14,000 members and several multi-site campuses throughout North Carolina. The youngest megachurch leader is 31-year-old Chris Galanos from Experience Life Church in Texas, who began his ministry at age 25 with 330 members and now has over 3,500.

Bird's analysis also shows that while almost 10 percent of protestant churchgoers attend a megachurch, the churches only represent about half of one percent of nearly 320,000 Christian congregations in the country.

Size is what most note as the defining characteristic of thed congregations, however, a similar trait that all megachurches share is that the majority adhere to a conservative theology, and most identify as evangelical. Bird found that almost all protestant denominations have at least one megachurch including Southern Baptists, United Methodists, and Evangelical Lutherans. Smaller denominations like Foursquare, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Nazarene have also established mega congregations.

"Most denominational megachurches hold their denominational affiliation lightly [including] Saddleback [which] is Southern Baptist, and [which] is Evangelical Covenant," said Bird. "And many are nondenominational, such as Lakewood, Willow Creek, North Point and The Potter's House."

While many churches led by younger pastors have been established within the past decade by their current pastor, 21 percent of megachurches in the US were founded more than 20 years ago, according to Bird. In addition, 79 percent of current mega congregation pastors have led their church through its most dramatic growth era.

According to the Leadership Network, some cite the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California as the first megachurch in the US however, they did not exceed the 2,000 member mark until 15 years after it was founded in 1955. Others consider Cathedral of Tomorrow, a former Akron, Ohio-based congregation to be the first megachurch which had over 5,000 attendees in the late 1950s.

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