America’s megachurches have continued to thrive over the past five years, attracting more worshippers, becoming more diverse and opening new locations.
A pre-pandemic, national survey of megachurches from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found the median megachurch draws about 4,100 attenders to its worship services, up from about 3,700 in 2015.
Lakewood Church is a non-denominational Christian megachurch in Houston, Texas. It is one of the largest congregations in the US, meeting in a former sports arena. PICTURE: Creative Commons
The average megachurch budget is $US5.3 million, up from $US4.7 million in 2015. Seven out of 10 have more than one location. Six out of 10 (58 per cent) say they have a multi-racial congregation.
Despite the decline among Christian groups overall, most megachurches seem to be doing well, said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and director of Hartford Institute.
“They continue to do things that other congregations should be doing,” Thumma said.
Thumma said the use of contemporary worship – along with a focus on small groups and international diversity – has helped megachurches continue to grow. Megachurches, in general, he said, also tend to steer clear of controversy, staying away from culture wars or political battles.
According to the survey, few megachurches said they distribute voter guides (14 per cent) or encourage voter registration (14 per cent), or participate in get-out-the-vote efforts. Sixty-three per cent said their church avoids political discussions when they gather. One in five said their congregation is politically active. Two-thirds disagree when asked if “everyone in this congregation has the same political position”.
Thumma said the growing diversity in megachurches reflects the changing demographics of the United States. Megachurches, he said, also attract younger worshippers than other kinds of churches.
“Megachurches are one of the few groups of churches that have a wide representation of people under 45,” he said. People in that age group, he said, tend to be more demographically diverse and more open to diversity. More than three-quarters of the churches (78 per cent) in the survey said they were intentionally trying to become more diverse.
Still, Thumma pointed out, megachurch pastors themselves are not a diverse group. The average megachurch pastor is a 53-year-old white man who has been in place for 15 years. And many are in danger of losing effectiveness as leaders, he said.
According to the survey, most megachurches experience their biggest growth when their pastor has been in place for between five and 19 years. After 20 years, the growth drops off. The survey also found that after 15 years, a megachurch’s spiritual health begins to fail.
“The gist is that the period between 10 and 15 years of a pastor’s tenure produces the most spiritually vital congregational dynamic,” according to the report. “Prior to and after that point, it is a less robust picture, on average.”
Profile of a US Megachurch 2020 (Pre-pandemic). GRAPHIC: Courtesy of Hartford Institute for Religion Research (Click to enlarge)
Thumma said that after 10 or 15 years, megachurches need to reassess to see if the way they are operating still meets the needs of the community around them. After that much time, things have likely changed and the church may have fallen into a rut.
“You can’t live on your charisma and assume the church is just going to keep flourishing and flourishing,” he said.
Among other findings:
• Only two-thirds (68 per cent) of megachurch attendees show up on any given Sunday, down from 82 per cent in 2015 and 90 per cent in 2000.
• Half (51 per cent) cooperate with other churches on community service projects.
• One in five (21 per cent) cooperate with people of other faith traditions on community service.
• One in 5 (19.1 per cent) declined by at least two per cent in the last five years.
• Sixteen per cent merged with another church.
• Just over half (56 per cent) had between 1,800 and 2,999 average attenders per week, while five per cent had more than 10,000 attenders.
• The average megachurch offered about seven services a week.
• Twenty-eight per cent have paid, professional security at services. Thirty-eight percent have volunteer security.
• Two-thirds (65 per cent) of megachurches identify as evangelical.
• Twelve per cent identify as Pentecostal or charismatic.
• Twelve per cent identify as “missional”.
• Seven per cent identify as liberal, moderate or progressive.
Thumma said that overall, megachurches seem to be growing less comfortable with the term “evangelical” and are more open than in the past to working with those they disagree with on theological or political matters.
“You can see them moving ever so slightly toward the middle,” he said.
The survey included 580 megachurches with an average weekly attendance of 1,800 adults and children or more, and was part of the larger Faith Communities Todaystudy. The survey was conducted from January until May, 2020. The study was conducted by the Hartford Institute along with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Leadership Network.
The full survey can be found at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website.