Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Megachurches growing in number and size

By Jessica Kourkounis, AP

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A new survey on U.S. Protestant megachurches shows they are among the nation's fastest-growing faith groups, drawing younger people and families with contemporary programming and conservative values.
Members of the Lakewood Church worship at the grand opening of their megachurch in Houston. Members of the Lakewood Church worship at the grand opening of their megachurch in Houston.

The number of megachurches, defined as having a weekly attendance of at least 2,000, has doubled in five years to 1,210. The megachurches have an estimated combined income of $7.2 billion and draw nearly 4.4 million people to weekly services, according to "Megachurches Today 2005."

The study, released Friday, based its findings on 406 surveys from megachurches. It was written by Leadership Network, a non-profit church-growth consulting firm in Dallas, and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which did a similar survey in 2000.

Leadership Network's clients are large churches in the U.S. and Canada looking to grow or maintain growth with new ideas and methods. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research is part of the non-denominational Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

"When you add up all that megachurches are doing from books to video to the networks of connection across the nation, you can't say this phenomena of more than 1,200 megachurches is anything but really one of the most influential factors of American religion at this point in time," said Scott Thumma, researcher for the study and sociology professor at Hartford Seminary.

The South has the most share with 49%, including Texas with 13%. California led the nation with 14% but is part of a declining western region with 25%, seven percentage points lower than five years ago.

While large churches have flourished throughout history, early records show that the U.S. had about six large churches in the early part of the 20th century. That number grew to 16 by 1960 and then in the 1970s, they began to proliferate and draw public attention.

Megachurches founded since 1990 have more growth from year to year than any others and have the highest median attendance at about 3,400.

Oak Hills Church in San Antonio draws up to 5,200 weekly. Visitors have a special parking lot, are greeted there and inside the church by volunteers and invited to sip coffee at its "Connection Cafe" where video and print materials are presented about church programs.

"The main thing we work really hard at is having a good program for every age group," said Jim Dye, executive minister at Oak Hills. "We want the affluent to feel welcome and the hardworking, labor person, living payday to payday, to feel as welcome as anyone else."

The growth of megachurches in recent decades has come about because of a common historic cycle in U.S. religion: faith institutions reinventing themselves to meet the consumerlike demands of worshippers, said Paul Harvey, American history professor at the University of Colorado who specializes in U.S. religious history.

"We have a market economy of religion," he said. "Megachurches just show the instant adaptability of religious institutions. They reflect how Americans have morphed their religious institutions into the way they want them to be. Religious institutions have to respond to that."

Well-stated goals for growth, including orientation classes for new members, and a slew of programming for many demographics were a pattern for megachurches in the study. They also commonly have contemporary worship services with electric guitars and drums and frequent use of overhead projectors during multiple services throughout the week.

Their emphasis on evangelism, propelled mostly by word of mouth from enthused members, has been a constant, said researcher Dave Travis with Leadership Network.

"These large churches have figured out how to address the needs of people in a relevant, engaging way that is actually making a difference in their lives," he said.

The study also provides information about the age of megachurches, specifically that one-third reported they were founded 60 years ago or more. It also countered the notion that they are all independent congregations: 66% report belonging to a denomination — although most downplay this aspect in their church names and programming.

Other findings:

• 56% of megachurches said they have tried to be more multiethnic and 19% of their attendance is not from the majority race of the congregation.

• The average yearly income of megachurches is $6 million, while they spend on average $5.6 million each year.

• The states with highest concentrations of megachurches are California (14 percent), Texas (13 percent), Florida (7 percent) and Georgia (6 percent).

• The average megachurch has 3,585 in attendance, a 57% increase compared to five years ago.

Related Tags: , , , , , ,


One Salient Oversight said...

Let's keep this in context.

According to Barna, the amount of Evangelical Christians has remained steady at around 7% of the US adult population for the past 10-15 years.

According to US Census figures, those with "no religion" rose from 8.4% of the population in 1990 to 15.0% in 2000.

So, despite the efforts of the political right, the gospel is not exactly progressing in America while secularism appears to be gaining great amounts of popularity.

The question is - where do megachurches fit into these facts? Are they merely gravity wells sucking in believers from dying churches, or are they truly making a Gospel impact in America. I fear that it is the former reason - after all, most successful megachurches are not exactly known for having strong biblical theology.

mrclm said...

It's a good question you pose, and I would say it's a combination of all of the above plus. It depends on the church you are referencing. Mars Hill in Seattle (Marc Driscoll's church) and Mosaic in Los Angeles (Erwin McManus' church) would both be ones who have drawn primarily from the unchurched. Locally, we have churches like Wooddale (Leith Anderson), Bethlehem Baptist (John Piper), Eaglebrook (Bob Merritt) and I would say they all have grown more through marginal Christians joining their church, and Christians leaving other churches for various reasons.

People leave churches of course for both good and bad purposes. John Piper has specifically addressed his congregation about how it greives him if their growth is through/from pirating of other church's membership rolls.

So some of the megachurches are the gravity wells you speak of, others somewhere inbetween, and some are growing by reaching the unchurched. I think some of the things contributing to the steady rate (which in numbers is growth, but not in percentage) is the over all impact of non-Christian immigrants. For much of the history of our country, those moving here were coming from "Christian" nations. This has slowly changed, but is accelerating, especially in the past 30 or so years.

I'm sure there are other factors I'm forgetting/overlooking/am not aware of, but that's some food for thought at least in a partial attempt to answer your question.

Big Chris

One Salient Oversight said...

Where are these non-Christian immigrants coming from? If they're from Mexico then that would increase the percentages of Roman Catholicism. I don't think the percentage of "no religion" is driven by immigrants, but by the march of secularism. Those drawn to secularism tend to be white and educated and are often from the established community.

I personally have no problem with anyone leaving a church and going to another one if the church they leave is pretty bad biblically and the one they're going to is good biblically. If they're moving from a small and shrinking bad church to a large and growing bad church then the problem isn't solved at all. To my mind the solution isn't megachurches (and I don't think that was what you were trying to communicate) but biblical churches, large or small.

mrclm said...

Only in receint years have large numbers of Muslims been moving to the USA. For example, here in Minneapolis, we've had a huge influx of Somalians. We've also taken in 35,000 Hmong refuges, who also are not Christian. Certainly the Latino immigrants are predominantly Roman Catholic, but more and more the immigration is from non-Christian countries in Africa and Asia, as well as places like India. Keep asking questions, we'll see if we can clarify this further. It's really late, and I'm not thinking all that clearly. I suppose you are wide awake at this hour!

Big Chris