Megachurches' way of worship is on the rise
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Megachurches are successful because they attract and retain more people over time. They have hospitality programs, hold orientation classes, encourage participation in fellowship groups or volunteer community service. In short, they make people feel at home.Skip to next paragraph
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What newcomers are after, Dr. White says, "is a sense of spirituality; they want the transcendent in their lives. And they are hungry for relationships, to be interactive as they carry on their search for God."
While many are seeking community, worship remains the central focus of the church, the study shows. It's also a myth that megachurches grow by offering "theology lite." The churches generally hold strong beliefs; have a clear mission and purpose; and have high expectations for scriptural study, prayer, and tithing.
Yet there are many varieties of megachurches, in size and emphasis. The study finds that 54 percent have between 2,000 and 3,000 members. Only 4 percent have more than 10,000. Those founded since 1991 are more likely to be nondenominational and have a significantly younger membership and a higher median attendance. But not all megachurches are new: Nearly one-third of them were founded 60 or more years ago.
Edmund Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., identifies at least four megachurch types: those that focus strongly on teaching, as in the Baptist tradition; seeker-sensitive churches aimed at evangelizing the unchurched; those that preach the "prosperity gospel" - "promising health and wealth without challenging priorities"; and youth- oriented churches with leaders that relate to popular culture.
"People say younger people aren't looking for a large church ... but if you look where they go, they're attending them in droves," says Mr. Travis. "And young pastors are podcasting their sermons."
Worship remains the central activity, with respondents overwhelmingly describing that experience as "joyful, inspirational, spiritually vital, thought-provoking, filled with a sense of God's presence."
Most incorporate contemporary music styles (93 percent use electric guitars or bass and drums). Nearly all use visual projection equipment. Styles of worship continually evolve. The churches growing most quickly are those that welcome innovation and change, the study says.
What enables many to keep growing - some to astounding size? "There's an understanding of small groups and how to systematically structure and staff them," says Travis, who works closely with large churches. Then there's the application of communications and database technologies, and development of leadership and strategic planning teams. Yet there's no doubt the senior pastor is always a key component.
Some 27 percent of megachurches have satellite locations, and 37 percent have started a new congregation in the past five years.
So prominent have some successes been, that those churches have built networks to assist others of various denominations in promoting growth. Willow Creek in South Barrington, Ill., and Rick Warren's Saddleback Valley Church in Lake Forest, Calif., are most influential nationally and internationally. Yet church models don't always transfer to other situations, and some churches do flounder.
Megachurches have often been criticized for being too businesslike. Dr. Warren, perhaps the most successful of all with his "purpose-driven" books and conferences, disputes that. Church is a family built on relationships, he says, and what really makes churches grow is changed lives.