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The megachurch movement is fading. What’s next?

Unsplash/Akira Hojo
Unsplash/Akira Hojo

Once a church reaches 2,000 in weekly attendance, its sheer size becomes a self-generating attraction. Massive facilities, a sprawling campus, and numerous attendees give these large congregations more prominence than other churches. Megachurches receive more media attention than smaller churches. Their physical campuses can dominate their surrounding community. Megachurch pastors tend to have charisma, and their churches can offer a wide variety of programs appealing to a broad base of people.

One can understand why a smaller church would feel threatened by the megachurch down the road. But this threat is more perception than reality.

The new reality for megachurches

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The megachurch movement is beginning to wane. The number of megachurches increased exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, but by about 2010 this exponential growth stalled. The megachurch movement reached an inflection point with about 1,600 megachurches in the United States. Over the next 10 years, up to the pandemic of 2020, the number of megachurches dropped to about 1,200. New worship spaces were also significantly smaller — about 20% on average — during the same timeframe. The pandemic then caused many megachurches to drop below 2,000 in average weekly attendance.

In 2022, Christianity Today reported that Willow Creek Community Church cut millions out of its personnel budget and laid off 30% of its staff due to a 57% decline in attendance. The church responded by saying that most megachurches are operating at 50% of their pre-Covid levels. If this anecdotal evidence holds true, the number of megachurches in the United States will be half of what it was before the pandemic.

Though it is difficult to estimate precisely how many megachurches remain in the United States, it’s safe to assume the large growth curves of the 1980s and 1990s are a thing of the past. The movement was essentially a product of the Baby Boomer generation. These churches grew large as the Baby Boomers came of age. The Boomers are now aging out, and the megachurches are fading along with them. Will megachurches disappear? I believe there will always be healthy megachurches across the nation. Still, the phenomenon of megachurch growth is no longer in ascendancy, and some other model must now take the lead.

In the not-so-distant past, growing churches often relocated away from their neighborhoods and built large campuses at major intersections. The thought was that the drive would be worth the distance. This strategy seemed to work when these large churches were master planning their sprawling campuses in the 1970s through the early 2000s. They were championed and celebrated. Many large churches grew at tremendous rates, and many of them did, and continue to do, an incredible amount of good for the Kingdom of God. But starting around the turn of the 21st century, the growth of many of the largest churches shifted to multisite campuses and multiple venues. The massive, single-site church was no longer the focus of their planning.

The stigma of small is fading. People want to connect locally and within their neighborhoods. Churches with worship space for 200 to 600 are now ideal. Filling the giant rooms of megachurches is getting harder and harder. Neighborhood churches have a large-scale opportunity in front of them. Your neighbors, however, will not flock to your church just because you are smaller. If megachurches in your area are declining, it doesn’t mean your church will benefit from their losses. Frankly, we should never place our hopes on the decline of another church. Because few churches are doing the work of evangelism, those that start are likely to experience fruit. God is saving people and will continue to save people. He will use the churches that are obedient, whatever their size.

The growing potential for neighborhood churches

Neighborhood churches are in every city and small town across the United States. Though it’s difficult to get an exact count, they are perhaps the largest single category of churches. Neighborhood churches are numerous, and it’s time to leverage those numbers into a movement of revitalization and renewed health.

But here’s the problem. The typical neighborhood church isn’t prepared for an influx of new people. They aren’t primed for growth. Though they are in their neighborhoods geographically, they are not fully present culturally or missiologically. Most American churches are small — with fewer than one hundred people. Most American churches have been in existence for decades. Though there are far more small and midsize churches than megachurches, the trend toward larger churches has been in place for many years. The largest one percent of Protestant churches, for example, comprise approximately 15% of all the people, money, and staff. Small neighborhood churches are used to being small and do not often think about growth beyond their current size.

As the megachurch movement has begun to wane, it presents an opportunity for smaller and midsize established churches. The problem is that people won’t flock back into neighborhood churches from larger churches simply because it’s a shorter drive from home. Most churches — of all sizes — are smaller than they were a few years ago, due to the pandemic. The revitalization of neighborhood churches is not a foregone conclusion. It will take a lot of work, but I believe it can happen.

Many neighborhood churches are right around the corner but off the radar. Your neighborhood church can regain the attention of the neighbors. The potential for this movement is enormous. I believe you can be a part of it.

Originally published at Church Answers. 

Sam Rainer is president of Church Answers and pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida. 

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