By Kent E. Fillinger
A Dilbert cartoon recently featured Dogbert, the consultant, standing in front of a projection screen asking, “Where does your company fit on this comprehensive list?” The list on the screen included, in order: “Facebook, China, Irrelevant.” The next frame showed three bug-eyed employees, followed by a third frame in which Dogbert says, “Now let’s form breakout groups to fantasize about being relevant.”
Just as Dilbert’s mythical company is identified as being irrelevant in the business world, the church has been declared irrelevant by our culture, and even by other Christ followers for decades. A quick scan of church Web sites, though, reveals words like relevant, real, and relational to describe the church. Church leaders often dream about being relevant in their culture and meeting the spiritual needs of their community, and some are successful in doing so.
The research of the American Church Research Project showed only 17.5 percent of the population attended an orthodox Christian church on any given weekend in 2005.1 A study by Philip Brenner of the University of Michigan found that “about 23 percent of Americans attend church ‘regularly’ (meaning two or three times a month or more), but 35 to 45 percent of Americans say they attend church regularly when asked on surveys.”2
The silver lining is that, in the midst of the church’s shrinking societal influence, many churches are transforming lives in the name of Christ and making a difference in their local and global communities. It is exciting and encouraging to witness churches and leaders who are committed to serving God and to see living examples of God giving the increase.
This week, in the first of three special issues, we will look at many Christian churches and churches of Christ where God is giving the increase.
This is the first year all four size categories of churches—megachurches (2,000 or more in weekly attendance), emerging megachurches (1,000 to 1,999 in weekly attendance), large churches (500 to 999 in attendance), and medium churches (250 to 499 in weekly attendance)—were surveyed simultaneously. The information contained in these reports was taken from an online survey of churches that self-selected to participate and provided all the numbers.
Each week we will look at trends and progress among congregations in all the groupings. These local churches range in size from 260 to 19,534, and represent 234 churches from 31 states and two Canadian provinces.
(Remember, this is a special double issue. Our next issue, devoted to large churches, will be dated April 24. The medium church report will come May 1.)
As you review the findings from the survey over the next three issues, keep in mind the words of Ed Stetzer: “We are about celebration, not comparison and competition.”
Attendance and Growth
The 402,720 people represented by the 234 churches surveyed is equivalent to the cities of Raleigh, North Carolina, or Colorado Springs, Colorado, while the combined average attendance of the 114 megachurches and emerging megachurches—332,388—is equal to the size of Cincinnati, Ohio.
It is valuable to examine both the average size of the churches in each category and the average growth rates for each. Churches are typically designated as growing, plateaued, or declining, and there are churches in the survey that fall into each of these groups.
Megachurches continued to grow even larger last year, to an average size of 4,490 per megachurch, an increase of 4 percent in average size. Looking at the total attendance of all the megachurches combined, we see they grew 5 percent. New Hope Church (Manvel, Texas) led the way by growing 41 percent. Last year, 41 of the 56 megachurches grew (73 percent). By comparison, 83 percent of all U.S. megachurches grew last year.
Emerging megachurches had a challenging year, growing only 1 percent, down from a 4.7 percent growth rate in 2009. The bright spot was Northside Christian Church (Spring, Texas), which grew 33 percent last year. Sixty-five percent of the 59 emerging megachurches grew last year, but the average weekly attendance at an emerging megachurch has shrunk slightly for two straight years to an average of 1,372 in 2010.
Meanwhile, the 74 large churches experienced a 4 percent average growth rate in 2010; that rate was comparable to 2009, but down from the 6 percent-plus growth rate in 2008. The average large church had 734 people in worship on a weekend. Five large churches grew more than 20 percent last year, the most of any size category. Valley View Christian (Littleton, Colorado) grew 45 percent, making it the fastest-growing large church. Overall, 62 percent of the large churches grew in 2010.
The number of medium churches involved in the research survey grew from 32 to 45 this year, an upward trend that hopefully will continue. The growth rate for these medium churches slowed from almost 7 percent in 2009 to 3 percent last year. The average medium church had 356 worship attendees on a weekend. Santa Clara Church (Eugene, Oregon) was the only medium church that grew more than 20 percent last year. Overall, 64 percent of the medium churches grew in 2010.
The best indicator of church growth is the number of baptisms. Overall, the churches surveyed baptized 28,683 people last year.
Among megachurches, 18,904 people were baptized— an average of 338 per megachurch—which accounted for 66 percent of these baptisms. This represented a 14 percent decline in the average number of baptisms when compared with 2009. Baptism totals spiked that year because so many megachurches held special baptism services as part of their weekend worship services (see “Mega See, Mega Do” from last year’s megachurch report, April 11/18).
More than half the megachurches held at least one special baptism service during a weekend service in 2010, but not surprisingly, the results were not as dramatic as the year prior. The megachurches baptized 2,838 fewer people in 2010 than 2009.
Impressively though, Central Christian Church (Las Vegas, Nevada) baptized the most people of any megachurch for the fifth year in a row. Last year, it baptized 1,832 people. Central has baptized more than 1,000 people annually since 2006, including more than 2,000 baptisms in 2009.
The average baptism totals remained steady for the emerging megachurches for the third straight year, at 94 baptisms per church. The emerging megachurches baptized 5,386 people last year.
The large churches averaged 46 baptisms per church, and combined to baptize 3,439. The 45 medium churches surveyed baptized almost 1,000 people last year, averaging 21 baptisms per church.
Identifying a church’s baptism ratio (the number of people baptized per 100 people in average worship attendance) is one of the most effective tools for gauging a church’s evangelistic impact. For the most part, baptism ratios held steady in 2010. Since 1998, the baptism ratio for megachurches and emerging megachurches has ranged from a high of 7.7 in 1999 to a low of 6.4 in 2007.
In 2010, megachurches had a stellar baptism ratio of 7.6, to match the previous year. Crossroads Christian Church (Corona, California) had the best baptism ratio (25.5) of any church surveyed. The emerging megachurches baptism ratio was 6.9. Among the emerging megachurches, Southpoint Community Christian Church (Trenton, Michigan) had the best baptism ratio with 18.3. The large and medium churches had comparable baptism ratios of 6.4 and 6.5, respectively.
The “Baptism per Buck Award” acknowledges the churches that spend the least amount of money per baptism, meaning that the church received more evangelistic “bang for their buck.” This past year, the top two churches each spent less than $5,000 of their general fund giving per baptism. The “Baptism per Buck Award” goes to Southpoint Community Christian Church (Trenton, Michigan) and Crossroads Christian Church (Corona, California). The average cost per baptism for all of the churches combined was $24,567.
The megachurches spent the least per baptism at $22,262, and the large churches spent the most, $26,367. The highest-spending church in any of the size categories spent almost $80,000 per baptism last year.
The megachurch senior ministers have an average tenure of 13 years, the longest of any of the size categories. The medium church senior ministers have been in their positions the shortest amount of time, with an average start date of 2000.
Our two “Energizer Bunny” awards go to Glenn Kirby, who has led his large church (West Valley Christian Church, West Hills, California) since 1976, and Bob Cherry (Northeast Christian Church, Louisville Kentucky), who has led his megachurch since 1977.
For the first time, senior ministers were asked to identify their highest educational degree. One medium church senior minister is operating with only a high school diploma, and the slight majority of senior ministers surveyed had earned a master’s degree.
Among megachurches, 47 percent of the senior ministers had earned a master’s degree and 20 percent (11 senior ministers) had a doctoral degree.
The percentages for both degrees were a little higher in the emerging megachurches, with 51 percent having a master’s degree and 14 percent having a doctoral degree.
Among the large churches, the number of senior ministers with bachelor and master’s degrees was approximately the same (for the record, there was one additional bachelor’s degree). In medium churches, almost 60 percent of the senior ministers had a bachelor’s degree.
Analyzing church growth rates from last year based on the education level of the senior minister showed the megachurch ministers with bachelor’s degrees had the best growth rate, 8 percent, followed by those with a doctoral degree, 6 percent. For the emerging megachurches, only the churches led by senior ministers with master’s degrees grew last year (2 percent). The five large churches led by senior ministers with doctoral degrees grew an average of 7 percent last year. The large church senior ministers with master’s degrees grew 4 percent. Finally, the five medium churches led by senior ministers with doctoral degrees grew 16 percent last year, and the 58 percent of medium churches led by senior ministers with bachelor’s degrees grew less than 1 percent.
Another new topic explored this year was church elders. Churches were asked to report the number of elders who served during 2010 and to report whether the church has, or ever has had, a woman serve as elder.
The number of elders was somewhat proportional to the size of the church. Therefore, the megachurches had the most elders on average, 9.2 elders per church. The emerging megachurches had an average of 8.8 elders per church, large churches had an average of 7.6, and medium churches had 6.1 elders serving.
The most elders serving at any church was 18 (reported by one megachurch, one emerging megachurch, and one large church). Conversely, 13 churches reported having only three elders (one megachurch, three emerging megachurches, and nine medium churches). Two large churches that are recent church plants have yet to establish any elders at their churches.
At least one church in each of the four size categories reported having a woman elder either currently or at some point in the past. Women elders were more prevalent among the megachurches, where 5 of the 56 (9 percent) had or have had women elders.
Worship Venues and Styles
Given the continued growth of the megachurches and the tight economic conditions, new buildings and expansions are not as feasible as they once were; therefore, it is relevant to note that 66 percent of the megachurches surveyed offered adult worship venues in more than one room or building on their main campus last year. This strategy is far less common in the other categories, with only 29 percent of emerging megachurches and 27 percent of large churches offering worship venues in multiple rooms or buildings. The percentage dropped to 16 percent for the medium churches.
Multiple worship services are common for the churches in the study. The average megachurch had six services per week last year. Three megachurches offered only two service options, but Community Christian Church (Naperville, Illinois), which has a dozen locations, held 23 services each week last year.
Emerging megachurches held an average of 3.6 services weekly last year, with 20 percent offering only 2 worship services. The average large church held 3 services a week. Two large churches offered only one worship service a week, while 4 large churches held 5 to 6 services a week. Medium churches averaged only 2 worship services per week.
The trend in worship styles continues to be “less is more,” with the majority of churches offering only one style of worship regardless of the church’s size or the number of venues or services. Almost 60 percent of the emerging megachurches, large churches, and medium churches offered only one style of worship. Megachurches were the least likely to offer only one worship style (48 percent).
Providing two different worship styles was the second most common practice, with about one-third of the churches in each of the four size categories opting for that approach. Megachurches were more likely to offer a multiplicity of worship styles, with four megachurches offering four to six different styles of worship last year.
1David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis, 2008, 28.
2“Americans Fib About Church,” The Indianapolis Star, 31 December 2010, A2.
Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.