Compared to attendees of a typical Protestant church, people who attend megachurches are more likely to be young, single, more educated and wealthier, a new survey reveals.
The majority of megachurch attendees (62 percent) are under the age of 45 whereas less than half (35 percent) of those in a typical congregation fall in the 18-44 age group, according to a megachurch report by Scott Thumma of Hartford Institute for Religion Research and Warren Bird of Leadership Network.
The report – "Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America's Megachurches" – is based on data from a national survey that drew 24,900 responses from 12 carefully selected megachurches across the country. It is claimed to be the largest national representative study of megachurch attendees conducted by any researchers to date.
With more than 5 million people worshipping at megachurches – Protestant churches of 2,000 or more weekly attendees – in a typical week, Thumma and Bird sought to provide a look at who these worshippers are, why they come and why some stay.
"[U]ntil now, very little was known about those who attend these churches,'" the researchers state in their report, released Tuesday.
For comparison, the researchers used findings from the U.S. Congregational Life Study (USCLS), a study of Protestant churches of all sizes that was completed in April 2001.
They found that in addition to drawing more young adults, megachurches tend to bring in more single, unmarried people than a typical church. Nearly a third of megachurch attendees are single compared to just 10 percent of a typical congregation. The vast majority (80 percent) of those in a typical congregation are married or widowed.
Megachurches also tend to draw in a lot more new people compared to the typical church. Over two-thirds (68 percent) of megachurch attendees have been there five years or less while only 40 percent of those in churches of all sizes joined the church recently. Almost half (45 percent) of attendees of a typical church have been there for more than 10 years.
Although megachurches have nearly twice as many new attendees, most of the new people are already Christians and came from another church. Seventy-seven percent said they have been long-time committed Christ followers for seven or more years and only 2 percent said they are not a follower. Also, 18 percent had not attended church for a while before coming to the megachurch and just 6 percent said they never went to church previously.
Most megachurch attendees (82 percent) come at the invitation of a friend, family member or co-worker, the study found. Only 19 percent said they saw the church or viewed media about it and came on their own.
Only 16 percent said they viewed the church's website before attending.
Examining what attracts people to megachurches, the survey found that the worship style, senior pastor, and reputation of the church, respectively, were the strongest factors in initial attraction.
Those three items were also most influential in having people stay. The senior pastor, however, proved to be the strongest factor that kept people coming back.
Still, loyalty was found to be an issue among some megachurch attendees.
Three quarters called their megachurch their only church home but 11 percent said they didn't consider it their home church and 12 percent claimed it as home but said they also attended other churches.
The researchers found that divided loyalties impact the level of commitment to the church.
Roughly 90 percent of megachurch participants claimed regular worship service attendance but those from the USCLS sample were slightly more likely to attend services weekly or at least two to three times a month.
Additionally, megachurch attendees are less committed financially than those in a typical church with 32 percent saying they contribute nothing or give just a small amount when they can. While a third of both groups give a tithe (10 percent of income) or more, the megachurch giving figures are overall significantly below those for churches of all sizes.
Although their contributions are small, their level of giving has actually increased since attending the megachurch. Forty percent said they were giving more at the megachurch than at their previous church.
Other findings show that almost half (45 percent) of megachurch participants said they never volunteered and only 60 percent participate in small groups.
Nevertheless, the report pointed out that even the marginal participants are hardly uninvolved spectators.
Seventy percent of megachurch participants practice personal devotions daily or often during the week and 87 percent have invited at least one person to church in the last year, the survey found.
"[T]hese findings suggest that many participants are interacting with the megachurches on their own terms, to meet their own individualized needs," the researchers state in their report, noting that megachurches offer a multitude of choices and avenues by which churchgoers' spiritual needs can be met.
"As such, involvement at these (and perhaps all) churches may be less about creating an idealized plan to move someone toward commitment and more about providing many ways by which people could craft their unique, customized spiritual experience to meet their needs," the researchers add.
Most (62 percent) megachurch attendees said they experienced much spiritual growth in the past year with 42 percent attributing that growth to their involvement in the church.
Forty-five percent strongly agreed that their spiritual needs were being met and only 14 percent expressed a level of dissatisfaction with their spiritual growth at the megachurches.
Moreover, over two-thirds of attendees said their church is making a strong effort to get them involved and nearly three quarters agreed that their megachurches were making strong efforts to train, develop and coach leaders. Sixty-one percent also said they feel encouraged to discover and use their gifts and skills and 73 percent said they felt a sense of belonging to their church.
And the longer they attend the megachurch, the higher their commitment becomes.
The survey showed that regular attendance, involvement, and financial contributions increased with time. Fewer people reported "much growth" in their faith after five years of attendance but they were still more likely to experience spiritual growth than those in churches of all sizes.
The 12 megachurches studied in the survey, conducted January to August 2008, were intentionally chosen to parallel the diversity among all U.S. megachurches as closely as possible. The survey was supplemented with site visits, interviews and other data collection efforts.