Church Leadership: Recent Study on Megachurches

megachurchChristianity Today recently published the results of a broadly based study on megachurches (churches with attendance over 2,000) by Leadership Network and Hartford Institute, including comparisons with smaller churches.

Even though there are very few megachurches within the Churches of Christ, the study is filled with helpful information.

Attendance

In 2005, almost all (96%) of the people attending megachurches came every week, according to the researchers’ previous survey. By 2015, that figure dropped to 82 percent.

Don’t tell me you  haven’t notice the same trend in your non-megachurch. This is surely a nationwide phenomenon. Why? The study doesn’t say, but that won’t keep me from speculating.

  • People value memories — travel — more than they used to. If I can’t afford a house, then maybe I’ll invest in more trips to the beach or away football games.
  • The average age of Americans is greater because people live longer. That means we have more retired people in church, and they travel. (Retirees are one of our most under-utilized volunteer pools.)
  • As bad as legalism is (and it’s really, really bad), at least the fear of fire and brimstone got the members to attend regularly. Grace has been taught as the opposite of legalism, often with little emphasis on community disciplines.
  • Oh, and that brings me to the “spiritual discipline” movement — which is almost always taught as about personal devotional time, with virtually no mention of time spent together.
  • The Internet has better sermons and better music than any church anywhere. So if I go to church to be “fed,” why not be fed in my car or at my computer? Again, we have virtually no doctrine of the church other than “go to church or go to hell.” Once grace is taught, that no longer works, and we’ve failed to fill the void with a healthier theology of community disciplines.

Giving

Giving has slowed as well. In 2005, megachurches reported a median income of $4.6 million. In 2015, the number grew slightly to $4.7 million. But that’s actually a decline, according to the report.

“Had they kept pace, they would currently be reporting a median of $6.5 million to maintain a commensurate giving level plus inflation,” the report said.

Again, I have a theory. The Great Recession cost a lot of people their jobs. Many families had to take lower-paying jobs. And we’re not fully recovered. Moreover, even those who are fully recovered don’t feel recovered. People still feel insecure, even those who are now better off then before.

Churches were forced during this time to tighten their belts, lay off staff, cut programs, and just hang on to survive. And they did survive. And the members don’t see the need to give more to church. Some actually prefer the church lean and mean.

And then there’s —

Missions

One driver of higher giving: greater emphasis on global missions. Congregations that claimed global missions as “our church’s specialty” averaged $1,960 giving per capita, while congregations that only reported “some” emphasis on global missions averaged $1,249 giving per capita.

The members have to reconsider their giving commitments, and those churches that are outwardly focused receive larger donations. Churches that spend the money on bigger buildings and larger staffs find the members not quite as generous.

In fact, we live in an age when people are less inclined to give out of discipline or legalistic fear. They want to see that their money is being used effectively. They want not only missions but successful mission. They want not only help for the poor but help that lifts people out of poverty. And they want to see the church involved — hands-on efforts will be much more supported than send-the-money-across-the-ocean efforts.

Church age

Newer megachurches—those founded since 1990—tended to grow faster than older churches, with an enormous average growth rate of 91 percent over 5 years, compared with a growth rate of 39 percent in churches founded before 1990. Younger megachurches also had more people under 35 (23%) than older churches (16%).

Unsurprisingly, those older churches tended to have more middle-aged worshipers ages 35 to 49 (44%) than newer churches (29%). Members of older churches gave more per capita ($1,865) than members of newer churches ($1,368), had a higher rate of member involvement (83% vs. 79%), and had higher average weekend worship attendance totals (3,766 vs. 3,369).

Growth is associated with being new and with having younger members, which only makes sense. Younger people are more likely to have unchurched friends. Younger people are more likely to be moving into town, looking for a church filled with people their age.

But older churches will have a higher contribution base, more regular attendance, and slower growth.

The article makes the point that growth among young adults is the result of being intentional about growing among young adults.

One challenge for all megachurches is how to appeal to younger people, said Thumma. That’s in part because megachurches excel at attracting married people. As a result, only about a third of younger megachurch members are single, compared with two-thirds of that age group in the national population, Thumma told CT.

Attracting young adults seems to hang on intentionality. In congregations that don’t emphasize engaging young adults, 13 percent of attendees are 18–34 years old. In congregations that make young adults a top priority, 20 percent of attendees are 18–34.

Preacher tenure

Pastor performance seems to peak once they’ve been at a church for about 15 years. Nearly all megachurches (91%) where the pastor has been in place for 15 to 19 years claim to be spiritually vital and active. Three-quarters (77%) said the church has a clear mission and vision.

I’m not sure that this is all effect. Some is cause. That is, pastors who lead a church to be spiritually vital and active with a clear mission and vision tend to keep their jobs — and tend to grow a church to mega-size.

Small groups

That spiritual vitality can be traced to another hallmark of megachurches: small groups. Megachurches that were strongly intentional about maximizing the number and variety of small groups reported the most activity (77% high spiritual vitality), compared with those who were unsure about small groups (37% high spiritual vitality) or were not intentional about small groups (27% high spiritual vitality).

No church is likely to grow above 250 without a small group ministry. If your elders are still waffling, it’s time to get on board and make the transition. There is no reason to hang on to Sunday night worship services.

Accountability

Small groups are also a way for big churches to hold their congregations accountable, which in turn leads to greater engagement, the survey found. Churches that placed no emphasis on holding members accountable for participation and faithful living reported two-thirds of their members (64%) were actively involved. By comparison, churches that believed accountability was an important and regular practice reported nearly all of their members (96%) were actively involved.

So actually caring about your brother impacts his spiritual vitality? Yes. It’s not that you preach those absent into hell, but that you show you care about those who are absent or uninvolved. You preach a Christianity that’s about involvement in ministry and community.

Accountability does not drive people away — not if done in love and if the expectations are reasonable and scriptural.

Assembly

Megachurches have a conflicted relationship with traditional worship elements. One in five (18%) feature an organ during worship, down from 28 percent in 2010. About a third (35%) have choirs, down from 43 percent in 2010. On the other hand, more megachurches took Communion during every worship service in 2015 (57%) than in 2010 (51%).

Megachurches are increasing headed toward Contemporary Christian Music, that is, the kind of music heard on Christian radio — and weekly communion. (Surprised? I was.)

Isolation

About 22 percent of megachurches were involved in worship services with other Christian groups in the past year, compared with 38 percent in 2005. Ecumenical cooperation for educational or fellowship activities was also down (30% vs. 46%), as was ecumenical community service activities (46% vs. 61%).

Now, this is disappointing. Megachurches often wrap themselves in a non-denominational veneer, and their members doubtlessly would be excited at inter-congregational cooperation and events. But these are on the decline. Why?

Again, the study doesn’t say, but I have opinions.

  • Money has been tight with the recession. That means leaders would be fearful of losing members to other churches. Cooperative events are feared as risking sheep stealing. Maybe the other preacher is better. Maybe our members will prefer hanging out with the other folks. It’s a little paranoid, but tough economic times make us stupid.
  • We are Americans and therefore capitalists to the core. Why cooperate with the competition?
  • The increasing trend toward being multi-site makes us think more like a McDonalds franchisor than the church for whom Jesus died. That is, we look at the world for opportunities to plant churches where incomes are high and “sales” will be easy. We seek the low-hanging fruit. I’ve yet to see the multi-site church intentionally locate in communities filled with poverty and crime. And so we have no interest in consorting with the competition. We’d rather be reviewing our market studies. (Sorry for the cynicism: prove me wrong.)
Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to Church Leadership: Recent Study on Megachurches

  1. Bob Brandon says:

    Looks like religious globalization to me with the inevitable leading indicators on limits to growth. For it’s part, secular globalization seems not to have worked out quite as projected.

  2. John McAfee says:

    Paul said he became all things to all men so that some might be saved. Who are we to say differently?

  3. laymond says:

    To John; Christians, that’s who, followers of Christ, or we pretend to be. no matter what one thinks Paul will not return in a cloud to judge the saved, and the damned.

  4. Dwight says:

    When Paul said, “I became all things to all men” this wasn’t a literal happening, because he didn’t sacrifice his Christianity to become like the non-saints and he didn’t become less of a Jew to impress the gentiles, but what he did was not force these things on others and not become a poster child for these things either. Paul was willing to relate to and get along with all people and soften his personal identity when he needed to do this to as to not isolate others. And this was a personal things, after all Paul had to overcome his image of being a murderer of Christians. His goal was to win over to Christ, not to divide and separate within Christ.
    In regards to the megachurches it is possible that the early church was more megachurch than we think in some ways. After all when Paul wrote to the church it was often the church in Galatia or Corinth, which were sizable towns or districts and there were elders were over these areas or towns, yet in another sense since they assembled within homes within the context of those towns, they were not megachurches when they assembled. In our heads we only have one concept of what the church looks like and the fact is that the church was understood in many forms of varying sizes. What they applied in those varying sizes was different, but the church didn’t change.

  5. Mark says:

    John,
    I believe he meant that he understood other people. To talk to/argue with Greeks, he read their philosophers. To reach Jews, he quoted the prophets. Today. that means understanding the modern world of moralistic therapeutic deism or agnosticism.

    That said, older churches can grow too even with younger people and trying to copy a mega church is not always successful. Look at Chick-fil-A. That chain would not have been as successful had they just duplicated McDonalds. I think megachurches attract married people because they view it as a way to meet people like them and make new friends. They also have children’s programs, youth and teen programs, etc. Parents will do a lot to keep the kids wanting to attend church because so few kids like it and I can partially understand why.

    Since most churches and Jewish temples too are not in the mega category, what can they do? Cooperation is a good thing. Let the youth of many congregations meet together. Get the best and most dynamic minister/clergy regardless of gender or Christian denomination to speak to them. Let three or four speak over the course of a day and then have time where the attendees can actually meet and talk to the speakers. Now in some churches where you have young professionals, they have different issues to deal with and so they may form a 20s and 30s group to work on an event with the same group from other congregations or discuss topics like bioethics or social justice and sometimes meet with the clergy as a group. Sometimes the group of young professionals actually gets face time with the senior clergy.

    There is much more to Christianity than attendance on Sunday.

  6. Andrew says:

    There is an saying that is quoted in different forms by different people (who knows who said it first) that goes something like this: Christianity was born in Judea where it became a way of life, it moved to Greece where it became a philosophy, then to Rome where it became an Institution, then to England, where it became culture, and finally to America where it became big business. If we treat “doing church” like big business, we shouldn’t be surprised when church members act like consumers. IF we were to treat it as a way of life, perhaps things would change.

  7. Dwight says:

    Andrew, brilliant and the first time I have heard this saying. It is true though. But I would argue that as it moved through its changes it didn’t change remarkably from where it came on some levels, but just the numerous changes have made it unrecognizable as opposed the original. While the coC believes it is the true church, it shares so much DNA from the previous incarnations that it really in many ways doesn’t resemble what we read about. We go to church, but church is foremost thought of as us. We connect to God through church, so we don’t seek to on an individual day to day basis. The preacher tells us the truth, so we don’t have to derive it ourselves even though we have the same bible.

  8. Andrew says:

    Agreed – we still have Catholic baggage carried over from the “Reformation” (e.g. communion service) and there is still Presbyterian baggage in the closet left over from the “Restoration” (e.g. everything is decent and in order and everybody just sits there quiet like) It’s there, like that Varsity Letterman Jacket from high school that we don’t wear anymore but still lives in the edge of our closet. It’s hard to throw out or give it Goodwill.

  9. Mark says:

    The cofC also has stripped out of the service the readings from the old testament, psalm, epistles, and gospel and replaced it with a song service and a sermon comprised of verses taken out of context. The communion service (canon of the mass) instead of “on the night in which he was betrayed…” has been reduced to a mournful song, three prayers and a convenient time to collect the offering. I guess this “is decent and in order”.

  10. Dwight says:

    Yes, Mark. Decent and in order means slow and steady and preprogrammed structure. It is amazing how we will argue against anything that the Jews did in regards to what they did in the Temple and yet we try to replicate it in what we do through ceremony. I actually love it when someone does something amiss in the Lord’s Supper because it shows their humanity and allow people to flex their thinking to correct it.
    Andrew, when you do everything right, nothing is wrong and we can’t be bothered with our inconsistencies because we are looking at our neighbors instead.

  11. Andrew says:

    And then it’s glibly said, “Why don’t people just read this and do it? It’s so simple!”

  12. Alabama John says:

    We’ll never have a large church like the mega ones we pass going to our church of Christ. Splitting over differences will keep us small and knowing about everyone in ours and their needs and problems so we can help. After all, that may be the real plan. Jesus could of appointed hundreds if not thousands of Apostles but only choose 12. That might be a lesson for us.

  13. Dwight says:

    I am already in a mega church…it is under Christ, but on this earth I go to a much smaller representation of it when I assemble.

  14. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Another theory on giving…
    I give to the church, but I also give to other worthwhile charity organizations and projects that are near and dear to my heart. Over the years, the proportion of my donations to the former has decreased while the latter has increased. Why? Because the latter have a greater yield in dollar to ‘use’ ratio. Meaning that some charitable organizations have an extremely high percentage rate of donation to beneficial use per dollar, while others spend a very high percentage of each dollar on administration, salaries, structure, etc. Churches are notoriously bad in comparison to some organizations that feed the hungry, provide clean drinking water, donate clothes, provide shelter, or even spreading the Gospel. Lots of people want to see the best use of their dollar, and churches often just don’t make the grade. Obviously, that is not universal. Some churches do very, very well. But others just seem to squander its resources on things that don’t help anyone.

  15. brent says:

    I attend a “megachurch” regularly. It’s a multi-site church with 24 campuses. But one of their core values, communicated often, is that they reject the term “megachurch”. They proclaim to still be a start up church which I think on psychological level has helped them continue to grow. They’re not afraid to shift and make big changes when necessary, even changing the name 3 or 4 times since first starting up 20 yrs ago. Innovation is healthy.
    I have, however, noticed exactly what you said, Jay, about multi-site churches having the tendency to open campuses “good markets”. However, the one I attend has absolutely no “competition” mindset with other churches. They wholeheartedly support other churches in the community, realizing that we are better together than we are apart, and that we can do more for the kingdom when unified. There’s actually a story that is part of their history that exemplifies this. They were getting a lot of questions of why don’t we do this or that. So, one Sunday they had several other churches from the community come set up booths in the lobby and announced, “If some of these things are important to you, please feel free to go and talk to some of these churches who do those things. If that church is a better fit for you, feel free to make that your church home.” This was not said in antagonistic way, but in a way that confirms we are partners in this. It’s bold. I’ve never heard another church say that. We’d rather see ourselves as “in competition” with the church down the street.

  16. Dwight says:

    Well, Brent we are right and they are wrong. And even if they might be right, they aren’t as right as we are. And even if they are as right as we are, they are wrong not to be us. And even if they are more right than we are…well, this is just ludicrous thinking, since they can’t be.
    The coC is notorious for encouraging Christians who are visiting or moving to the area not to attend a coC closer to them, but to attend where they are visiting, even if 20 minutes out of the way.

    Kevin, I agree. The conservative coC think it a sin to give money to others who will feed others, but will take that money and sink it into new carpet, or better pews, or newer song books, etc.
    Their answer to doing something that they think is wrong is doing something that is equally wrong or in many cases not doing anything that helps others.

  17. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John,

    I couldn’t agree more. Smaller churches often look askance at the big churches — but the NT describes a Jerusalem congregation of 5,000 adult men — surely 15 to 20,000 members total. That’s a mega-church by any definition. And it’s the prototypical church in the NT. Not just that, but they had a small groups program — meeting in houses to eat and study God’s word. Really hard to argue that big is inherently bad or wrong. But, like anything else, big can be done wrong. But small can be done the wrong way, too.

  18. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Brent,

    Thanks for the encouraging note. There may be hope for us yet.

  19. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Andrew wrote,

    If we treat “doing church” like big business, we shouldn’t be surprised when church members act like consumers.

    Very true.

    Studies are showing that churches that have high expectations of members — insisting that members volunteer, give, and participate in small groups — grow. Very hard for an established church to change its culture, and leaders are routinely fearful of losing members by raising the bar. But we’re seeing the consequences of low expectations: declining attendance, declining evangelism, and churches closing their doors.

    So it’s a matter of figuring out how to change expectations without coming across as legalistic or just plain hateful — and people will over-react to any change. I’d recommend starting with a strong emphasis on relationship building between leaders and the rest of the church. If the members feel loved and appreciated individually, there’s no limit on what can be accomplished.

  20. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Mark,

    Interesting that our Five Acts of Worship don’t include —

    (1 Tim. 4:13 ESV) Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

    I once attended a church that was blessed to have professional actors among the members — and they had the actors do the scripture reading. Goosebumps …

    Few churches will be so blessed, but any church can find someone with a little ham in his heart. Better yet, we might actually give the scripture reading in advance of the service so the reader can practice. We could make public reading of the scriptures life changing with a little effort.

    I mean, expose the members to the prophets or the Revelation, and home Bible reading will take off — if it’s done well.

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