Researchers Paint Latest Portrait of U.S. Megachurches

If all the people who are members of megachurches were combined, they would be the third largest religious group in the United States, researchers of a groundbreaking study stated.

Megachurches together have the same number of attendees at weekly services (roughly 4.5 million) as the smallest 35 percent of churches in the country, wrote Scott Thumma and Dave Travis in Beyond Megachurch Myths, a soon-to-be-released book about megachurches. Across the whole of Protestantism, the largest 20 percent of the churches have around 65 percent of the worshippers, finances and staff in America. Yet megachurches only make up one-half of 1 percent of all the religious congregations in the nation.

Based on studies conducted by Hartford Seminary and the Leadership Network in 2005 that revealed a notable rise in the number of megachurches (Protestant churches that averages at least 2,000 total attendees in weekend services) with a current count at 1,250, the upcoming book assured that megachurches are growing and will most likely be at the center of American Christianity for another decade or two.

"Megachurches are here to stay and will attract continuing interest .... Thumma and Travis have done us all a great service by setting the record straight," said Robert Wuthnow, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor of Social Sciences and director of Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

The researchers found that the average regular weekly attendance is 3,585 persons along with an average stated increase of 57 percent of their attendance over the previous five-year period. At the same time over 10 percent of these churches did not grow at all and a few dozen declined in attendance.

Explaining the growth of megachurches in a cultural context, Thumma and Travis noted that Americans have become more comfortable with large institutional forms with hospitals, schools, stores and entertainment centers having grown to megaproportions since the 1950s. The megachurch simply takes for granted that those coming to church also work, shop, and play in similar institutional forms.

"After a week of working in a major corporation, shopping in a food warehouse and megamall, viewing movies at a multiplex theater, and having children who attend a regional high school, it seems incongruous that this family would feel comfortable in a forty-person church," wrote the authors. "So the force of cultural conditioning is on the side of megachurches."

Painting the latest portrait on megachurches in the United States, the researchers found that California leads in number of megachurches with 178 followed by Texas with 157. The southern states retain the highest concentration of megachurches but the Northeast and Mid Central states have seen significant growth in the number of these large churches. Also, compared to the year 2000, the megachurch's primary location is now in newer suburbs rather than older ones with 45 percent of the churches located there.

Thirty-four percent of megachurches are nondenominational; 16 percent are Southern Baptist; 10 percent, Baptist; 6 percent, Assemblies of God; and 5 percent, United Methodist among the top denominational affiliations.

The majority of megachurch attendees are Caucasian as megachurches reflect the racial composition of the overall U.S. population, the researchers noted. Roughly 10 to 12 percent are predominantly African American; 2 percent have mostly Asian attendees; and approximately 2 percent are primarily Hispanic. Many are also multiracial. The 2005 study found that 31 percent of megachurches claimed to have a 20 percent or more minority presence in their congregations. The average megachurch had 14 percent of the congregation not representing the majority race. Moreover, 55 percent of the churches stated that their congregations were making specific efforts to become intentionally multiethnic.

In an attempt to classify the U.S. megachurches, researchers developed four "streams" to categorize distinct types in a way other than attendance numbers, location or worship style. About 30 percent of megachurches are categorized into the "Old Line/Program-Based" stream. These churches are usually the established First Churches in their locales, apt to be part of a denomination and more likely to have traditional worship, among other things.

Another 30 percent of megachurches were categorized into the "Seeker" stream. These churches strongly embrace an unconventional approach to Christianity, are strongly influenced by current corporate business practices and values, and tend to have a focused mission statement aimed at the evangelization of those who are seeking God. In other words, they describe themselves as "not your typical church."

Twenty-five percent of megachurches belong to the "Charismatic Pastor-focused" group. This stream is more often nondenominational and much of the identity of these congregations is formed around the vision and passion of their founding minister. They are more apt to be within a Pentecostal or charismatic theological tradition.

Fourthly, 15 percent of megachurches were placed in the "New Wave/Re-Envisioned" category. These churches were founded since 1990 and have grown to thousands of attendees in a very short time. New Wave churches are more likely to be multisite and multileader churches. They also reject a Seeker approach and embrace overtly traditional Christian symbols, language and teaching. A large percentage of attendees at these churches are under the age of 35 and are from all racial groups.

As Thumma and Travis plan for a Megachurch 2010 study, the two predict they will be reporting perhaps 1,500 megachurches.

While some claim the megachurch era will just be a brief reign and begin to die out in the next couple of decades, the researchers say megachurches will continue to be around for many more decades.

"The more than 1,200 megachurches that currently exist show few signs of imminent collapse," they wrote. "Likewise, the pattern of increase in the numbers of megachurches over the past two decades suggests that many more very large congregations may come into existence in the first half of the twenty-first century.

"We expect these churches to be around at least until the societal characteristics that created them change dramatically."

And today, the current primary factors shaping the American culture and landscape ensure that young people will continue to flow into megachurches, the authors further noted. In 2005, 47 percent of the megachurches indicated that 40 percent or more of attendees were under the age of 35.

Just look at the numbers, they stressed.

Beyond Megachurch Myths is scheduled for release in August.

Free CP Newsletters

Join over 250,000 others to get the top stories curated daily, plus special offers!


Most Popular

More In Church & Ministries