Trends in Church Buildings – Why Bigger is Becoming Smaller

The megachurch has been a topic of interest for years. There are more every year and their growth rate is increasing. In other words, it’s not just that there are more, their rate of increase is growing.

Yet, when most people think of megachurches they not only think of mega-numbers, but also mega-facilities.

I thought it worth a moment to consider megachurch BUILDINGS—and what trends in such buildings might mean. Interestingly, some mega churches have begun to think differently about their facilities. These trends are not only fascinating, but I also find them encouraging several ways.

The last church I pastored had a 3,000 seat sanctuary. That’s a big room. But, what is interesting is that the church would not build that building if they could do it again—and that’s a theme I consistently hear.

What are the Trends in Big Church Buildings?

One of the trends I have observed in a qualitative way is that fewer churches are building large spaces specifically meant to accommodate thousands of people. In 2009 I posted a blogpost expressing our findings as we searched for gathering spaces of 5,000 seats or more. It would seem that being a megachurch does not necessarily imply having mega-facilities even if they maintain mega-numbers.

While the number of megachurches has increased, my (unscientific) observation is that sanctuaries have not grown at the same pace. At the time I wrote that post (2009) the average main sanctuary seating capacity in the typical American megachurch was 1,400 at most. This is large, but nowhere near 5,000. It seems that gathering spaces of growing mega-churches continue to get smaller. There seems to have been a substantial shift from the days of several thousand-seat sanctuaries to smaller venues. There are certainly exceptions, but I’m sensing a trend—and I’ll do more formal research on that later.

From Mega-Facilities to Multiplying Facilities

The decline of large church buildings points to a shift in ministry methodology. Many of the largest churches have begun to favor multisite expansion or church planting partnerships. While the large, larger, and largest churches continue to grow ever larger, they do not require larger spaces in the process—just more spaces (which tend to still be large!).

Simply put, implementing the multisite model compresses down the magnitude of the cavernous sanctuary. And, I do wonder if such buildings might be combined with a better multiplication strategy for a greater community impact.

At least in the American context today, the gigachurch, consisting of 10,000 or more members or attendees, often grows by adding sites and services rather than square footage to their buildings. New Spring Church in South Carolina provides a prime example. Pastored by Perry Noble, New Spring runs about 23,000 people on a given Sunday. However, their campuses do not seat 10,000 or even 5,000. Instead, there are multiple services and multiple technological means to distribute the message to other campuses.

Similar models like Saddleback implement video technology on many different sites, which allows those models to have 20,000 or more people attending their church on a weekly basis. Ultimately, the growth has shifted drastically away from continual building expansion to continual site expansion. As Rick Warren explained to me recently, their growth happens like a tree—not at the trunk, but at the branches. My guess is we will hear more thinking like that in years to come—smaller (but still very big) buildings, with more locations that are also smaller.

This trend is not only true of gigachurches, but seems to the trajectory of megachurches also. One example is Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC. Calvary is an older established church that has little room to expand at their central campus. Under the leadership of their former pastor Al Gilbert, Calvary voted to open a second campus in an area of town where over 30% of their existing members already lived. The attendance at Calvary’s new campus has more than doubled over the last 3 years, many of the new members having no prior connection to Calvary. That would have been unheard of a few decades ago.

The Benefits of Multisite Mega-Ministry

Part of the point is not really “new” news: more and more giga and megachurches are multiplying their ministry through multi-campus ministry. Perhaps you remember Warren Bird’s recent research that concluded;

  • Multisite churches reach more people than single site churches.
  • Multisite tends to spread healthy churches to more diverse communities.
  • Multisite churches have more volunteers in service as a percentage than single site.
  • Multisite churches baptize more people than single site.
  • Multisite churches tend to activate more people into ministry than single site.

However, my additional point is that multisite may very well lead to smaller (and, I hope) recyclable buildings that does not lead to a proliferation of large, empty church caverns when neighborhoods change.

Also, part of the megachurch debate centered on whether or not the model could sustain itself in years to come. Since then, megachurches have shifted their philosophy from building bigger and bigger to spreading further and further through multisite ministry. I imagine that will improve sustainability as well.

Will the Megachurch Movement Endure?

It is quite possible that the evangelical landscape will include more megachurches than ever in the future. Why? Well, churches grow. Then they grow more…and then they grow some more.

While the evangelical landscape will include more mega-churches than ever, I would contend that the vast majority of those megachurches will be multisite churches. Whether you like the megachurch or not, the trends point to the fact that the megachurch phenomenon is not over, but it actually increasing in its growth.

Furthermore, I think it is now beginning to get its second wind through the multisite expansion model. When it comes to the megachurch the model of bigger church buildings is declining, but new campuses are springing to life all over the landscape.

There are lots of implications here—some good and some bad. But, it appears that bigger churches are having smaller buildings—and more locations.

I’m not sure I know all the implications of this yet—and I’d like to hear your input in the comments, but a new reality is emerging and—with all such shifts—it promises both challenges and opportunities.

Read more from Ed here.

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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Recent Comments
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
— Debra
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
— Laurie
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)

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