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Big Churches Getting Bigger

While megachurches continue to experience mega-growth, the question emerges: Just how are they growing? While there may be no one "formula" for growing a megachurch, there are some clear and observable patterns and trends to their growth.
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According to Warren Bird of Leadership Network, the term megachurch was coined the week of Easter 1983 when the Miami Herald described the 12,000 people anticipated to attend the multiple weekend services at the 3,400-seat Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. In a short time, other newspapers and magazines adopted the term megachurch and it stuck.

Although the megachurch growth explosion is more of a recent phenomenon, the earliest megachurch appears to have been built in 1876, the Moody Church of Chicago, named for famed evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. This sanctuary could hold 10,000 people and was filled frequently before Moody's death in 1899.

Not only are megachurches growing individually in numbers; the combined number of them in America is growing as well. According to Outreach Magazine, they have grown from 150 in 1980, 350 of them in 1990, 600 in 2000 to approximately 1600 of them today. An astounding 50 percent of everyone who attends church on a Sunday does so in one of the largest 10% of churches. The latest research by The Hartford Institute and Leadership Network reports that "the stated average attendance for these churches grew from 2,604 in 2005 to 3,597 in 2010." Bottom line: big churches are getting even bigger.

So pervasive are these churches that in Forbe's Magazine (1998) business expert Peter Drucker wrote that "the pastoral megachurches that have been growing so very fast in the U.S. since 1980 ... are surely the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years." The largest megachurch in the United States today is Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, with 40,000 weekend attenders. Globally, the largest one is over 20 times that size and is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, with over 900,000 attenders.

In their book on megachurches, Thumma and Travis write that "megachurches, their practices, and their leaders are the most influential contemporary dynamic in American religion"; quite a claim. They go on to say that this influence has now superseded that of denominations, seminaries, and religious publishing. These older and established institutions are, no doubt, wrestling today with these new realities.

Whether or not these claims are overstated, the influence of megachurches undoubtedly continues to grow. Among the evangelical church world today, these megachurches are the prime influencers of leadership development, worship styles, and ministry innovation. The pastors who lead them are writing the books most pastors are reading and keynoting the conferences most of them are attending.

While megachurches continue to experience mega-growth, the question emerges: Just how are they growing? While there may be no one "formula" for growing a megachurch, there are some clear and observable patterns and trends to their growth.

A trend is "a prevailing course or general tendency." So, what are some of the trends characterizing the growth of these megachurches today? What are some of the key practices they are embracing? What challenges are they facing and engaging the most? What are some Megachurch Megatrends? There are several. Here are a few of them:

Megatrend #1: Finding the Bigger Story.

The overwhelming popularity of movies, novels and television series reveal that people are desperate to find a story with which to relate and in which to live out their "stories". Megachurches are finding ways to reframe themselves within stories.

The Kingdom of God is the Grand Narrative Jesus came to teach and call us into. Tony Evans and many other megachurch pastors are catching the brilliant tool that preaching and teaching the Kingdom of God can be today. They are finding the Bigger Story and teaching it to their big churches with big results.

Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, a church of 10,000, says, "With life becoming more complex and fractionalized with so many choices and voices, we long for a metanarrative in which the different components [of our lives] can fit and make sense. We also want a sense of belonging to a large group. That belonging satisfies us emotionally and gives us a sense of empowerment. The large church movement that has such a high level of impact and so many areas of expertise complements the smaller relational groups which nurture us in personal ways."

An overwhelming number of those who attend megachurches when surveyed noted a high level of satisfaction in several key areas of vitality. In a groundbreaking study done by Warren Bird and Scott Thuma along with the Hartford Institute, 98 percent of megachurch attenders say their congregation is "vital and spiritually alive," 98 percent say they have "strong beliefs and values," 95 percent say their "mission is clear," and 93 percent say they are willing to change to face new challenges. For these apparently being a part of the bigger story is providing a place for them to discover the significance of their own smaller stories of faith.

Megatrend #2: Mega and Missional.

Megachurches are finding ways not only to gather for worship, but also to scatter for service to others. Whereas more traditional models of the church were sometimes based on the centrality of the corporate gathering as the hallmark of growing churches, mobilization for ministry is fast gaining steam. While the call of older models were sometimes, "Come and see", today's more missional strategies have changed the call to "Come and go".

No doubt, most megachurches are also characterized by vibrant and enthusiastic expressions of worship. However, while some have ridiculed more charismatic forms of worship as "hype," "overly emotional," "just a high" or "slick," passion is undeniably a big part of the megachurch movement. But is their value in passion itself?

Rodney Stark, co-director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, sees a purpose to the passion at work in megachurch environments. He equates exuberance with missional engagement and told Christianity Today that "being 'stirred up' or 'high' are words that mean getting involved. The intention of a worship service is to ... get people stirred up, [but stirred up] about things that matter. Churches that never stir anyone up don't last long."

Megatrend #3: From Sanctuary to Living Room.

If walls could talk in churches, the grand cathedrals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would have said, "When you build, focus on what you can see above you." Newer megachurch structures, however, would say something quite different; more like, "When you build, focus on what you can feel around you." Hardback pews designed for attentive reverence have been traded out for theater seats designed for casual comfort. Formal traded for the informal. And, wearing your "Sunday best" for "casual attire."

One visitor to a megachurch describes their first perception this way: "When you walk in the doors [of the church], you are so taken out of church, [...] you lose the bigness because you don't feel like you're at church." This was the impression of one of the respondents to a study on megachurches carried out by the University of Washington. They went on to say, "You feel like you walked into someone's living room, you've walked into the mall, you've walked into whatever feels comfortable for you. [...] I mean [...] you walk in and your whole perception of walking into a church, a big church or a small church, is obliterated."

Megachurches today have also traded stained glass for video screens. Static visuals have been traded out for fluid ones. Yet, in some ways, aren't they similar?

When I served at a large church in Rochester, New York, several years ago, the sanctuary had two beautiful huge stained glass windows on the front wall to the right and left of the platform. They were stunning. One of the windows was of the reconnecting moment of the Prodigal Son and his Father; the other was of Jesus as the Good Shepherd surrounded by sheep. They too were story "screens", albeit static. It just may be that today's video screens serve as a new kind of moving stained glass that simply utilizes a newer art form: videography.

Read the full article by Robert Crosby at Outreach Magazine - "MegaChange: 10 Church Trends".