Recent reports on the megachurch phenomenon reveal some interesting trends. For starters, a megachurch has been defined, for several years now, as a congregation of 2,000 or more attenders in regular Sunday (in some cases also Saturday) worship settings. But during this rise of interest in such churches no one has paid much attention at all to the fact that there are scores of Roman Catholic churches that draw more than 2,000 to mass and never get listed by those who study megachurches. This, in itself, underscores that much of the interest in the so-called megachurch is more about fundamentalist/evangelical marketing (and mission) than about a profound search for what truly makes large churches different, and more or less effective in mission.
Second, evangelical megachurches are led by large personalities, in virtually every case. These churches are pastor-centered and work like corporations led by CEO’s. The campus of a megachurch may include job training, singles groups, classes in auto repair, tennis courts, rock-climbing walls, martial-arts classes, and gourmet coffee bars. Several even have a MacDonald’s restaurant! Critics should note that churches that offer such services are not wrong in this approach, per se, since all of life is to be impacted by the gospel of Christ. The danger, of course, is that the church conceives of ministry simply in terms of what the market wants or seeks and then responds to market trends.
Third, these churches are essentially non-denominational, with the exception that quite a few are Southern Baptist. (These SBC mega-churches are like mini-denominations in themselves and thus are not typical SBC congregations in many ways.) The loyalty that results from this trend is more to a style or form of congregation, not to a polity or a distinctly Protestant doctrinal standard.
Fourth, those who attend these churches are relatively young and economically diverse. They average 38 years of age and are 60% women. Though most megachurches are predominately white Joel Osteen’s church (Houston, Texas) is setting a new trend, so it seems, being 40% Caucasian, 30% African-American and 30% Hispanic.
Fifth, anonymity in these large churches is both a draw and a drawback. Many mega-churches are now seeking to utilize small group ministries to overcome the downside. Time will tell if this effort will make a real difference.
Meanwhile, traditional non-megachurches are anything but dead. It still seems that churches in the 200-500 range, and churches with growing interest in community and liturgy, are very healthy and quite likely to remain effective congregations for ministry and mission for a long time. One thing we know for sure, the megachurch, whatever it is, will never be the only form of church life in America, even if the numbers of such churches keeps growing at a steady pace. Personally, I think there is a ceiling for the number of megachurches and we have not reached it yet. I can’t prove this, of course, but it is an educated hunch.