Move over big business and big government. Big churches deserve attention.
A 1988 Forbes magazine article quoted the legendary Peter Drucker as saying, “Pastoral megachurches are surely the most important social phenomena in American society in the last 30 years (Buford, 2005).
Many people do not realize or think about the fact that churches are nonprofits. They are an integral part of society, they use more volunteers than any other subset of nonprofits, and they money they receive from donations are envied by any group who does fundraising. Despite having been around for centuries, they are still adapting to their environment, growing and changing as the circumstances dictate. One recent innovation for the church is what is called a “megachurch”.
A megachurch is defined as one that has at least 2,000 worshippers for a typical weekly service. According to the most recent work on megachurches, 34% are nondenominational, almost 50% of them can be found in the South, almost 50% are located in newer suburbs around major cities, and about 33% of them were founded more than 60 years ago (Thumma, Travis, & Bird, 2005). There were just 10 megachurches in 1970, 50 in 1980, approximately 880 in 2005, and approximately 1,210 today, which is nearly double what it was five years ago (Axtman, 2003 and Symonds, et all, 2005, and Thumma, Travis, and Bird, 2005).
To get a feel for the size of the largest megachurches, in 2004 Lakewood Church had an annual income of $55,000,000 and Willow Creek had 450 full and part-staff (“Jesus, CEO”, 2005). The big names of pastors and churches that will be referred to several times in this paper are Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek church, Rick Warren of Saddleback Valley Community Church, and T.D Jakes of The Potter’s House.
While these huge churches are not a new invention entirely, the rapidly increasing number of them is making businesses, church goers, non-church goers, politicians, and even government take notice. It is obvious that many of these megachurches are borrowing ideas and techniques from businesses, but is this a problem? Are churches going too far astray from Christ in their pursuit of numbers and relevancy? This rapid increase can be attributed to the idea that megachurches are paying attention to the environment in six key areas/ways: 1) management strategy, 2) amenities, 3) race/ethnicity, 4) money, 5) depth of doctrine and 6) true change.
This research is important because megachurches are impacting more than just church goers. Churches have filed more than 50 lawsuits against local governments trying to control and regulate their size and location. The argument is that by restricting parking size, they are restricting religious freedom because churches can not meet the needs of their congregations (Nasser, 2002).
In looking at the literature and research on this topic it is important to note that the research is very new as the phenomenon of megachurches is very new. Again, it is important because megachurches are still growing and becoming a part of American society. They are growing very quickly while small and medium size churches of many denominations are losing huge amounts of numbers (Axtman, 2003).
There are many arguments against the strategies that are being used by megachurches to attain the number of people that they do. Often these center around the idea that the church is not supposed to change and adapt, but rather present the Gospel in a straightforward way, with no punches pulled. Adapting to the unbeliever does not portray the church as the “rock” it is supposed to be. Other arguments are that the churches are using strategies borrowed from the human sciences, advertising, and marketing, which are not neutral strategies, but rather ones that are based on unbiblical assumptions (Guinness, 1993).
Of course, with many arguments against megachurch management strategies, there are many arguments for it as well. Many of these churches would argue that they are simply putting the “customer” first. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek took an informal survey before launching his church to get a feel for why individuals were not coming to churches that were currently in the Chicago area. With that information in hand, he tailored some aspects of services to those responses (“Jesus, CEO”, 2005).
First and foremost, individuals coming to most megachurches are greeted by a trained greeter with a smile, a welcoming handshake, and megachurches hope, a sense of community. One of the main things Hybels has provided is a place where men can worship God, feel comfortable, and still be in control. As men get on board with the church, wives and children also fall quickly in tow (Twitchell, 2005).
Willow Creek’s management strategies are not just about warm welcomes however. The church has a full-time management team, a seven-step strategy, and a set of ten core values. It employs two MBAs, one of which is from Harvard and another from Stanford, and has a consulting arm. Harvard business school has even done a study on it, (which I was not able to get a hold of) putting it in the ranks of Fortune 500 companies (“Jesus, CEO”, 2005). These aspects, which are not found in much smaller churches, came after Hybels had to switch to “team teaching” because the load of running his huge church was beginning to wear him down after 15 years at the helm (Maudlin & Gilbreath, 1994). Deciding on whether these management strategies are leading these megachurches down the wrong path is very difficult to see at the beginning. Sadly enough, we will probably need to wait to see what direction these churches end up going.
Megachurches have every imaginable amenity: basketball courts, cafes, video screens, enormous parking garages, WiFi connections, work out centers and more (“Jesus, CEO”, 2005). Megachurches can also be one-stop-shops. They have a group for every different type of person that comes. They have seminars on single parenting, recovery groups for various drugs and domestic abuse, classes for premarital couples, home-builders and seniors, they have countless smaller bible studies on any topic, and children have a seemingly endless array of activities to choose from (Byfield & Byfield, 1996).
The argument against churches having these amenities is often based on the idea that they are either catering too much to individuals or that they have simply become a mall with another form of entertainment for people instead of the serious life changing work in which churches should be participating (Maudlin & Gilbreath, 1994).
The megachurches and even the smaller churches that offer these amenities and services maintain that they are just responding to demand and that many of these amenities and especially classes are helping fulfill the more serious work of saving and changing lives (Symonds, Grow, & Cady, 2005). The arguments for both sides are not complete and can not be because the idea of “catering too much” is too subjective. Almost all churches have a website and probably use a computer to work on, but they may not feel comfortable using a projection screen in service. Personal taste has a lot to do with the arguments for and against the use of numerous amenities.
Another critique of some of these megachurches is that they are very homogenous when they should be setting the standard for racial integration. Many megachurches are dominated by white, affluent baby boomers. Hybels, whose church in a suburb of Chicago is very homogenous, was asked this question and responded that his church was simply mirroring the community around it. He says, “I would hope the church would be [diverse]. If the neighborhood is not diverse, it’s pretty hard for a church to be” (Maudlin & Gilbreath, 1994). In addition to churches like Hybels, there are numerous African American churches like T.D. Jakes’ Potter House.
An opposing view to the idea that megachurches are always segregated is Lakewood where approximately an even number of blacks, whites and Hispanics show up each week (Axtman, 2003). Even with Hybels explanation and the diversity of Lakewood, race and issues of segregation are a criticism that megachurches have not been able to throw off very easily and probably will struggle more and more with going forward as the country becomes increasingly diverse.
Another argument presented against megachurches is based on the large amounts of money that some of them have spent and currently owe to build their huge churches and accompanying parking lots. Lakewood Church for example is spending $90 million to renovate and transform the Compaq Center in downtown Houston into a 16,000 seat church for its services. Along with this criticism comes one about pastoral compensation. Creflo Dollar, pastor over World Changers Church owns two Rolls Royces and travels in a Gulfstream 3 jet.
The money that is being shelled out by churches to build their new churches and parking lots can be justified by supply and demand. If more people want to show up every weekend than there is space for, then building out or getting a new building often makes sense. As the history of the megachurch gets longer, time will tell whether the money spent on huge building project was worth it.
On pastoral compensation, while it can not be denied that some pastors over these churches take in large sums of money, they can not all be put in that boat. Rick Warren repaid his church all the money they had given him in salary after he made millions from his books and still lives modestly (Symonds, Grow, & Cady, 2005). Many Christians would agree that a pastor does not need to own 2 Rolls Royces, but it is very difficult to figure out where the line is drawn. Business and nonprofits have been around for a lot longer and they still have not figured out how much to pay top executives so it is hard to know whether it is fair to criticize megachurches for not knowing how much to pay their pastors.
Another important factor that is in favor of megachurches is the percentage of money that is given to missions. In a time of financial scrutiny, people want to see as much of their money as possible go to things like missions, not administration or advertisements. With that in mind, the typical megachurch allocates 20-35 percent of total receipts to mission versus 8-15 percent for small congregations (Schaller, 1990).
Depth of doctrine
Potentially the most severe criticism of megachurches is that they are “watering down” Christianity for the sake of “consumer appeal”. One specific one is that they represent the “Disneyfication” of religion. They are calling people in a watered down, sanitized version of the gospel. They are simply making Christianity more American with preachers like Joel Osteen preaching about being healthy, rich, and trouble free. In many of these churches not only would you search in vain for stained glass and steeples, but even “basic” church decorations like crosses and altars are nowhere to be found (“Jesus, CEO”, 2005). Along with this criticism is the well publicized fact that many of these churches avoid talking about controversial topics like homosexuality (Axtman, 2003).
Warren and the other leaders of these megachurches would say that they are not wimpy in their doctrine. They share the same positions that most Christians and smaller churches do on controversial topics like homosexuality and the fate of Jewish people, but choose to not focus on them because of their divisive nature (Gunther & Tkaczyk, 2005).
Not choosing to talk about well known divisive issues from a pulpit is not necessarily watering down the doctrine. It is keeping people interested in church long enough for them to get that information from other sources and people. These pastors do not have watered down beliefs, they simply are cautious in when they promote those types of beliefs.
Also the idea that you can not find a religious symbol in a megachurch is not true. Southeast Christian Church, draws more than 14,000 people a weekend, yet has a large cross right in the middle of the church under which the pastor stands when he preaches (Wilson, 2000). While it is potentially the most severe criticism of megachurches, the idea that they are “watering down” the gospel might also be the least grounded. This is also a case where the top few churches that are always discussed do not necessarily reflect the numerous other megachurches where the gospel is spoken just like it is in smaller churches.
Along with criticisms about a lack of serious doctrine is the doubt that anyone is being significantly ministered to in these enormous services. When people go into a service with 3,000 other people, they are just fading into the mass of people and becoming a number. True discipleship and growing is difficult in such a large group (Axtman, 2003).
Most megachurches would readily agree that people are not growing enough spiritually if they only attend one huge gathering on the weekend. These megachurches are good at keeping it small, despite being big. Saddleback has 3,300 small groups organized by neighborhood, interests or experiences. These groups have a wide variety of foci, just like the programs that these churches offer.
Willow Creek’s Sunday services are focused on seekers while the midweek services are for believers (Twitchell, 2005). At least anecdotally, the idea that people are not being ministered to in a deep way does not hold water. There are documented cases of people saying that they have had a real encounter with God at megachurch services and the connected small groups, and there are probably thousands of more that could give examples if asked (Axtman, 2003).
ANALYSIS OF LITERATURE
Most of the work being done on megachurches is focused on the top three or four churches in terms of average attendance. These churches receive 95% of the focus of articles, investigation, and research on the topic. This is of course a big problem with the current literature.
Looking at just a handful of churches out of over a thousand does not give a very full picture of what is going on with megachurches “in general”. There are reports like the Megachurches Today 2005 Survey which is giving a more complete picture of the sector, but that is on a surface level. It would obviously be very difficult to study all the megachurches in depth, but perhaps case studies could be done on churches that are very different from the few large ones at the top.
The literature on megachurches is weak as a whole because of the biases that are obviously present. Since there are so few articles from academic journals on the topic, articles from magazines were one of the primary sources of information. While these do provide a wide variety of viewpoints on megachurches, they clearly come with biases from the writers.
Articles are written against megachurches or for them and the information provided in these articles often just lines up with the author’s point of view. More unbiased, or at least not blatantly biased, work on the topic would benefit individuals and groups trying to get a grasp on the movement . Some have even argued that some of the criticisms are being spawned out of jealousy.
Research from an academic standpoint has a very far way to go. A lot of the research will be just keeping an eye on the phenomenon and documenting it as it continues to grow. Further research might also want to divide megachurches into two or three groups based on size and research the differences between these groups. Are mega-megachurches like most of the ones discussed in this paper markedly different from megachurches that are right at that 2,000 people a week mark? Another area that can be researched is how these churches are run similarly and different from large businesses and nonprofits.
The information on this topic is useful for getting a general feel for the different viewpoints on megachurches. The actual research is useful even though it is very limited. Considering that the term megachurch has not even been around for very long, there has been significant attention paid to these churches and the research on them will grow tremendously as they continue to grow and increase their impact on their respective communities.
APPLICATIONS TO PRACTICE
I think the information drawn from the research on megachurches is extremely relevant to practitioners, whether they are pastors over a megachurch, might soon be a pastor in that position, are leading smaller churches, or are even helping to run Christian nonprofits. The literature does suggest that a church does not necessarily need to “water down” its preaching of the gospel in order to attract large amounts of people. They do however need to be in touch with the current environment.
Churches and other organizations that are out of touch with new technology and ways of reaching people will probably not see their organization grow to megachurch size or even grow at all. That is also helpful to smaller churches that have no desire to become a megachurch. Keeping with an older style, with tried-and-true methods will probably lead to keeping a church at the same size.
The main carry over into my specific focus is the idea that an organization does not need to abandon sound doctrine in order to attract people. As I run Christian nonprofits in the future, I will be able to keep that in the back of my mind as I make decisions.
Literature about and from megachurches that would be more helpful to practitioners is available, it just was not used in this paper. Many of these top megachurches have consulting and seminar aspects to their ministry which can help practitioners in their daily work. One of the goals of Rick Warren is to actually make it easier on small church pastors who have to work another job during the week and then scramble to come up with a sermon in a couple of hours Saturday night (Gunther & Tkaczyk, 2005).
One related question to application that should be addressed is: Should smaller churches worry about megachurches taking away all of their members? The answer is a definite yes and no. If these smaller churches do not have any plans on changing and reacting to today’s culture and environment, then “yes”, they will need to watch out for megachurches. If on the other hand they are not opposed to being creative and innovative but simply want to remain small, then they should not worry about losing members to megachurches. Megachurches are not interested in stealing away members from current churches, they want to get people who are “unchurched” into their doors. Simply trading members with other churches will not spread the gospel, which is what the megachurches are really after.
Its seems fairly likely that megachurches are here to stay. Whether they will remain in their current form is definitely debatable. Since they focus so much on responding to the environment, it is very likely that they will change as the demographic makeup and therefore the needs of their congregations change. Static organizations often shrink and die, which is the exact opposite of megachurches right now. Despite their size and being rooted in mainline doctrine, they are able to stay nimble and give the “customers” what they want. As long as they are able to please the “customer” they should experience the same result that a business or nonprofit that does that will experience, which is growth.
Literature on megachurches leaves much to be desired, but it seems very unlikely that academics will avoid researching these churches as they become a larger and larger part of society. Whether or not one agrees with how and why megachurches are growing so quickly, there is much to learn from them, both good and bad.
“Modern society has created this market, [for megachurches] and any religious institution or political movement that wishes to compete for this audience had better understand it” (Twitchell, 2005).
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