By Mark A. Taylor
We’ve been chronicling megachurch success for more than three decades at CHRISTIAN STANDARD. But in spite of encouraging growth, both in size and number of megachurches, an underbelly of suspicion toward them remains.
Our Beyond the Standard conversation May 15 with Jud Wilhite, Dave Stone, and Don Wilson, showed this.
These ministers with the three largest megachurches among the independent Christian churches shared practical ideas and thoughtful strategies—always with a spirit of humility. But too many questions from listeners contained veiled accusations of compromise to achieve numbers.
So when I came across a report from Leadership Network titled Not Who You Think They Are—The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches, I couldn’t resist downloading and reading.
The bottom line? Megachurches are remarkably similar to churches of all sizes, both in the demographics and the spiritual growth of their attendees, their success at reaching their communities, and the effectiveness of the ministry strategies they employ. There are differences, to be sure. And not all megachurches will match the conclusions of this study of 12 U.S. megachurches “carefully selected” to represent various types of communities across the country. But this study summarizes responses from almost 25,000 attendees of these congregations. According to authors Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, it is “the largest national representative study of megachurch attendees conducted by any researchers to date.”
The report is free, and I’d encourage church watchers and church leaders everywhere to read it. Then you can add your comments to mine at the end of this brief column. I came away with several concerns, not necessarily about megachurches alone but about the impact of all churches in today’s culture. A few of them here:
• Small groups are not having the impact we wish they were. Among these 12 congregations, “participation in small groups . . . is engaging only 60 percent” of attendees, in spite of the fact that 84 percent of megachurches affirm “the centrality of a small group strategy.” And this report included almost any kind of group in this number, not just Bible studies.
This report doesn’t alleviate my concern that many have abandoned adult Sunday school without finding a good replacement for it.
• Long-term spiritual growth may not be happening. More megachurch attendees (45 percent) “strongly agreed that their spiritual needs were being met” than the national average from churches of all sizes (38 percent). Yet this research shows spiritual growth peaking in the third, fourth, or fifth years of a person’s attendance at a megachurch and then declining over time.
Do smaller churches have more success here than larger churches? I doubt it.
• Church size only slightly improves church influence. Nationally, only 5 percent of church attendees say theirs is the first church they ever attended. With the megachurches surveyed, the result was only slightly higher, 6 percent. Those who say they’re attending church now after years of not attending equal 16 percent of the national average. And again, megachurches score only slightly higher: 18 percent.
In other words, under-churched or unchurched people in our communities are not responding to churches of any size. That leads to at least two conclusions:
1. We need each other; there’s no room for the luxury of criticizing the larger (or smaller) church down the block. We’re fellow soldiers in a crucial battle with Satan for the soul of our nation.
2. All of us have our work cut out for us to find new ways to engage a disinterested population. Is it possible that our current approaches, whether from a sprawling megachurch or a simple neighborhood church, are not enough to evangelize, disciple, and serve?