Are big “megachurches” a big deal?


(Regarding this 1988 Forbes magazine quote from management expert Peter Drucker): “The pastoral megachurches that have been growing so very fast in the U.S. since 1980… are surely the most important phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years.” Do you agree?


No, not if Drucker really thought they were the single most important U.S. phenomenon since 1958. The Guy would immediately note, for instance, the personal and societal gains in African-American equality, the abortion and gay movements, or increased unwed motherhood with resulting family disruption — emotional, financial, educational, vocational, and moral. Looking only at U.S. religion, The Guy would propose as equally significant the immigration-driven expansion of U.S. Islam or the steady shrinkage of left-leaning “mainline” Protestantism during those decades. Religion Q and A readers can doubtless post others.

However, Drucker is correct to stress that Protestant megachurches (hereafter called “megas”) are among the most important new phenomena. Catholic parish memberships are often large, but this is revolutionary for U.S. Protestantism.

Some megas have declined and analysts wonder whether others will lose dynamism as their founders retire. But over-all, megas are prospering, according to experts at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and the Leadership Network, which have jointly tracked such churches for years. Their findings as follows define a Protestant mega at average weekend attendance of 2,000 and up, using an 1,800 baseline due to inevitable ups and downs. That covers 3,207 U.S. congregations. Of these, nearly a third report attendance of 4,000 and up and 6 percent with 10,000 or more.

A fourth of the megas have been founded since Drucker said that. Between 2005 and 2010, average weekend attendance in the category grew from 2,604 to 3,597, nearly 8 percent a year. Participation doubled  during that half-decade for 28 percent of megas. The megas account for an estimated one-tenth of nationwide weekly Protestant attendance, nearly 6 million people. (Of course the other nine-tenths are important.) Two-fifths of adult participants joined in just the past five years. Bucking the trend of graying flocks elsewhere, 70 percent of attenders are under age 50.

Money:  Roughly two-thirds of megas have seen an increase in offerings since the start of 2012. About half the typical budget goes for salaries and personnel benefits, about the same as for smaller churches. But with numerous programs to operate, megas have mega staffs, an average of 11 full-time and 4 part-time clergy plus 33 full-time and 27 part-time lay employees. Three-fourths of megas planned to hire new staff members in the coming year.

Hardly any megas consider themselves “liberal.” The dominant identification is “evangelical” (71 percent of megas), followed by “pentecostal” (8 percent), “charismatic” (5 percent), “seeker” (5 percent), “missional” (4 percent), “moderate” (4 percent) and “fundamentalist” (1 percent). Underscoring their conservatism, three-fourths say they emphasize, for example, opposition to premarital sex. A tenth of megas have African-American majorities vs. only 2 percent that are predominantly Asian and 1 percent for Hispanics. By affiliation, 40 percent are “non-denominational” independents while 23 percent are either Southern Baptist or another type of Baptist.

The majority of megas report shortages in facilities and space. Nearly half hold services in more than one location and another 20 percent are considering such expansion. Besides multiple Sunday morning services, 48 percent have one or more Saturday night services and 41 percent have one or more Sunday night services. Though megas are closely associated with services featuring bands performing “contemporary Christian music,” 43 percent have choirs and 28 percent use an organ. Small groups are central to strategy for 82 percent of megas.

Virtually all megas give people cash assistance and offer financial counseling, 80 percent have feeding programs, and three-fourths engage in other community services. Contrary to the political stereotype, only 36 percent emphasize “voter education” or registration.

Megas are very thin on the ground in New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, more prominent in the Midwest, and strong in the South and West. Four states lack a single megachurch: Delaware, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont.]

Text of an HIRR – LN megachurch report:



About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • the Old Adam

    Our pastor calls megachurches, “churches for people who don’t want to go to church.”

    • John Kim

      sounds defensive

    • john

      Your pastor sounds, well, a bit jealous, not to mention lumping all megachurches into the same category which is intellectually lazy at best.

      • Richard Ostling

        Hmm. The Guy’s own pastor has nothing to do with the contents of Religion Q and A. All the guilt shame and intellectual laziness is The Guy’s alone.

        • John

          Apologies Mr. Ostling if you thought my comments were directed to you. Rather they were directed to Old Adam’s comments he relayed from his pastor. It amazes and amuses me when people try to lump all mega’s together as one homogenous type church. While there are some characteristics that many share as you have so well shared here there are still many inherent differences. Some are superficial, some do teach “prosperity” garbage, some are more entertaining than substance but to even pretend to lump them all together is silly and as I said previously, intellectually lazy and dishonest. I also have found many who make such statements have been to very few, if any mega churches. In my travels I have been to many f the largest and I disagree with these oversimplified accusations. And I come from a very conservative Calvinistic upbringing.

  • william

    There are bigger churches than ever, but aren’t there also less people going to church than ever? My wife likes the megachurch experience but I can do without the rock concert and smoke machine ambiance.

  • James Cherry

    Megachurches strike me as consolidation, not growth per se. Megas offer resources that smaller churches cannot provide. They tend towards conservativism because people who want the bells and wistles megas offer are looking for an alternative to mainstream American society that they consider to be too libera and secular – the mega is part of an all-encompasing Christian lifestyle, offering more than Sunday morning church and sunday school. Liberal churches don’t have this appeal, because their membership is much more open to secular society, so don’t need or want Christian alternatives for everything from private schools to childcare to sporting events to coffee bars, the sort of amenities that megas offer.

  • Theodore Seeber

    Mega churches are about entertainment and pooling of resources. The theology they offer is equally superficial, and is concentrated on music, tithing, and the pyramid scheme of the prosperity gospel.

  • FW Ken

    John is correct. If you compare Mars Hill, Seattle, Willow Park (one of the Chicago suburbs, I think), and Lakewood Church, Houston, you will find the common denominator to be size.

    Actually, it would be interesting to compare Lakewood today and 40 years ago.

  • numenian

    Looking at the checkered history of Christianity and the present day nearly all-consuming absorption with politics (worldliness) of the Church, I am forced to believe these mega-churches are pablum and a detriment to faith. What was it, a billion, a billion and a half Christians that willing supported dictatorships and fascism and all manner of evil to fight a world war–twice! How many voices do we have in Christianity that objected, that spoke as Christ was in the world?

    Christianity is radically different than conventional wisdom and contrary to worldly values. Or rather it should be. Fit, be a pillar of society, get along, be accepted by your fellow citizens. Everyday should be a great challenge to walk as Christ. If you aren’t seen as a fool by the general public at least once a week (but hopefully each day), best re-examine your faith.

  • jdl

    FW Ken – I think you mean Willow Creek ;)

    Theodore Seeber – while certainly some Megas preach a brand of the prosperity gospel, it’s certainly false to say that all or even most of them do! Willow Creek and Mars Hill are 2 that I’m familiar with, and they are far from preaching the prosperity gospel.
    I would refer you to the “intellectual laziness” mentioned beforehand, in response to your statement that all megas offer the same theology.

    It seems to me that the phenomenon of megachurches was brought about in large part because of men such as Peter Drucker, who applied the principles of management to evangelical ecclesiology for better and/or worse. This makes sense with what James Cherry said regarding consolidation vs growth.

    Thanks to The Guy for this detailed analysis.

  • Richard Ostling

    You’re welcome, but most of the thanks go to the Hartford Institute and Leadership Network researchers