In pitching a trend story for a national audience, a headline-friendly catchphrase goes a long way.
Take the expression “atheist megachurch,” for example. That’s sure to grab editors’ attention, right?
Such was the case over the weekend as The Associated Press reported on what it characterized as atheist megachurches “taking root across the U.S. and around the world.”
LOS ANGELES (AP) — It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.
Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.
Now, the AP doesn’t actually quote any supporters or detractors who use that term, so we’ll have to take the wire service’s word for it.
As I began reading the story, the idea of “atheist mega-churches” intrigued me. In my time with AP in Texas, I reported on a number of megachurches, from Joel Olsteen’s Lakewood Church to T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House to the two Ed Youngs’ disparate Baptist congregations. In more recent times, I reported on megachurch seminaries and pastor training for Christianity Today.
Based on my past reporting, I know that the term “megachurch” has a specific meaning. The Religion Newswriters Association’s Religion Stylebook defines it this way:
Generally defined as a Christian church that has a weekly sustained attendance of 2,000 or more. Although megachurches existed in some form in the United States throughout the 20th century, in recent decades they have flourished. Megachurches are often Protestant, evangelical, Catholic or Pentecostal, and many are theologically conservative. Many are nondenominational or Southern Baptist.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research provides more details on megachurches:
Q: What’s the definition of a megachurch, and how many are there in the United States?
A: Megachurches are not all alike, but they do share some common features. Hartford Seminary Sociologist Scott Thumma who, with Warren Bird, compiled the 2011 “Megachurches Today” research report defines a megachurch as a congregation with at least 2,000 people attending each weekend. These churches tend to have a charismatic senior minister and an active array of social and outreach ministries seven days a week.
As of 2012, there were roughly 1,600 Protestant churches in the United States with a weekly attendance of 2,000 people or more. That’s nearly 25% more than 2005, suggesting people continue to be receptive to this large-scale way of worshipping. The average megachurch had a Sunday attendance of 3,597. But not all megachurches are mega. The survey found that just 20 percent of megachurches had 5,000 people in attendance on a given Sunday.
So how many thousands of non-worshipers did the Los Angeles “atheist megachurch” draw?
Let’s read on:
On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted more than 400 attendees, all bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual.
Not to nitpick, but it appears that the “atheist megachurches” are not actually megachurches. Too bad AP didn’t think to contact a megachurch expert such as Thumma for some astute analysis.
But hey, AP certainly made a splash with the catchphrase.