By Kent E. Fillinger
This marks my 14th consecutive year of staying up late for weeks on end crunching numbers, looking for trends, and jotting down insights about our Restoration Movement churches to share with you.
This year is special because it’s the first time Christian Standard opened up the annual survey to churches of every size. More than 400 churches from 39 states ranging in size from 12 to 28,216 responded to the survey, and I’m grateful for each one!
I’m going to share in-depth results from the survey and analyze the data in my next few monthly articles. This month we focus on 55 megachurches (average weekly worship attendance of more than 2,000) and 72 emerging megachurches (averaging 1,000 to 1,999 weekly). Next month, we’ll turn our attention to large churches (averaging 500 to 999 weekly) and medium-size churches (250 to 499). In July, we’ll wrap up with small churches (averaging 100 to 249 weekly) and very small churches (less than 100), which we’ve never reported on before.
Click here to access “The 2017 Charts: Megachurches and Emerging Megachurches.
The Multisite Movement Continues
If there’s one factor besides attendance that distinguishes megachurches from the other church-size categories, it’s probably the high percentage that use a multisite ministry model. More megachurches continue to become multisite churches, and existing multisite megachurches continue to add more campuses. The Crossing (Las Vegas, Nevada) and Indian Creek Christian Church (Indianapolis) are examples of two new multisite megachurches from 2017.
From 2012 to 2014, the percentage of multisite megachurches held steady at 48 percent. The percentage jumped to 62 percent in 2015 and 2016. It jumped again last year, when a record 71 percent of megachurches used a multisite model.
There is a “multisite gap” between megachurches and emerging megachurches, and that gap grew in 2017. From 2012 to 2017, an average of only 25 percent of emerging megachurches had multiple sites, and that figure shrunk to 22 percent last year. There is now a “gap” of 49 percent between megachurches and emerging megachurches using a multisite model: 71 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively.
The 39 multisite megachurches operated 143 different campuses last year. Two megachurches, The Crossing (Quincy, Illinois) and Community Christian Church (Naperville, Illinois) led the way with 10 campuses each. Christ’s Church of the Valley (Phoenix, Arizona) and Real Life Christian Church (Clermont, Florida) each reported eight campuses in 2017.
More than half of these multisite megachurches (54 percent) added at least one new campus in 2017, for a total of 23 new campuses. The 39 multisite megachurches now have a record number of different geographical locations, a total of 143 as of last year. This reflects a 29 percent increase in total locations in a year.
Also worth noting, 44 percent of multisite megachurches and 69 percent of multisite emerging megachurches have added a campus as a result of a merger, adoption, or strategic partnership with a previously existing church.
As multisite locations increase, the original locations of these churches continue to represent a smaller percentage of the total worship attendance. In 2010, 83 percent of worshippers at multisite megachurches attended the original campus. By last year, that had dropped to 71 percent.
Multisite megachurches grew faster and baptized more people than their single-site counterparts. The same was true for multisite emerging megachurches. Three more megachurches and nine more emerging megachurches have definite plans to launch a multisite ministry for the first time this year.
The Dot-Com Church Keeps Expanding
More than half of the megachurches (51 percent) and almost one-fourth (24 percent) of emerging megachurches surveyed had an Internet campus in 2017. Over a six-year period, these numbers have grown from 22 percent of megachurches and 9 percent of emerging megachurches.
Mount Pleasant Christian Church (Greenwood, Indiana) said it has “fully embraced the future with regard to a high-quality online presence and online campus. This resulted in major technical upgrades and a willingness to make this a significant part of our vision and strategic plan for the future.”
RiverGlen Christian Church (Waukesha, Wisconsin) started an online campus and Crossroads Christian Church (Evansville, Indiana) noted that their Facebook Live weekend services have been streamed into 44 different countries in the last year.
There is still disagreement on whether churches should include online viewers as worship attendees. Some contend you should track online viewers but not count them as part of your total worship attendance. But some churches have seen physical church attendance decline since offering online services, which is a good indicator, they would respond, that online viewers should be counted.
A longtime church member who is part of my small group at our church noted that with online giving, if our church offered online church, “I’d never go back in the church building again.”
Author and former dot-com executive Seth Godin said, “Now that more and more is ordered online, or experienced online, the only trips we take are special trips. If your offering, your service or your place isn’t worth a special trip, it’s likely we won’t be coming by anytime soon.”
This year, for the first time, I asked churches to identify what percentage of total worship attendance came from online viewers. Of the churches that offer an Internet campus, 29 percent of megachurches and 35 percent of emerging megachurches did not count online viewers as part of their total worship attendance.
The 20 megachurches that did count online viewers said such attendees represented an average of 11 percent of total worship attendance. (The percentage ranged from 23 percent to 1 percent.) The 11 emerging megachurches that included online viewers in the total worship attendance figures said such folks represented 13 percent of attendees. One emerging megachurch reported that 43 percent of its total worship attendance was from its online campus.
Megachurches with an Internet campus grew at almost twice the rate of those without (6.9 percent vs. 3.5 percent). And, interestingly, megachurches with plans to launch an Internet campus grew even more—7.5 percent. But megachurches that do not have an Internet campus baptized slightly more people on average than churches that do have an Internet campus (or have plans for one).
Emerging megachurches with an Internet campus grew 7.4 percent last year compared with a 3.2 percent growth rate for emerging megachurches without such a campus. Again, though, those churches that do not have an Internet campus baptized more people.
The lower baptism rates of the churches with an Internet campus makes sense given that some, perhaps many, online viewers are never physically present to be baptized at the church.
The average attendance for megachurches with an Internet campus last year was 5,431 compared with 5,178 for megachurches with no online church option. Emerging megachurches with an Internet campus were slightly bigger, as well, than those with no online option.
The Debt Ceiling Increases
One megachurch (Southland Christian Church, Nicholasville, Kentucky) and three emerging megachurches (Northside Christian Church, Springfield, Missouri; Center Pointe Christian Church, Liberty Township, Ohio; and Owensboro [Kentucky] Christian Church) reached financial milestones last year by becoming debt-free. This is a significant step, as only 17 megachurches and emerging megachurches in our survey reported being debt-free.
The average debt load for megachurches has increased each of the last four years, growing 11 percent during that time to $9,475,931 per church. The average emerging megachurch had more than $4.4 million of debt, which was the highest reported amount since 2010. The total reported debt for 105 megachurches and emerging megachurches was $696.6 million last year.
In 2017, 63 percent of megachurches and 53 percent of emerging megachurches reported increased ministry spending. This was made possible, perhaps, because 61 percent of megachurches and 44 percent of emerging megachurches saw giving exceed their budgeted expectations. Conversely, 22 percent of megachurches and 33 percent of emerging megachurches reported that giving fell short of projections.
The average general fund giving total for megachurches increased 19 percent to $8.9 million in 2017, the highest ever recorded. General fund giving at emerging megachurches was strong last year, as well, averaging $2.19 million per church, only $10,000 shy of the highest recorded average (in 2012).
The Baptism Numbers Didn’t Quite Add Up
The total number of baptisms showed mixed results, increasing in megachurches but decreasing in emerging megachurches. Overall, total baptisms increased by 775 baptisms to 28,679.
But the number of baptisms didn’t keep pace with attendance growth. The “baptism ratio”—number of baptisms per 100 people in average attendance—dropped for both megachurches and emerging megachurches.
The baptism ratio for megachurches has declined each of the last four years, from 8.2 per 100 in 2013 to 7.1 per 100 last year. This drop equals 1,535 fewer baptisms in megachurches in 2017 than in 2013.
Emerging megachurches had a baptism ratio of 6.1 last year, the lowest number in the last eight years.
The Growth Rates Were Strong
The 55 megachurches included in this year’s study grew an average of 5.7 percent last year. This marked the best percentage growth rate in the last four years and the third best rate in the last decade (trailing only 2011 and 2013, when the growth rate was 5.8 percent). Overall, 71 percent of megachurches grew last year, up from 61 percent in 2016; it was the highest percentage of growing megachurches since 2013.
The 72 emerging megachurches grew an average of 4.1 percent in 2017. This was more than double the 2 percent growth rates recorded in 2015 and 2016, and the best since 2014. Overall, 57 percent of emerging megachurches grew last year, which was slightly down from 61 percent in 2016.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.