Christianity 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.
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 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 —
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)