How many atheists does it take to form a ‘megachurch?’

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.”

The top of the story:

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:

megachurches

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.

Hmmmm.

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.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Harold Steiner

    Given that these aren’t the first articles about atheist “churches,” I wonder if there have been any articles exploring the impulse behind such gatherings in more detail. (I didn’t find the Google results particularly helpful.)

    • truthisfree4u

      I would, too. I’ve always wondered (and I mean this with no disrespect, I’m serious) why, if I didn’t believe in God I wouldn’t just play golf on Sunday. What is the ultimate draw? And what is the member turnover? Do people just check it out, or does it have lasting pull, and again, what is that pull? I have my theories, but I’d rather hear it from them.

      As for the “megachurch” label I’d say that was completely misapplied. But I’d say the “church” label does not apply here either (though I get that the supporters are using it tongue-in-cheek), just as I would not use “Christian synagogue”, “Muslim Cathedral”, “Wiccan mosque”, or “Jewish coven”. Except for when quoting, I think the journalist should have stuck to more appropriate and accurate style.

      • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

        If I didn’t believe in God, I wouldn’t play golf. I’d sleep in. :-)

      • wlinden

        I guess the New York Buddhist Church and the other members of Buddhist Churches of America didn’t get the memo.

        • JoFro

          By the way, what is Buddhist congregation called?

          • FW Ken

            It’s a temple. If there are other types of congregations, I’ve never heard of them.

      • CHARLIE1952

        Agreed, I am offended by their use of “church.” Since they are offended by everything Christian Let’s do something about it.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Totally agree on the question of “why?” In fact, that’s a point we made last time we critiqued a story on atheists going to church:

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2012/11/when-bible-belt-atheists-go-to-church/

      This is basic Journalism 101 stuff: In a story about atheists going to church, the reporter needs to interview some atheists who go to church, right? Maybe ask them why they wake up extra early on Sunday if they don’t believe in God?

    • Gail Finke

      It would be interesting to ask, because Unitarian/Universalists already provide this – youth groups, music, lectures, and all. Although perhaps they are too religious? You CAN be an atheist at a UU group, but there’s no requirement you be one. I know a self-described pagan and atheist couple who love their UU “church.” So what is new here?

      • Deanjay1961

        Nothing. UU congregations vary in their religiosity. I’ve heard it supposed that UUs inadvertantly suppressed the American religious humanism movement by providing a comfortable alternative.
        But religious humanism, such as Ethical Culture, has been around for a long time. And of course they don’t get together to celebrate what they don’t believe, but to contemplate what they DO believe.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Micheal Hickerson

    Maybe they’re using the term relatively. In most articles I’ve seen about atheist gatherings, the attendance is numbered in the dozens. 400 attendees at an atheist weekly service would be a huge increase.

    However, I want more details about the weekly numbers. This was 400 attendees at an inaugural service. How many of the attendees were from out of town? How many plan on coming weekly? Is there any kind of membership roll that the group is keeping? A story on the launch makes sense, but how about a follow-up story in a few months to see how the group is doing?

    Also, when the reporter describes a gathering of 400 people as “look[ing] like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church,” that suggests to me that the reporter doesn’t actually know what a typical Sunday morning at a megachurch looks like.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Michael,

      Good points.

      If the intention is to use the term relatively, I think they need to make it clearer that that’s what they’re trying to do. As you last sentence points out, the article itself makes it appear that they don’t have a clear grasp of what a megachurch looks like.

  • Chas S. Clifton

    I saw the same article and thought, “I sure hope that Get Religion looks into this one, because it seems like a manufactured “trend story.” Thanks.

  • Darren Blair

    400 members of the congregation?

    I’ll have to check, but I think 400 members is the upper cap put in place by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints per individual congregation in order to determine when it’s time to split the congregation.

    Mega-church? Hardly.

  • James Scott

    This is just plain weird. I always was under the impression if there is an “upside” to Atheism it would be you get to sleep in on weekends?

    I always knew nature abhorred a vacuum but this is ridiculous.

    An Atheist Church much less a mega-Church seems counter intuitive to moi.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      To its credit, AP does quote an atheist with an opposing perspective:

      “The idea that you’re building an entire organization based on what you don’t believe, to me, sounds like an offense against sensibility,” said Michael Luciano, a self-described atheist who was raised Roman Catholic but left when he became disillusioned.

      “There’s something not OK with appropriating all of this religious language, imagery and ritual for atheism,” said Luciano, who blogged about the movement at the site policymic.com.

  • http://hereiblog.com/ Mark Lamprecht

    I made a similar observation in part of my article on the same topic. Thanks!

  • wlinden

    But are they DEVOUT atheists?

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Love it! That’s the title of the next GetReligion post on this subject. :-)

  • Gail Finke

    I saw that myself! You can’t be a megachurch just by calling yourself one.

    • JoFro

      I’m thinking these are the same journos who will report about Roman Catholic Women Priests as “Catholic priests”, because the women call themselves “Catholic priests”! So why not mega-churches?

  • Nick Cady

    Regarding the use of the term “mega-church” – I think they are doing it for hype, but also trying to describe the feel of the meetings rather than the quantity of people in the room.

    I totally agree that this is a bunch of media hype though, and little more. However I think that there is something important that we can and must learn from this movement: that you don’t necessarily need God to “do church”. The Gospel is the one thing we have and cannot afford to tone down, rather we need to dial it up. It is our one distinctive.

    I wrote more on this over here: http://longmontpastor.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/atheist-megachurches-what-they-mean-and-what-we-can-learn-from-them/

  • Wangchuck

    Why use the term Atheist ‘church’? Why not ‘Synagogue’? Afterall, many of the godless are also the chosen.

  • http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B006M68MNI Maurice Smith

    In the postmodern West (Europe and America) “atheism” is now cool, chic and hip, which means it “deserves” its own megachurch status regardless of anything so technical as a “definition”. Perhaps this reflects our culture’s trend toward self-worship by combining the “best” of nihilism (“no ultimate truth”), existentialism (“I make my own truth”) and narcissism (“It’s all about ME”) and a little mysticism (“Whatever”) thrown in. The only thing missing at these “worship” services appears to be a recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. Of course, at the end of the day, the reason its being labeled a “megachurch” is to poke an atheistic finger in the eye of the Christian community. Ouch! That hurt! Really. Not.


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