By Mark A. Taylor
Since 1997 CHRISTIAN STANDARD has been publishing annual lists of megachurches among the Christian churches and churches of Christ. In those 19 years, the megachurch phenomenon has exploded, not only in this fellowship but across the whole evangelical world. And with the growth has come criticism, cynicism, and complaint.
Two years ago I interviewed Jud Wilhite, Dave Stone, and Don Wilson for our Beyond the Standard program. Each of them led one of the largest megachurches on that year’s list. I still remember what I wrote about that experience. These three “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.”
All of us can agree that bigger isn’t always better. After all, a wide variety of charlatans, many of them claiming to be Christians, have attracted crowds larger than those we report. Numbers by themselves do not authenticate a blessing from God. But neither do small numbers or slow growth prove that effective ministry is not happening.
Ministers in an uncounted multitude of small churches around the world are leading believers to turn from sin, pore over God’s Word, pray, and recognize God’s claim on their finances. The mature Christian lives that result are beautiful and strong, even if few in number.
As Chris Travis pointed out earlier this year, not all healthy physical bodies grow. We do see new growth in their offspring. But we’re content to witness remarkable physical changes in those children without expecting the parents to become taller or to sprout new limbs.
Nevertheless, I agree with Edward Sanders who reflected on all this at this site five years ago. “Numbers don’t mean everything and shouldn’t be the reason we work,” he agreed, “but when the numbers add up, isn’t it fun to see God working on a numerical and tangible scale?”
And, indeed, it seems sure God has been working since CHRISTIAN STANDARD published its first megachurch report in 1997. That list contained 58 local congregations, only 16 of them averaging above the 2,000 mark we now use to distinguish megachurches from “emerging megachurches.” But our latest report lists 58 megachurches alone, plus 74 more emerging megachurches, for a total of 142. (And we know some Christian churches have decided to quit responding to our annual request for numbers.)
The 1997 report listed only one congregation with an attendance average larger than 6,000 (Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky, with 10,355 in 1996). This year’s report includes 11 churches averaging more than 6,000. Southeast’s number this year is 22,927! The largest church on this year’s list is Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, with a 2015 average of 24,548. (Their 1996 number was 2,081, less than a tenth of those they’re reaching today!)
Comparing the growth of many churches since 1997 gives us a thrilling picture. A few examples:
A line-by-line analysis would show some churches on this year’s list were too small to be included in 1997. Several reporting this year didn’t exist then!
We can rejoice at these numbers without forgetting or discounting the significant, unsung work done by smaller churches serving outside of the spotlight. We know from Scripture that God often works in out-of-the-way places and situations deemed obscure by human standards. But Scripture also tells us about thousands baptized at Pentecost and hundreds who saw the risen Christ and multitudes fed from one boy’s small lunch.
How do we feel about the numbers reported this year? We feel good about them! Each one represents new crowds of people pointed to Heaven by ministerial staffs working more effectively than ever before. We think God is smiling to look at the totals, and we hope every reader feels exactly the same.
CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s annual megachurch report is just one part of the dynamic May issue, in the mail now. If you are not a subscriber, get your own copy of this issue by purchasing it for only $2.99 inside the free CHRISTIAN STANDARD app for your smartphone or tablet. Get a whole year of digital editions of CHRISTIAN STANDARD (plus a 13th issue free to new subscribers) by subscribing there for only $14.99.