Megachurches' way of worship is on the rise
Joel Osteen draws the largest weekly church crowd in America - 30,000, at three services. Rick Warren counsels pastors and political leaders in many countries (and has the bestselling nonfiction book in US history). Bill Hybels's Willow Creek Association mentors more than 11,000 churches.Skip to next paragraph
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These high-profile pastors are helping shape a religious phenomenon that has taken off in the United States. The number of megachurches - Protestant congregations with regular weekly attendance of more than 2,000 - has doubled over the past five years, according to a national study released on Feb. 3.
Megachurches Today 2005, a survey conducted by researchers at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and Leadership Network in Dallas, has identified 1,210 American megachurches with an average weekly attendance of 3,612. Not surprisingly, the great majority are in the South, yet megachurches now can be found in all regions of the country.
While the phenomenon has developed over decades and represents only 0.5 percent of all US churches, the rising influence of megachurches reaches beyond their own congregations. They are changing the nature of worship and developing networks that help revitalize other churches and redefine church ties with other countries.
"Their influence can't be exaggerated," says Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. "They set an example for other congregations that stirs them to experiment."
The study debunks many myths about supersized congregations. The vast majority, it turns out, are not politically active. Nor are they homogenous: On average, 19 percent of the congregation is a nonmajority group; 56 percent of churches are making efforts to be racially inclusive.
They are not mostly independent churches; two-thirds are affiliated with denominations. And they are part of a broader trend found in other research: a growing concentration of worshipers in the largest churches.
"Something is happening that is leading more and more people to shift from smaller to bigger congregations within all denominations, liberal and conservative," says Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona. His research shows, for example, that 15 percent of Southern Baptists attend the largest 1 percent of their churches.
What's the appeal of large churches? Commentators' favorite explanation has long been a baby-boomer desire for anonymity. People close to the scene say that may have been true 25 years ago, but not today. They see a cultural shift in which people are comfortable in big institutions. Yet most compelling, they suggest, is the expectation of quality.
"Today people demand quality, even if it's subconscious," says David Travis of Leadership Network, a church consultant group. "They find quality almost everywhere else in their lives and expect it in all venues - music, visuals, preaching, written communications."
The cost of running churches has increased, and it's increasingly difficult for small churches to deliver that level of quality, Dr. Chaves says.
The founder in 1992 of a new church that is now home to 3,000 members (70 percent formerly "unchurched") sees it a bit differently: "Churches don't get large by accident - there is an outreach of spirit, a heart for reaching people outside the church," says the Rev. James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C.
The Hartford study confirms that, while most megachurches have a range of evangelism programs, what most contributes to their growth is word-of-mouth, enthusiastic members reaching out to neighbors.