loren Eric Swanson: MEGACHURCHES TODAY 2005

Friday, February 03, 2006


At 7 am Eastern Time this morning Leadership Network released the much anticipated Megachurches Today 2005. The full report can be downloaded by going to http://hirr.hartsem.edu/

Eleven Misconceptions Explored**
As the introduction to this report noted, one goal of the Megachurches Today 2005 research is challenge stereotypes that may be inaccurate or inappropriate. The Megachurches Today 2005 survey instrument is based on descriptive questions and statements (see below for more details on the survey itself). However, the research findings readily lend themselves to challenging various false impressions as to what megachurches are like and how they function. The following material explores 11 of those misconceptions.
MYTH #1: All megachurches are alike.
FACT: They differ in growth rates, size and the things they emphasize.
MYTH #2: All megachurches are equally good at being big.
FACT: Some megachurches clearly understand how to function as a large institution but others flounder noticeably at being big -- and some even struggle and decline.
MYTH #3: There is an over-emphasis of money in all the megachurches.
FACT: Our data doesn’t show this. Rather it is often a low priority, except when engaged in a building or capital campaign. At the same time, most don’t shy away from occasional sermons about putting God first in individual financial priorities and preaching on tithing.
MYTH #4: Megachurches are just spectator worship and are not serious about Christianity.
FACT: Our data shows that most megachurches demand a lot; they have high spiritual expectations and serious orthodox beliefs and preaching.
MYTH #5: These large churches only care about themselves and are not seriously involved in outreach and social ministry.
FACT: Considerable ministry is going on at the megachurches from solitary outreach to the local communities, joining with other churches in an area to tackle problems, as well as contributing to efforts nationally (say in New Orleans) and internationally (such as ministry to persons with AIDS in Africa)
MYTH #6: All megachurches are major political players and pawns or powerbrokers to the Republican Party or George Bush.
FACT: A vast majority of megachurches surveyed said they are not politically active. This parallels survey data on smaller churches, most churches have an internalized separation of church and state. A few megachurches and their pastors are vocally politically active but not most, not even a majority.
MYTH #7: All megachurches have huge sanctuaries and enormous campuses.
FACT: Megachurches show widespread use of multiple worship services over several days, multiple venues, and even multiple campuses. Mega refers to attendance, not building size.
MYTH #8: All megachurches are nondenominational.
FACT: While many megachurches are nondenominational and most others often act like it, the vast majority belongs to some denomination.
MYTH #9: All megachurches are homogeneous congregations with little diversity.
FACT: A large and growing number of megachurches are multi-ethnic and are intentionally so. Likewise, many of them have considerable diversity in terms of class, education levels, income, ages, backgrounds, occupations, and even theological and political styles.
MYTH #10: Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming.
FACT: Megachurches grow because excited attendees tell their friends. They may be encouraged and helped to do so by church leadership but it is not what megachurches “do” in terms of evangelistic programs, neighborhood surveys, etc. that makes them grow. The survey did not show any significant correlations between the programmatic items and the increased rates of growth in the fastest growing ones.
MYTH #11: The megachurch phenomenon is over and on the decline because it was just a Baby Boomer phenomenon. Gen Xers and Millennials aren’t interested in megachurches.
FACT: The increased numbers of megachurches we found is shocking, and it seems there are many more on the way. We see no indication of this trend slowing. Others have pointed out that the biggest churches in all denominations are getting bigger over time, since the 70s. Likewise, the idea that youth don’t find megachurches appealing could not be further from the truth. While the megachurch phenomenon exploded with the Baby Boom, it was around before them and will be after them. Many of the fastest growing, largest and newest megachurches are full of people under 35 years old. Not all youth like megachurches, but then neither do all Baby Boomers.
** These and other myths will be explored in greater detail in Scott Thumma’s upcoming book on megachurches.

Conclusions: What Does All This Mean?
These findings of the Megachurches Today 2005 project clearly indicate that not all megachurches are alike. It is a mistake to assume that all these very large churches are monolithic and function in a similar fashion. While they do have many characteristics in common (often they have more in common with each other than they do with smaller churches), they are not all identical. The above information points to several variables such as founding data and size that affect the functioning and dynamics of the megachurches. It is likely that after additional analysis other variables such as denominational affiliation, region, and dominant race of the congregation will also be shown to have an effect on their functioning.
Second, while there is some overlap among the groupings of most recent, fastest growing and largest churches, the patterns in the data discussed above are consistent across founding periods, all growth rates and different sizes of megachurches. Therefore, the characteristics that repeated in this analysis such as adaptation to change, sense of being spiritually vital, having a clear mission as well as youthfulness of the congregation and the use of electric guitars and drums, and the rates at which members tell others about the church are significant variables in terms of growth and health of the churches.
Third, these findings indicate that much more research of a nuanced and careful nature should be done if we are to accurately understand the dynamics of these largest and influential congregations.
There are many misconceptions about megachurches, inaccuracies that this research and the activities of the sponsoring organizations hope to dispel. As explained in appendix C, our two organizations have teamed up to do this research project because we are eager to provide correct and accurate information about megachurches in the United States. Churches large and small have much to gain from a comprehensive national picture of large churches throughout the country.

If you have questions, please direct them to:
Scott Thumma Dave Travis and Warren Bird Hartford Institute for Religion Research Leadership Network Hartford Seminary 77 Sherman St. 2501 Cedar Springs, Suite 200 Hartford, CT 06105 Dallas, Texas 75200
sthumma@hartsem.edu Warren.Bird@leadnet.org Dave.Travis@leadnet.org


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