By Dick Alexander
Before we get started, could I ask a favor? Could we check our egos at the door? It’s hard to discuss the subject of megachurches without egos getting in the way. Whether it’s a megachurch pastor who is tired of criticism for the church being big, or a minister of a smaller church or a college or seminary president or professor who is at some level jealous of the attention the megachurch receives, defensiveness is not a fruit of the Spirit.
In Beyond Megachurch Myths (Jossey-Bass, 2007), Scott Thumma and Dave Travis help all of us see what we can learn from megachurches. Peter Drucker in 1998 called megachurches “the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years.” Thumma and Travis say, “Leaders of megachurches are defining what Protestant America looks like for the foreseeable future.” There are reasons megachurches are growing—many of them good—and these are things any competent Christian leader should want to know.
A megachurch is defined as a Protestant church with total weekend worship attendance (including children) of 2,000 or more. By the time a church reaches this size, it has made changes in its organizational structure, staffing, leadership patterns, program offerings, worship forms, and physical facilities that make it very different from smaller churches.
In 1969, there were 16 known megachurches; in 2007 there were more than 1,250, with 50 or more new ones joining that number every year. While megachurches comprise less than one-half of 1 percent of the estimated 320,000 congregations in America, 4.3 million people worship in one each Sunday. (Fifty-two Christian church/church of Christ megachurches reported for this issue of Christian Standard.)
In part because megachurches are so visible (especially the 50 or so averaging more than 10,000 in attendance), they have sometimes been caricatured by the media and mistrusted by others. The authors acknowledge most myths contain some truth, and attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Beyond the Myths
Cutting through the misperceptions and misunderstandings of these churches, Thumma and Travis use their research and widespread experience to conclude that:
• While megachurches share many “best practices,” they differ significantly from each other. Half are new; half started before 1965. Some are downtown; some are suburban. Two-thirds belong to a denomination; one-third do not. One-third always have choirs in their worship; one-third never do. The majority have 2,000 to 3,000 attendees; 4 percent have more than 10,000 attendees.
• Megachurches are not impersonal. While most intentionally allow first-time guests to be anonymous, regular attendees report a higher level of connection to good friends, more pastoral attention, and a stronger sense of belonging than attendees of other churches.
• Megachurch attendees are not spectators. There is a higher level of involvement in serving than in smaller churches. Most megachurches are very intentional about developing people’s spiritual gifts and providing avenues for service.
• Outside of charismatic churches, megachurches are not “cults of personality.” Most surround the senior pastor with strong volunteer and staff leadership. These churches are led by teams of leaders. Thumma and Travis say megachurch pastors are no more likely to succumb to the temptation to abuse power than leaders of smaller churches—they just become much more visible in the media spotlight when they do.
• Many of these larger churches have developed a strong outward and global focus. In the early days of the megachurch movement in the United States (1965–85), many were consumed with figuring out how to do church. Having resolved that issue, they now sponsor major benevolent and mission efforts that formerly only parachurch organizations could accomplish.
• Far from espousing a weak theological position, most megachurches present a serious, high-commitment Christian message. As a group, they rank higher on behavioral measures of Christian commitment than other churches.
• Megachurches often serve as resources to other churches. They bring more benefit than harm to other churches, requiring other churches to sharpen their distinct purpose and clarify their mission.
• Megachurches reflect broader racial and economic diversity than other churches.
• More megachurch attendees describe worship as “filled with God’s presence” and “thought-provoking” than in smaller churches.
• Megachurches retain a greater percentage of people than other churches, in part because they excel at creating intentional efforts to help interested newcomers integrate into the church.
• The megachurch movement shows no sign of cresting, and large numbers of young adults choose these churches—perhaps more than any other congregation size.
While you might not agree with all of Thumma and Travis’s conclusions and rebuttals of common myths, Beyond Megachurch Myths is not just the work of two men with axes to grind and a few good anecdotes. Thumma is a researcher for the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and on the faculty at Hartford Seminary. Travis is vice president of Leadership Network, a networking organization for innovative churches. They bring considerable perspective to their work.
Some readers will be disappointed that Myths lacks a sharper critique of megachurches, such as an easy dismissal of the myth that “These Churches Are Bad for Other Churches.” Those who have served smaller churches in the shadow of a megachurch know the challenges.
Thoughtful analysis has its place, and megachurches should not be considered successful because they are big. But critics, as Jesus said of the poor, are always with us.
In contrast, Leadership Network attempts to help Christian leaders learn from the best practices of all kinds of churches—and Myths is true to that mission. It’s substantial enough to be used in college and seminary classrooms, yet readable enough for the volunteer church leader.
The book’s purpose isn’t to give out “the secret” of how any church can become a megachurch, but to help all sizes of churches improve the health and effectiveness of their own ministries.
Lessons for All Sizes
To assist with application, each chapter concludes with a useful section of observations and questions that can sharpen the focus of any church.
For example, discussion of the chapter on differences in megachurches can help smaller churches sharpen their mission. The same chapter’s listing of four distinct streams of megachurches—old line/program based, seeker, charismatic/pastor-focused, and new wave/reenvisioned—can clarify and expand a megachurch leader’s thinking.
Leaders of smaller churches can find Thumma and Travis’s breakdown of commitment levels of church participants a useful way to assess their own congregations and begin finding more strategies to help move attendees to deeper discipleship. Leaders of large churches will find the book a helpful best practices summary.
More than any other Christian movement in America, our fellowship of churches should be aware of the contribution of megachurches. A case could be made that one reason we were the fastest-growing Christian movement in America during the 1990s (the latest decade for which information is available) is that one megachurch, Southeast Christian Church of Louisville, Kentucky, raised the vision of dozens of other churches, which in turn became megachurches, which in turn raised the vision of thousands of other churches.
Two of the many interesting side notes from Myths:
• The megachurch movement is not an American phenomenon. In fact, the largest churches in the world are not in America.
• Large churches don’t begin as megachurches. Many start very small—as small as a few people meeting in a living room.
More than 30 years ago I visited Los Gatos Christian Church, one of the earlier megachurches of our movement. In talking informally with people I met there, two things stood out—they were very excited about Jesus, and they were very excited about their church. The energy level was contagious.
Is there chaff in the larger churches? Of course, and it’s not hard to find. But that’s true of churches of any size. Beyond Megachurch Myths points the way to finding the wheat that can help make all churches stronger and healthier.
Dick Alexander is senior minister with LifeSpring Christian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.