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Beyond Megachurch Myths

What we can learn from America's largest churches


Scott Thumma & Dave Travis

John Wiley & Sons, 2007, 224 pp., ISBN  978-0-7879-9467-9



Dr. Scott Thumma is a researcher in the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.  Dave Travis is executive vice president of Leadership Network.  This Leadership Network publication reports on the unique characteristics of megachurches and how they are changing the church landscape.   It is based on a wide range of sources and interviews, including substantive research, some of it in 2005. The book takes a series of myths and shows what is true and false about each one.  Each section also includes a small application section. 


A megachurch is defined as a congregation that averages at least 2000 attendees in weekend services.  There are no 'typical' megachurches.  They are diverse.  Follow-up information about the book and a list of megachurches is available at (Introduction)


Chapter 1.  The Scale and Scope of Megachurches

Megachurch members combined make up the third largest religious group in the U.S.  In 2007, there were 1,250 megachurches (out of 335,000) in the U.S.  (1)


"We believe that megachurches, their practices, and their leaders are the most influential contemporary dynamic in American religion." (2) 


Although there are reasons for concern, American religion is thriving and as influential as ever.  About 40% of Americans say they have attended a religious service in the past 7 days.  Researchers indicate about 20 % of the adult population attend church sometime in any given week. (4)


The largest 1 percent of U.S. churches have at least 15 percent of the worshippers, finances, and staff in America. (6)  The authors expect the number of megachurches to increase at a rate of at least 50 new ones each year.  (6) 


Newly established congregations are most likely to grow.  "All too often, established congregations end up limiting their potential membership increase by retaining leadership or organizational models that do not work for growth…" (12)


"The religious message must have a relevance to everyday life and contemporary reality."  "People have to be able to hear their lives in the message and glean understanding that translates into wise actions throughout the week…  They want to learn about God and grow deeper in the faith.  They are at church to develop their spiritual lives." (16-7)


Chapter 2.  "All Megachurches are Alike"

Roughly 10 to 13 percent of megachurches are predominantly African American, another 2 percent have mostly Asian attendees, and approximately 2 percent are primarily Hispanic.  A large percentage have a significant multiracial constituency. (28)


Four distinctive streams of megachurches:

·       Old Line/Program-Based - including the big downtown traditionals

·       Seeker - suburban, post-Christian baby boomer style, influenced by business and marketing tactics and values

·       Charismatic/Pastor-Focused - follow the vision and passion of the founder, sponsor TV ministries and establish schools

·       New Wave/Re-Envisioned - often multisite and multileaders, high-tech, large under 35 age group  (31)


Chapter 3.  "That Church is Just Too Big!"

The churches of 10,000 or more get most of the media attention.  The reason these churches are so large is that so many people get their needs met in them. (46)  Surveys show that participants feel connected. (47) 


These churches structure multiple ways for people to interact and form social ties.  They organize into programs that address individual needs. (48) 


"Megachurches assume that people in this society do not know each other, nor will they make the effort if left on their own.  They also assume that contemporary individuals do not interact unless forced to and will tend to remain relative strangers to those they meet.  People desire the intimacy of small groups but will seldom seek it out." (49) 


"Essentially, each individual and family can create their own custom experience in the congregation.  They can participate in this place on their own terms." (50)  Many are opting for multiple, smaller campuses. (52)


Chapter 4.  "Megachurches are cults of personality"

Some popular pastors are media celebrities, but there are few.  (56)  In some churches, "the pastor can become the visible symbol of and a potent 'brand name' for the church." (57)  "The pastor is the center of the staff and the energy hub around which the congregation revolves." (57)


"These pastors are visionary leaders who are often passionate about evangelism.  They are also practical communicators.  They are creative and inquisitive persons who are willing to take risks and make mistakes as they manage the organization and also spiritually lead the congregation." (62)  A majority have a strong passion for reaching the unchurched.  This can be seen throughout the leadership and in every ministry. (64) 


A key marker for smooth succession in leadership is the departing "senior pastor's willingness to give up power, status, and a prominent public role within the worship life of the church." (75)


Chapter 5.  "These churches are only concerned about themselves and the needs of their attendees."

Rapidly growing churches face three immediate problems, how to mature hundreds of inexperienced Christians, where to put them, and how to address the pressing personal needs of all these people. (78)  "All congregations must address their internal needs, but this also has to be balanced with a reciprocal external, contextual focus….  It has taken time for the megachurches to learn this balance." (79)


"Missionary activity is no longer just about saving souls, but also about meeting physical, education, and economic needs.  This revised mission agenda is changing not just how megachurches approach social ministry, but also how the entire evangelical Christian world undertakes mission activity." (79)


Churches have begun to partner with groups such as Habitat for Humanity and local women's shelters.  They are also conducting improvement projects in public facilities, refurbishing centers that serve the poor, conducting health screenings in targeted neighborhoods and similar ministries. (80) "A number of recent megachurches have fully embraced a vision of social ministry to the city as one of their key organizing principles." (84)


Many megachurches partner with their denomination mission efforts.  They generally give a smaller percentage but a larger dollar amount than most other churches.  (85)


"Our experiences in the everyday activities of many of these churches indicate that far more social ministry is accomplished in small group and person-to-person acts than by the churches' intentional efforts."  "The most vital outreach…happens through their efforts to broaden attendees' understanding that a mature Christian walk includes outreach to other people." (86)


"In our experience, megachurches are adept at tying hands-on involvement to greater financial support for causes, whether locally or in distant lands.  These churches create small local projects that individuals or the entire congregation can adopt and feel a part of, and where the results of these actions can be seen.  Then, after doing many of these smaller projects, the church will tackle larger and more demanding distant ministries." (88) 


"We would also encourage the structuring of regular externally focused projects as a part of the small groups within the church.'  (89) 


Chapter 6.  "Megachurches water down the faith."

"Most megachurches present a serious, high-commitment Christian message." (98)  They present the Gospel in a culturally sensitive and relevant way. (100) 


"The experience is more like wading into the shallow end of a pool and gradually getting into deeper water than it is always demanding that people jump into the deep end in order to learn how to swim." (115)


Chapter 7.  "These churches are bad for other churches."

Megachurches have become resources and ministries to other churches and pastors in their communities.  They have developed teaching networks and alternative training institutions. 


Chapter 8.  "These churches are full of people of the same race, class, and political preferences."

Some types are largely homogeneous but many others are much more diverse.  More diversified programs attract more particular subgroups.  Many have an inclusivist vision that the church is for all people, regardless of race or socioeconomic group. 


Chapter 9.  "Megachurches grow because of the show."

They say, it's the Sunday 'show' that draws people.  "Most preachers and pastors seek meaningful ways to engage the attendees."  But the elaborateness draws criticism.  Megachurch leaders see their services as "joyful, exciting, inspirational, and thought-provoking."   About half the surveyed attendees say something related to the worship style drew them to the church.  Many perceive the worship as "high quality, inviting, and user-friendly." (154) 


But worship is only one key to growth.  Outreach and evangelism are also key factors.  (156)  An important part is how a church contacts its visitors after they attend a service. (157)  "Much larger percentages of megachurches contacted first-time visitors by passive means such as mail, phone, and e-mail than did all the congregations in the FACT 2005 study."  Another significant effort is the evangelistic activity of the congregation participants. (157) 


"…attendees feel optimistic about the church's future because it is growing and successful, and their spiritual lives are fulfilling as they learn and act out their faith in ministry."  "They are highly motivated to engage in active recruitment out an intrinsic desire to express this excitement and satisfaction." (158)


"The megachurches excel at creating the structures and programs that help new people become incorporated into the church rather than drift away…."  "They make more effort to get a wide variety of people involved in the life of the church." (160)  They are "led by senior pastors who have a personal passion, desire, and call to evangelism." (161)  "This emphasis on evangelism flows through the senior pastor to staff and to the attendees.  But in our view, this passionate person-to-person evangelistic emphasis is one of the most important factors in megachurch growth." (161)


Chapter 10.  "The megachurch movement is dying--young people hate these churches."

The number of megachurches is increasing.  The movement is adapting to reach new generations and devise new forms of ministry for the future.  (169) 


There is also an explosion of New Wave or Re-Envisioned megachurches.  There are some qualitative differences in the Emergent movement but these are bound to change as this cohort begins to have children and family issues.  (174) 


Two key issues in reaching younger generations: retaining our children and reaching the unchurched.  Smaller churches stress the former and emerging churches stress the latter. (179)


Chapter 11.  What might the future hold?

"Part of their success has been their ability to read and adapt to the changing patterns and cultural needs of contemporary society.  This is the genius of megachurches." (183)


There are signs that megachurches are moving to become simpler.  (183)  They are trying to become multi-racial, "designing their approaches to reach the broadest range of residents in their community." (184)  Multi-site churches and the use of new technology will grow. 


Challenges include the availability of land for expansion, the continuation of tax-exempt status for congregations with much land and programs that provide income, and leadership succession as founding pastors age. (187)


"Our hunch is that megachurches will still clearly be at the center of American Christianity for another decade or two." (190) 



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