Megachurch Satisfaction Study

From Live Science:

DENVER — More and more Americans are spending their Sundays at megachurches, enormous churches with congregations numbering in the thousands. Despite the size of these churches, members don’t get lost in the crowd, new research finds.

In fact, a new study of 12 representative megachurches spread across the country finds that the size of these churches is a major part of their appeal. Members report that the experience of worshiping with thousands is intoxicating, the researchers find.

“It’s an addicting experience, it’s so large, it’s so huge,” said study researcher Katie Corcoran, agraduate student in sociology at the University of Washington. “One respondent said you can look up to the balcony and see the Holy Spirit go over the crowd like a wave in a football game.”

Prior research had suggested that megachurches were rather soulless — entertaining, but lacking a sense of spirituality or belonging, Corcoran told LiveScience.

“We went in thinking that’s what we were going to find,” she said. “Instead, we actually found the opposite, that people do experience strong feelings of belonging. They’re very happy with their megachurch, and the size is actually seen as a positive rather than a negative.” [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

Interviews with 470 megachurch members revealed a repeated theme of belonging, with congregants emphasizing how welcoming and “unpretentious” the churches are.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ron

    I think there is a co-relation between the size of high school you went to and the size of church you will be attracted to.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    Interesting thought Ron. I grew up in small churches and now attend a mega church. My wife grew up in large churches and attends with me. But I have some younger friends that grew up in mega church and attend smaller churches.

  • Tom

    Ron is it an inverse relationship. Small high school – big church? Where do home school students fit in? House church?

  • Deets

    From a discipleship standpoint I find this concerning. I don’t hear that people are attracted to Jesus in this. I understand that they are instead drawn to and experience that is related to the number of people. Even the comparision to a football game demonstrates a lack of focus on the true reason for drawing together.

    I’m not speeding against megachurches. I just don’t think this article paints the right purpose for the church.

  • Pat Pope

    I think it’s very subjective. While the researchers sensed that people were plugged in and really experiencing worship, had they interviewed more people, they might have found some who would say they didn’t feel plugged in and attributed their attendance to other factors. I’ve experienced this in a church of approximately 900–there were people who would cite some criticism of the worship experience, but yet they stayed for other reasons, like friendships they’d established, their kids’ attachment to youth group, etc. The same could probably be found in some attending smaller churches as well. I’m not knocking the research, just cautioning against setting up a whole theory around the megachurch experience because of this study. While I’m sure there are people who do enjoy the worship and are thoroughly engaged, others may have other reasons for being there. I suspect the reasons and criticisms are as numerous as the the people themselves.

    As for the high school/large church correlation that Ron makes, I’m not sure about that either. I was raised from a baby in a large church, which may have had more to do with me being attracted to large churches than the size of my high school. It was what I knew and smaller churches just haven’t been as appealing to me, more from the standpoint of a lack diversity of ministry offerings. Plus, I think I just like being in settings where there are a lot of people and hopefully a chance at diversity of thought, which isn’t always the case. So, I think this issue is a lot more complex and contains a number factors.

  • donsands

    “Members report that the experience of worshiping with thousands is intoxicating..”

    “It’s an addicting experience, it’s so large, it’s so huge..”
    “that people do experience strong feelings”

    That can be good, or bad. How about are the congregations growing in the Bible truths? Can the Christians share the Gospel with confidence and zeal which they are being taught from the Pastor-teachers?

    I imagine some can, and some can’t.

    To come together to worship our Lord and father in Spirit and truth is so imperative. And to be in a huge congregation which comes to do so is a heart encourging time, and edifying as well.
    But some large churches are caught up in numbers, and don’t have the hearts set on the truth so much as “feeling” the spirit. Or feeling intoxicated and addicted.

    Good post to make us think. Thanks.

    I had a marvelous service today with my church, Bishop Cummins REC here in Baltimore. Which is Joni’s home church, when she lived here in Maryland.

    Have a terrific week in our Lord’s truth and grace. may he bless us and help us live for Him, no matter what he calls us to, either comfort, or trial and suffering. His will be done, for His honour. Amen.

  • Chip

    Here in the DC area, this has been a noticeable trend since the ’80s. Many evangelicals want to go where they will encounter the most people. (This is perhaps particularly true if you’re single.) Full parking lots encourage even more people to come. People feel a sense of belonging due to small groups and/or a multitude of other options that megachurches offer. And those that want to stay anonymous have that option as well.

  • Victor Hoffman

    Mega-church: God uniting his people in huge numbers and helping them detox from the denominational divisions that have unfortunately plagued the church for years. Intoxicating worship that opens our minds, body, soul and spirit to hear His Word…..sounds a bit like His Kingdom come His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven!

    Church: as I see it if you ain’t a “mega” you likely at LEAST fit the “if two or three are gathered together in my name” mentioned so ….

    I guess I’m trying to see the downside in either one. Pick one where God moves you and can best speak to you…then start listening. Wooo hooo….it’s coming folks, it’s coming.

  • Sue

    My theory is that one of the intoxicating effects of attending a “mega-church” is the sense of being “successful,” of being among “winners” (and therefore being a winner yourself). As these congregations gather in lavish settings with the coolest new technologies on display, led by musicians who could be (or are) recording artists, they get the message (so important in our culture) that this is where things are happening, and who doesn’t want to be at the happening place? All that has little to do with Jesus, but it sure is a draw – which then can be, and sometimes is – the platform from which to point people toward Jesus.

  • EricMichaelSay

    As a homeschooler, I fit Ron’s theory. I’ve gone from midsized churches, to small, to house church, to not attending anywhere at the moment. Interesting theory.

    Regarding the study, I’ll just say that musical worship is probably the least important practice of the faith, so this study means little to me.

  • Richard Goulette

    thank you @Sue. I would say that this article has the veracity of the recent plug that said “Apple is creating an asymmetric screw” that prevents people from opening up the hardware: http://thenextweb.com/apple/2012/08/13/confirmed-apples-new-asymmetric-screw-fake-created-swedish-production-company/

    The mega-church is antithetical to the type of authentic Christianity experienced by anything before the 20th century, and is better known for its successful business model and lattes than successful disciple-making. The huge growth of the emerging church(whether you are pro or con) has a large part to do with the sterile nature of such experiences.

  • Mark Roeda

    It really shouldn’t be surprising that people at megachurches are satisfied with their church experience. People’s commitment levels are often so low that if they’re not satisfied they’ll leave. In fact, I would bet that people’s levels of satisfaction are likely to be lower in small churches simply because there are likely to be more people there willing to stick it out despite the dissatisfaction.

    I think it’s telling that what attracts people to the church is the size itself. You go into a big church and you’re thinking “Something’s happening here.” And then– consciously or not– you go about the rest of your experience looking for explanations for that. That mindset makes you very receptive. You’re much more likely to have a higher estimation of your experience. A mediocre message, for example, is suddenly a powerful message. On the other hand, you attend a small church, the thought in the back of your head is “Something’s going wrong here.” You then evaluate everything through that lens. A mediocre message becomes dreadful bore.

  • scotmcknight

    Mark,
    If humans determine “good vs. bad” by size of the church, where do you think we gain the value of size?

  • Kristin

    There is a form of security that resides in having large numbers of people regularly around you that believe the same things as you do. So I think perhaps megachurches thrive on that, as well as some sort of unspoken “church pride” in the same sense as school pride.

    As #12 noted, if you’re the biggest, you must also be the best. Once you buy into the “pride” of the church, everything else is viewed much less critically. I don’t think it is so much a bad thing as it is dangerous. It is good to enjoy being in community with the Body, but is much harder to discern if the inherent excitement is rooted in Christ or in something else.

    Finally, in my own experience briefly living in a megachurch town, if you are a believer who lives near a megachurch, it is “expected” that you will attend said megachurch. If you don’t, you are viewed very suspiciously (not to mention a bit of peer pressure to change your mind – “Just come and ‘experience’ it for yourself once”). I can only imagine what it must be like to be a 20-something believer in Seattle and NOT attend Mars Hill.

  • RJS

    Scot,

    Is North Park a failure, or Wheaton failing to live up to its potential because it doesn’t have the 30000 students my institution has? (Added – Whoops, I was low. We had more than 42000 enrolled fall 2011.)

    My gripe with mega church isn’t actually with most of the churches out there. It is that size and pizazz has become the measure of success – and anything less is thus the failure of unmotivated, uninspired leadership. This ethos is deeply damaging to the body of Christ. I also don’t think all “mega” churches are the same when the measure is simply 2000 attendees. Some of these are truly excellent places where I would find room to serve with my gifts and grow.

    My gripe is with making size the measure of success and restructuring church with this aim the ultimate goal. The goal should be making disciples shouldn’t it? … mature brothers and sisters in Christ, being the body of Christ to each other and to the world. This can happen successfully if the church is 200, 500, or 2000, different local churches in different locations will plateau at different sizes. If we are asking and answering the right questions all of these can be exceedingly successful. But the church with 2000 is not necessarily more successful than the church with 200. If size is the measure of success, we should all model after Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church.

  • RJS

    And … God works through Osteen and through Lakewood – but a collection of success stories to display doesn’t mean the church is actually walking the most desirable path. God works despite us and our human failings, and through our imperfect efforts.

  • Jack Brooks

    A great deal of criticism of small churches is motivated by laziness and selfishness. People don’t stay because of a “lack of diversity of ministries”, but the reason there is a lack of diversity of ministries is because people don’t stay. When you don’t have people you don’t have enough giving to afford additional staff, to enough volunteers to provide a big variety of ministries. But there had to have been some original core reason why people start attaching themselves to a church, since mega-churches don’t appear out of the sky fully grown (unless a big name like Chuck Swindoll is the start-up pastor).

    Most people want everything at a church to already be super-great before they come in the door. They treat church like it’s a restaurant or a clothing store. If there was a restaurant where you needed to bring groceries and help cook for other people, they wouldn’t go to it; if there was a clothing store where you needed to bring a bolt of fabric and help sew other people’s clothes, they would never go near it.

    Here in central Kentucky, what most of our people want is a loud, sexy CCM worship music, and a short, pragmatic message that emphasizes religious experiences, and rules to live by.

  • Kristin

    RJS has another good point. I’ve witnessed mentality this in my own church of about 700. Since we are baptizing people regularly, and have a collection of “success stories”, we must be doing EVERYTHING right…God approves of what we’re doing. Numbers are very often used as a defense argument against change and/or criticism.

    I’m not saying all megachurches are like this, but the larger the church the easier it is for this mentality to slip in.

  • Rick

    RJS-

    Amen.

  • http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/ Chris L

    I have to say that I’m not sure that the size of church, small or mega-, is of systematic concern at all.

    I’ve attended churches of all sizes (I currently attend a “mega” that runs about 4,000 on a weekend) as my job has moved me around the state. The megas I am familiar with (4 or 5 in the Restoration Movement, along with some other prominent ones) all tend to be effective because they have a very strong small group program.

    Andy Stanley (pastor at the US’ second-largest “mega”) spoke specifically about this a couple of weeks ago – http://www.northpoint.org/messages/bridging-the-gap . He’s frequently said that the focus of his church is on “circles” (small groups), not “lines” (Sunday morning attendance). A couple of my family members have been members there, when they lived in Atlanta, and they were both involved in the small group ministry, which is heavily – HEAVILY – pushed. If you want to be a member of Northpoint, you have to be an immersed believer and commit to active service and small group participation, and the church’s small group pastors are quite attentive to this.

    At Northpoint, along with the RM megas I know locally, Sunday mornings are seen as a community gathering and worship time, geared to be friendly to visitors/unbelievers, and the small group times are for community building and individual growth. Additionally, these churches have very active Community Impact programs (local missions), that also seek to engage the members in regular service outside the church.

    Comparing my Small church experience and Mega church experience (realizing that this is an anecdote, and that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”), I spent almost as much time serving and involved in both, but my activities in the small church were things that were more focused on managing the logistics of the church, and my activities in the mega church have been more focused on service (simply because the logistics are managed behind the scenes, and members are encouraged to serve outside the church). In both, though, it has been my small groups that have made the most impact in my relationships and personal growth.

  • Ben Thorp

    You cannot tell the quality of a church by the numbers that attend a meeting.

  • Warren Smith

    This is ridiculuous pseudo-science. Here’s just one of many problems with the conclusion: This study has an obvious self-selection fallacy. People who do NOT find megachurch worship “intoxicating” stop going, or never attend in the first place. To be real science, you have to have a control group. This is like saying, “People who are made happy by candy are happier when they have candy.” This doesn’t begin to answer the question: “Does candy make us happy?”

  • Jason Williams

    I thought one of the main assignments of Christ was to make disciples, doesn’t that require contact with people. I’m so sick of the church critizing each other. I praise God for every mega church that seeks to see people know Christ and I praise God for every church that is not classified as a mega church that seeks to see people know Christ. My Savior came to Seek and save the Lost and I’m going to follow Him. Rockimg out or singing old Gospels hymns, Big church, small church, on the highways and bi-ways, where ever I’m planted at that Moment. What’s your plan? how will you accomplish the task given?

  • Ray

    Seems like a pretty small sample and I’m guessing that the geographical area from which it was drawn was relatively small as well. Personally, for several years I attended a church with about 300 regular attenders. With a relocation/building program the church achieved megachurch status over a period of 18 to 24 more months. It continues to grow but at a somewhat slower pace. For me, it became somewhat of a spiritual wasteland where the gospel was often compromised in favor of the 10-point “best life now” message. Today we attend a small church averaging less than 200. We have a very strong sense of community where growth is a spiritual concern and not so much about bricks and mortar or number of seats filled. Our mission involves planting new churches as a means of growing His influence among our neighborhoods, and personally, having been in both, I find my small church much more spiritually fulfilling than the consumer-driven megachurch. Maybe I didn’t get lost in the crowd, but the mission of the church seemed to.

  • Derek

    The rest of the world finds a similar high from gathering with like minded people to scream and yell and do the wave. And they do all this on Sunday as well…at NFL games. I have no intention of trying to speak for or judge attenders of large (or even small) churches, but if that is the extent of one’s attraction to being there, and if that is all the church has to offer, congregants are missing out on something so much better.

  • Ben Thorp

    Small clarification to my above comment – you cannot tell the quality of a church by the number of people that attend a meeting, whether than number is high or low.

    Warren #22 – I’m not sure it’s as clear cut as you make it out to be. There are no perfect churches, and therefore there are always things that we “put up with” in our choice of church. For some people, they don’t find the worship “intoxicating” in a megachurch, but they stay for other reasons, be it teaching, friendships, mission, etc.

  • Ray

    Actually, the sample size is extremely small. The study sampled 12 of 1,200 megachurches, with a “megachurch” defined as having 2,000 members. That means the sample includes only 1 percent of megachurches (no small churches) while the 470 people in the study represent a maximum of 0.0002 (2 ten-thousandth) of megachurch membership. And on the basis of this “information” a sociologist proposes to sell me a book? No thanks!

  • Sean P. Nelson

    I’m not sure less than 500 people surveyed on a “mega-church” study is going to provide any compelling evidence for me. I’d like to see a lot more people surveyed and spread across varying demographics (age, sex, income bracket, demographics- etc.). I’d be willing to bet there would be much different results between the age brackets alone.

    FWIW, I have been a member of both small (100-200) and mega (20,000+) churches and have found value in each.

  • Sean P. Nelson

    *CORRECTION*… spread across varying demographics (age, sex, income bracket, demographics- etc.)

    Was suppose to say… spread across varying demographics (age, sex, income bracket, GEOGRAPHICS – etc.


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