By Kent E. Fillinger
When I started conducting megachurch and emerging megachurch research 15 years ago, there were a total of 255,179 people attending these churches on a given weekend. That number has grown 52 percent to 388,243 in 2018, which is a cause for celebration!
For me, this statistical journey has always been about sharing and celebrating how God is at work in churches of all sizes in many different ways. My focus continues to be on helping churches learn from one another and providing context and clear metrics for church leaders to make better decisions based on research facts and findings.
This is the first of a three-part series. This article and accompanying charts focus on the 55 megachurches (average weekly worship attendance of 2,000 or more) and 70 emerging megachurches (averaging 1,000 to 1,999 weekly) that completed our annual church survey. In August, Iâ€™ll report on large churches (those averaging 500 to 999) and medium churches (250 to 499), and in October, Iâ€™ll look at small (100 to 249) and very small churches (99 or fewer) to see what we can learn and celebrate.
Are These Churches Still Growing?
Megachurches had the best growth rate in more than a decade in 2018. The average megachurch grew 6.6 percent, up from 5.7 percent in 2017. The emerging megachurches maintained a solid average growth rate of 4.1 percent last year.
Overall, almost three-fourths of the megachurches (74 percent) grew last year. The average growth rate for these 40 growing megachurches was 11 percent. By comparison, the megachurches that declined in attendance last year shrank an average of 6 percent.
Among emerging megachurches, 71 percent grew in 2018. This was a healthy increase from the prior year, when only 57 percent grew. Last year marked the largest percentage of growing emerging megachurches since 2011, when 77 percent grew.
The emerging megachurches that grew last year added 8.3 percent. The emerging megachurches that didnâ€™t grow last year declined by an average of 6 percent (the same percentage as megachurches that declined in attendance).
What About Baptisms?
The baptism ratioâ€”the number of people baptized per 100 people in average attendanceâ€”is on a multiyear slide for both megachurches and emerging megachurches.
In 2013, the average megachurch had a baptism ratio of 8.2, but last year it was 6.7. This may not seem like a big drop, but it equates to about 80 fewer baptisms per megachurch in 2018, or 4,416 fewer baptisms among the 55 megachurches than just five years ago.
Likewise, the baptism ratio in emerging megachurches has dropped from 7.1 in 2015 to 5.8 last year. This means about 1,212 fewer people were baptized by the 70 emerging megachurches in 2018 than just three years prior.
Again this year, we studied a churchâ€™s finances in relation to its size and number of baptisms.
Emerging megachurches spent 34 percent more per baptism last year than the average megachurch. Dividing average general fund giving by the average number of baptisms showed that emerging megachurches spent $29,653 per baptism last year compared with $22,160 for megachurches.
Not surprisingly, growing churches baptize more people than declining churches. The average growing megachurch baptized 7.2 people per 100 in average attendance in 2018; for megachurches that declined in attendance, the ratio was 5.4.
Meanwhile, growing emerging megachurches baptized 6.2 people per 100 in average attendance, compared with 4.7 baptisms per 100 for shrinking emerging megachurches.
What Impact Does a Lead Ministerâ€™s Age and Tenure Have on Church Growth and Baptisms?
In these reports, Iâ€™ve noted several times a possible relationship between a lead ministerâ€™s age and tenure and his churchâ€™s growth rates and baptism ratios. (Ministers often tell me this is the part of the report they like the least. My standard response: Iâ€™m just reporting the news, not creating it, and I wish the findings were different.) Over a 15-year span, the numbers seem to indicate the older the minister and the longer the tenure, the lower the growth rates and baptism ratios.
In 2018, 53 percent of megachurch lead ministers were age 55 or older, and among all megachurches, the average age of lead ministers was 53. In 2009, the average megachurch lead minister was 49.7 years old.
Having noted all of that, this next statistic was unanticipated: Megachurches with lead ministers who were 55 to 59 years old in 2018 grew 13.5 percent, the fastest growth rate of any age category. (It would be wonderful to see these ministers sustain that growth, should they remain where they are over the next several years.) By comparison, megachurches with lead ministers age 60 and older grew less than 1 percent last year.
Megachurches with lead ministers ages 45 to 49 grew 11 percent, making it the second-fastest-growing age category. (This grouping typically leads the way in growth.)
Among emerging megachurch lead ministers, only 37 percent were age 55 or older last year. The average age of an emerging megachurch lead minister was 50.8, which has held steady for three years.
In terms of growth, younger ministers led the way among emerging megachurches. Churches with lead ministers ages 35 to 39 grew the fastest, followed closely by churches with ministers ages 40 to 44 (growing 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively). Emerging megachurches led by ministers ages 55 to 59 grew 5.5 percent in 2018, while churches led by ministers age 60 and older saw a decline in attendance, the only category to experience a decrease.
Baptism-ratio results were similar. Megachurches with the best baptism ratios were led by ministers ages 40 to 44, followed closely by churches led by ministers ages 55 to 59 (7.7 and 7.0, respectively). Emerging megachurches with the highest baptism ratios were led by ministers in these two categories: ages 45 to 49 (6.7 baptism per 100 in average attendance) and ages 35 to 39 (6.2).
Are Attendances for Christmas and Easter Trading Places?
When I began collecting research data, church attendance at Easter was consistently much larger than for Christmas Eve. I even wrote a short article in April 2011 to emphasize the importance of planning well for Easter because of its attendance edge over Christmas Eve. But a shift seems to be taking place among megachurches . . . the gap is closing.
In 2011, megachurches had 16 percent more people attend Easter services than Christmas Eve services (average attendance for each was 8,048 and 6,927, respectively). But in 2018, Easter attendance edged out Christmas Eve attendance by only 1.4 percent.
In 2018, Christmas Eve fell on Monday, which likely was a factor in the gap closing last year. Another possible contributor was that 62 percent of megachurches offered identical Christmas-focused services throughout the weekend and on Christmas Eve. (Among emerging megachurches, only 33 percent did the same.) Two-thirds of the emerging megachurches had weekend services that were different from their stand-alone Christmas Eve services.
Christmas Eve average attendance at megachurches increased 49 percent from 2011 to 2018. By comparison, the average Easter attendance at megachurches increased only 30 percent over the same period.
Emerging megachurches have seen a similar attendance pattern. Average attendance for Christmas Eve jumped 20 percent at emerging megachurches, while Easter attendance hasnâ€™t increased at all over the same seven-year span.
Average attendance at megachurches on both Easter and Christmas weekends was almost double that of a normal weekend; the attendance bump was 94 percent and 92 percent, respectively, in 2018. Emerging megachurch attendance was 69 percent larger on Easter and 49 percent larger on Christmas Eve, compared with typical weekends in 2018.
Which Discipleship Method Do Most Churches Use?
Discipleship, evangelism, and numerical growth continue to be stated priorities for most of the megachurches and emerging megachurches in our study. â€śMaking disciples who make disciplesâ€ť has become a primary mantra for many of these churches. But figuring out how to turn from a knowledge-based discipleship focus to a more obedience-based model of discipleship that reproduces itself into a movement hasnâ€™t proven easy in most churches.
The primary methods churches have used for adult discipleship training or spiritual growth development are classes and small groups, or a combination of both. The shift toward small groups over classes has been gradual over the last few years, but still is notable.
In 2015, 64 percent of emerging megachurches used a combination of classes and groups; only 33 percent used small groups only. Last year, 52 percent of emerging megachurches used a combination of classes and groups, and 45 percent of emerging megachurches used small groups only. A very small number of emerging megachurches (3 percent) have continued to offer only classes (and no small groups).
In megachurches, small groups only (53 percent) have the edge over a combination of classes and groups (47 percent) over that same time period. No megachurch in our report uses only classes for discipleship.
Among both megachurches and emerging megachurches, the average growth rates and baptism ratios were much better for those using small groups only rather than a combination of classes and groups.
For example, megachurches with only small groups grew an average of 9.5 percent last year, compared with megachurches that offered a combination of classes and groups (3.6 percent). Likewise, megachurches using only small groups baptized an average of 7.6 people per 100 people in average attendance, compared with only 5.6 baptisms for megachurches offering both classes and groups. The results were the same among emerging megachurches.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of information gathered from this yearâ€™s survey. In addition to future special reports on large and medium churches and small and very small churches, watch for more niche-focused articles exploring new topics in my monthly â€śMetricsâ€ť column.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.