Monday, November 02, 2009

Why are americans so hung up about megachurches?

Among those surveyed in the 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, 40.5 percent of the congregations reported an average weekly attendance of between 101 and 300 people. Only 3.5 percent of surveyed congregations indicated an attendance of more than 1,000 people. Here.

We live in a world fascinated by size. It feels like an enormous amount of church health and growth literature is directed at wanting to be large in church size. Yet, based on the above, only 3% of the US church scene has been mega-up-sized, while nearly half of the US are 100-300 congregations.

To make an analogy, it feels to me like we’re walking around our young people, telling them that 7 feet or mensa intelligence is the new norm, the aspirational goal they should all feed on, read on and grow to. And we’d call that dumb and unfair.

Wouldn’t we?

Posted by steve at 03:17 PM


  1. Ironically, a lot of these mega-churhces are run by men. Comparing size at the urinal, I think!


    Comment by Chris McLeod — November 2, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  2. these are the hot of the press (actually, work in progress, still unpubliched) figures for membership of baptist churches in NZ (attendance not completed yet):
    34% of our churches have <= 50 resident members
    65% <=100
    79% <=150
    92% <=200
    97% <=300

    Comment by lynne — November 2, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

  3. so what about the idea, spread some years ago, that kiwis are more and more liking large churches?


    Comment by steve — November 2, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  4. It’s driven by the business model of some of the groups like the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and their ilk.

    We all know the apparent success stories of places like Willow Creek. It’s easy to seem special and relevant when you have 10,000 members, your Pastors go on national book tours, and you sell your books and merchandise globally.

    I remember studying this at BCNZ (now Laidlaw) back in Auckland. Some of the megachurches actually WANT to absorb the tiny churches in their neighbourhood, like water droplets gathering in size on your shower wall. Some see it as their mission to “sheep steal”. After all, if God wanted the tiny churches to succeed he would have made them into megachurches 😉

    I think, as well, that up-and-coming dual-income-no-kids young married types with an eye on social mobility probably want a megachurch to be able to network within. If people didn’t want their upper-middle-class haven of spiritual tokenism to attend once a week then those centres wouldn’t thrive as they do.

    @Lynne, are churches in NZ that small because they WANT to be that small, or because church attendance is declining? Just wondering, since those stats don’t really indicate causation.

    Comment by Iain — November 2, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

  5. Iain, what evidence do you have that megachurches want to absorb tiny churches? and that they sheep steal (apart from the fact that Grace encouraged Andy to do video for them)?

    and can I ask, in what way is attending espresso not open to the same charge of spiritual tokenism once a week?


    Comment by steve — November 2, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

  6. Iain: stats still coming off the press. the data was simply to support steve’s comments about the smallness of churches rather than to make any causation claims… more once analysis complete 🙂

    Comment by lynne — November 2, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  7. This is going to sound very unsatisfying. This isn’t secondhand testimony, I read the material myself, it is just that I did it around 4 years ago. My evidence for my claim was some material that I read from a Pastor of an American megachurch. There were two things that I saw that disturbed me. There was an interview and also there was a graph by the church. The interview was where the Pastor spoke about how the Lord was blessing their church and even though there were many churches in town they saw their mandate (and the other 2 or 3 large churches) to spread out across town and swallow up the little churches to make sure that people were in the church where god was doing stuff.
    Secondly, there was a graph. He had a diagram of the city and he had plotted out coloured circles around his megachurch and the other large churches which was their sphere of influence. His target was to piece the large churches together across town in such a way that they covered all of the zones by the little churches and didn’t fight the other large churches.

    If you want the name or more details I might be able to email my old lecturers… not sure.

    @Lynne great, it was good seeing those figures.

    Oh, and @Steve, I suppose in that there is a general danger for all examples of church attendance to be ‘spiritual tokenism’. Where I would delineate tokenism from non-tokenism in this area is one’s purpose of attending. A good analogy is with sponsoring a TearFund kid. If you sponsor a kid because its low maintenance, easy/simple, and it makes you feel like you’ve done your part in being kind and charitable to your fellow humans (so that you don’t have to be kind in general) then that would be tokenism. In the same way, if somebody attended church to get that God stuff out of the way and maintain their upkeep on the entry price to heaven then that’d be tokenism in my eyes. Also, if somebody attended a ‘posh’ church simply to make business contacts and so forth, that would also be fairly cynical (worse than tokenism I suppose).

    Comment by Iain — November 3, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  8. Iain to make a comment like “Some of the megachurches actually WANT to absorb the tiny churches in their neighbourhood, like water droplets gathering in size on your shower wall.” I would think you would need multiple examples. I would want to see a lot more data then just one or two churches to suggest that this is a characteristic of some mega churches.

    I also thiking you are painting in extremely broad brush strokes when mentioning tokenism. It is always hard to judge an indiviuals motives but to suggest you can judge the motives of literally 100,000’s of church goers and sum it up with the one word seems harsh.

    Comment by Aaron — November 3, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  9. Let the mega-churches be, if that’s what they want. I have worshipped, as have many others, in mega-churches and they have their place. My experience was good and bad,I guess. The music was good, the technology was good, the speaker was very good, but no one spoke to me. If my family wasn’t with me I would have felt alone in a crowd of people. The pastor & worship leaders were up there on the stage and very removed from the crowd. When I made an appointment to see the pastor I was downsized to the ‘intern’ and was given the ‘company’ line. I guess I would have to say that it was like a lot of contemporary culture – slick, polished, well presented but lacking in substance for me! (highlight ‘for me’, others think ‘mega’ is great). I personally prefer my local ‘funky’ cafe than fast food. This Sunday’s gospel reading, in some churches, is the widows mite Mark 12: 38 – 44. It has something to say, I think.


    Comment by Chris McLeod — November 3, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  10. Actually, Aaron, you’re technically incorrect. When discussion propositions, the qualifier “some” is proven correct by providing “at least one” instance. I didn’t say ALL, and I didn’t say NONE, so I can’t be shown to be incorrect either by a single counter-example (i.e. a good church) and I don’t need to provide evidence for universal corruption (i.e. all megachurches being bad). I said some, and I demonstrated a church where my claim was true. That is all I need demonstrate.

    Secondly, as to whether I am using broad brush strokes depends on how specific I was being. In this case, I was quite specific. I gave one very specific example of tokenism followed by an entire paragraph of clarification. You will also notice that I conceded that the charge of tokenism is one which I must be careful to lay because of the risk that it might be true of anyone. Rather than leaving it general, I discussed that very issue, tightening what I said so that I avoided making any “extremely broad” accusations.

    As to whether I can use a word to describe the actions of people (whether it be one or 100,000), that is how definitions work. If you find that my usage doesn’t fit your definition, feel free to be specific and to provide an alternative word or definition.

    Comment by Iain — November 3, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  11. this post started not as a bash on mega churches, but asking the question – why are we fascinated by them when they are a statistical anomaly?


    Comment by steve — November 3, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  12. Of course you are technically correct. But it is worthless having a conversation if you are going to use a one off case to make a comment about a much larger group even if it isprefixed with the term “some”. Because it is the mega church being discussed I think it is misleading to say
    some” when actually it is only 1 that you know of out of 1000’s. Sure technically correct but very hard to have a meaningful discussion as we could list things that we have seen in just 1 church and say it applies to some.

    Comment by Aaron — November 3, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

  13. My normal cynical self but…

    1. bigger churches have a bigger singles population and therefore more of a lure to draw in singles. If i were single, spreydon and grace would be much more fertile ground. Ok, so if i were single, i’d just sit at home and mutter… but still.

    2. how many people honestly have a personal faith? We hit this at espresso tonight. If you want to feel spiritual but dont have convictions on the subject, you follow the lead of a majority and that makes you feel validated. The bigger the church, then OBVIOUSLY other people have determined this is the right place to be, so fall in line and viola. salvation.

    3. Bigger the church, the more likely you are going to find like-minded people within the congregation?

    4. 1,000 is more average than mega in Dallas. Perhaps only 3.5% of the churches are “mega”, but the baptidome in dallas and that church that took over the 20,000 seat arena in houston are big on a mind bending scale. i mean, 3.5% of the churches with 5,000+ would still be a majority, no?

    Grace is the big church here in chch. They just hit 3,500 i think they said. They pay a staff to help produce cool looking media. With a full time position at Opawa, yeah, i could make our music/video setup amazing… and it would consume a massive chunk of the sunday take. If people are drawn in by nifty/flashy/neato, then big churches deliver that without the guilt. I mean, spending 2% of your sunday budget on multimedia sounds reasonable. 50+%? not so much.

    Comment by Andrew — November 4, 2009 @ 1:05 am

  14. Why do people focus on numbers for success? I think often for pastors it is because of insecurity. Many pastors just want to know that they are doing a good job and numbers can sometimes be an easy, and dangerous way to measure success.

    Quality of fruit must always be considered more important then quanitity. However once you are consistently producing quality you would expect the quantity to increase.

    Comment by Aaron — November 4, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  15. Aaron, i think andy’s comments answered your question, esp part of his point 1 and 2 –

    a) that numbers are tied up with a sense of momentum and that enthuses and makes people feel part of a happening thing and validates the worth of going.

    b) it’s not just pastors who feel insecure. it’s all christians in a post-Christian west. you’re one of a few christians in your school, then it’s much more encouraging to go to a larger youth group than a struggling youth group.

    c) and it especially helpful in stages of faith that find the affirmation of others important.


    Comment by steve — November 4, 2009 @ 9:58 am

  16. Interesting thing about your point b Steve is that some deal with insecurity by belonging to something large, while some go the opposite way and adopt a siege mentality. Interesting that the same insecurity can help fill a mega church and can also help fuel organisations that take pride in their exclusivity and worship of doctrinal purity.

    Comment by Aaron — November 4, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  17. ok
    so, if you care and even if you don’t attendance figures for baptist churches in 2009
    (you saw it here first)
    19% of our churches number <= 50 weekly attenders
    47% <=100
    64% <=150
    72% <=200
    77% <=250
    86% <=300
    95% <=500
    Our average attendance is as follows:
    mean 167 (slight decrease) median 110 (stable)
    Yep, to andy’s point re numbers of people IN those churches… much more significant then. may get to it today for our baptist context…

    Comment by lynne — November 4, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  18. Yes. And groups can’t change the reasons a person walks in the door. But they can change their diet/packaging. So the challenge for groups – whether mega or seigelike – is to consider whether they are reinforcing insecurity, encouraging consumerism. Or offer a different narrative that over time places security in God, not numbers or exclusivity.

    So mega church leaders ARE responsible in the longterm if there church ends up full of consumers. And exclusive leaders ARE responsible long term if there followers enact Jihad.


    Comment by steve — November 4, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  19. Hi Steve

    Great to meet you in Masterton the other day. I’mm working on some posts about what you presented but was interested in this post on mega-churches.

    As the Pastor of a non-mega-church, I’ve often asked myself are we better off this way or should we be trying to emulate the mega model. As Salvation Army we’re naturally a small church model as I discuss in my earlier post on the topic here.

    The more I think about it the more we need all types of churches (including ones that don’t even have a “normal” Sunday service!)

    But I do think that we give a disproportionate amount of credence to the Pastors of bigger churches.

    God bless

    Comment by Paul Gardner — November 5, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

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