Scott Thumma and Warren Bird have posted a comprehensive study of megachurches called “NOT WHO YOU THINK THEY ARE: A Profile of the People Who Attend America’s Megachurches.” They summarize their findings as follows:
- Young and single adults are more likely to be in megachurches than in smaller churches.
- Nearly two-thirds of attenders have been at these churches 5 years or less.
- Many attenders come from other churches, but nearly a quarter haven’t been in any church for a long time before coming to a megachurch.
- Attenders report a considerable increase in their involvement in church, in their spiritual growth, and in their needs being met.
- Forty-five percent of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church.
- New people almost always come to the megachurch because family, friends or co-workers invited them.
- What first attracted attenders were the worship style, the senior pastor and the church’s reputation.
- These same factors also influenced long-term attendance, as did the music/arts, social and community outreach and adult-oriented programs.
- Attenders can craft unique, customized spiritual experiences through the multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement that megachurches offer.
A “megachurch” is a congregation that typically has over 2,000 in attendance on a Sunday. Researchers like to study megachurches because the large number of megachurches is a new phenomenon (hence, they’re interesting) and because they are evidently doing something right. But then, there are those who argue they grow by illegitimate means. And the controversy, of course, makes them even more interesting.
The reality, of course, is that most church leaders wish their churches were megachurches. We may have particular feelings about how a church should grow, but we’d feel that our work is validated if we had huge numbers of members flocking to our buildings each Sunday. Perhaps we shouldn’t feel that way, but we do. And you can’t help but notice a certain tinge of jealousy from those who criticize the megachurches — especially those who do so without data. Well, now we have some data.
This is a fascinating chart. Megachurches are much more likely to attract the young — from 18 to 44 years old, and much less likely to attact those over 65.
Well, the problem with those over 65 seems obvious enough. Most of them found a church home long before there were very many megachurches.
But megachurches are hugely — 5% to 18% — more likely to draw people from 18 to 24. Why? In large part, it’s because megachurches attract far more single members.
Nearly a third of megachurch attenders are single, unmarried people. In a typical church, however, singles account for just 10% of the congregation.
The study doesn’t reach a conclusion as to how this happens, but it seems obvious. Singles and college students are very social people. They like being with others their same age. And they like churches where they feel at home — where the music and feel are consistent with their tastes. Megachurches do this.
And megachurches are big enough to have ministries dedicated to singles. In fact, I’m increasingly persuaded that churches that are large enough — I don’t know, maybe 750 or bigger — need a singles minister. And smaller churches need a singles ministry staffed by volunteers with real support from the staff. You see, single adults is the fastest growing segment of the American population, they generally have made no commitment to a congregation, and a church that reaches out to them thoughtfully will surely be rewarded with rising attendance.
This is another important stat. 25% of the typical megachurch have been Christians for 2 years or less. Not many smaller congregations can make that claim. Yes, they are reaching the unchurched.
This is driven by the fact that 87% of megachurch attenders have invited friends to church in the last year — a very enviable number — and very typical of younger, single people. Singles will drive growth because they typically have a network of friends that they will invite.
Now, for us in the Churches of Christ, this next statistic is a big one —
The biggest factor in “initial attraction” to the church is “worship style.” That’s even bigger than the preacher and a lot bigger than denomination. Welcome to the 21st Century.
In deciding to stay at the church, the biggest factor is the preacher — but worship style remains the second biggest factor, with those two being well ahead of any other consideration.
Nearly three quarters of attenders also agreed that the leadership is encouraging them to serve the wider community, nation and world. Thus, not only do megachurches encourage their attenders to become involved in the life of the church, but they are making efforts to help attenders develop gifts and talents, train them for leadership roles and encourage them to serve the wider community outside the walls of the churches.
There’s much, much more data — too much to summarize. This is just a taste — but I hope enough of a taste to draw a conclusion or two.
One of the best indicators of what makes a church grow is to look at the characteristics of churches that have grown. Even better is to compare them to churches that have not. And while you can easily miss the forest for the trees, there are some important trees.
Plainly, having a ministry that’s attractive to young singles will help grow your church. Moreover, you’d better have contemporary music and it’d better be well done. And your preacher needs to know how to deliver a sermon that speaks to the hearts of young people.
You see, growth comes overwhelmingly from the young. After all, they are still making life decisions and are therefore more willing to consider your church as an option than someone with a family that has already established a lifestyle.
And young people in today’s world are invariably tightly connected to a web of friends. Convert one, and you’ll likely soon be studying with several of her friends.
And have I mentioned worship style?