Understanding Megachurches, Part 1: Growth

One of the more popular series last year on the blog dealt with the question “Can Megachurches be Missional?” It was part of a continuing– and important– dialogue within the Christian world.

Several people have written and researched at length the trends found in megachurches. Whether it is our LifeWay Research/Outreach Magazine list of the 100 Largest Churches in America or John Vaughan’s helpful research, Elmer Towns’ articles for Christian Life, or what Warren Bird and Scott Thumma are researching, megachurches are of interest to many.

The fact is that many practices found in smaller churches trickle down from larger ones, but also because we are a numbers-oriented culture– we want our church to grow, so we try to copy what the growing churches are doing.

While imitation is often the greatest form of flattery and many copy their methods, their terminology, and their programs, megachurches tend to face scrutiny– some fair and some unfair. In the process, several unhelpful things are said about them either out of jealousy or ignorance. One piece of misinformation spread about megachurches is that they are a dying breed.

I have heard this over and over again– that the megachurch is dying out. That people are wising up and getting into organic churches. That the mindless robots who blindly follow a the charlatan megachurch pastor have seen the light. The day of the megachurch is done.

One problem: the claims are just not true (and some of it is quite insulting to many passionate believers who attend megachurches who actually have higher levels of involvement and service according to the best research).

Facts are our friends– and we need some here. And the fact that Christians are choosing megachurches– and megachurches are thriving– is not a matter of debate, it is simply a matter of math. (This is not to say that there are issues to consider, but it is helpful to get this fact straight.)

So, the number of megachurches is not declining. Recent analysis from Scott Thumma and Warren Bird show the opposite, actually. There are more megachurches every year, not less. And, they have exploded in number in the last few decades.

megachurches-in-the-us

You are entitled to your opinion about megachurches, but not to your own facts. The fact is, they are not going away. Instead, they keep coming.

The graphic might show a slowdown in the last two years from the explosive growth (from explosive to electric?) we saw over the past decade, but Warren and I don’t think so (yet). Two years does not make a trend, and the trend is quite remarkable when it comes of the number of megachurches.

For example:

  • The number of megachurches in America has nearly doubled during every decade over the last half century.
  • In 1960, there was 1 megachurch for every 7.5 million Americans. In 2010, there was one for every 200,000 Americans.
  • There are as many megachurches today in the greater Nashville area as there were in the entire country in 1960.

Now, I don’t think that every megachurch is good– I assure you, I think some are quite terrible and fulfill every stereotype out there. Yet, there are also some great ones, and for that I am thankful. I want to understand them more and, when possible, to encourage them on their journey.

We are actually considering some learning communities (with D.Min. credit available) for megachurch pastors who want a peer group to considering that question. More soon on that, but for now… you have the facts.

For more information on megachurches and many of the stats cited in this article, visit Leadership Network’s megachurch resource page.

Read more from Ed here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
 
— Russ Wright
 
"While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
 
— Ken
 
Thank you for this article! I'm the pastor of a small church. My gifting is in teaching and we are known for aiding Christians in becoming Biblically literate. Visitor's often comment on God's presence being very real in our services. But we just don't seem to be growing. I have some soul-searching, etc. to do and this article provides some solid ground from which to proceed. Thank you again.
 
— Jonathan Schultheis
 

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