Megachurch Misinformation
Mega or missional? The stats say both are doing well.

There are no studies that compare "seeker sensitive" megachurches to small "missional" churches, but I think Dan Kimball is right to question the self-described "missional" advocate who declares that "younger people in the city will not be drawn to larger, attractional churches dominated by preaching and music."

The evidence shows that more and more people are attending large churches. Duke sociologist Mark Chaves writes, "In every denomination on which we have data, people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches, and this is true for small and large denominations, for conservative and liberal denominations, for growing and declining denominations. This trend began rather abruptly in the 1970s, with no sign of tapering off."

Furthermore, the 1,250 megachurches in the US in 2007 show remarkable strength across a range of indicators, according to Hartford Seminary sociologist Scott Thumma and Dave Travis's Beyond Megachurch Myths. Thumma and Travis take seriously the stereotypes of megachurches as impersonal, selfish, shallow, homogenous, individualistic and dying but they do not find the accusations match the data.

Even Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark's What Americans Really Believe lauds the strengths of megachurches as compared to small churches. "Those who belong to megachurches display as high a level of personal commitment as do those who attend small congregations" (p.48). This is significant because some of Stark's earlier work claimed growth dilutes commitment. In 2000, he declared, "Congregational size is inversely related to the average level of member commitment . . . In all instances, rates of participation decline with congregational size, and the sharpest declines occur when congregations exceed 50 members."

Furthermore, the Willow Creek Reveal (2007) and Follow Me (2008) books, which some were led to believe denounced the seeker megachurch model, provide zero data about how different sizes of churches fared on their surveys. We have no idea whether small or large churches like Willow report more or less "stalled" or "dissatisfied" people than others.

But megachurches are not the only ones thriving. Many new churches are being planted, and many of those would describe themselves as having a "missional" mindset. David Olson reports that in the fourteen diverse denominations he studied, all the denominations that were growing were planting lots of churches; specifically all those denominations planting at least one new church per year for every one hundred existing churches continued to grow. The denominations also range between a 52 and 88 percent survival rate in new churches. First year attendance ranges between 44 and 145 (Olson, 149). In 13 out of 14 denominations, new churches are growing steadily (Olson, 150). The point is that though megachurches are continuing to thrive, new churches (often "missional") are also a very effective part of the American church.

December 04, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 21 comments

Jo Ellen

December 19, 2008  10:16am

I've been attending a growing, soon-to-be megachurch. I grew up in a 200+ Lutheran church. I've seen both sides of the coin and its time ALL congregations focus on the basics of salvation: Our identity as individuals is in Christ The new covenant with a holy loving Father Empowerment of the Holy Spirit to live in the world but not of it When these 'concepts' become alive within us–as individuals–the church we attend is important but not defining. When church leadership does all they can to introduce non-believers to their Savior and grow their congregation into these truths, the style/structure of the church is practically irrelevant. The person in the pew, whether mature or unsaved, could care less about the structure. The cry of their heart–even when they don't know it–is to be one with their Creator and live a life of significance. When there's a fire, you don't need to advertise it. While I love debate, dissecting, critiquing, etc., the best way to spend our time is in maintaining the flame of our own intimacy/devotion to our Lord, fanning it in other believers and sparking it in non-believers.

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Andrew Whalen

December 06, 2008  2:17pm

Andy, Great write up. How do satellite churches fit into this conversation? Many are part of a megachurch and benefit from the support staff/initial finding to really take off. They even serve a purpose to revive a nearby community that needs a strong presence.

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December 06, 2008  11:24am

Are y'all in a competition?

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December 05, 2008  4:29pm

Andy- Thanks for not just the article, but the continued conversation. It's a great one. Mark Riddle- Good to see you here! Loved the YM connection. Tim- You kicked my butt with your post. It's good stuff, and something we can't (or shouldn't) avoid. By the grace of G_d, may we get some of this right.

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December 05, 2008  4:17pm

As far as the question of "Mega or missional" goes, the answer to me is "yes." Both are equally viable and effective and both ought to be able to coexist. And honestly, I would hazard a guess that most "mega" churches are just fine with "missional" churches, as long as they continue to preach the gospel and Scripture accurately. The issue I see (and I'm only picking on Tim because his comment spurred mine) is that the majority of missional-types that I've come across have an attitude (consciously or subconsciously) that "missional is the only way to do church and we're out to tear down the megachurch because the megachurch is bad." They grouse about how megachurches focus on numbers and spending money, and they drop in their little bit of false humility to go with their snide comments. My point being, if you're in a missional church and your faith is thriving and you're being an effective witness for Christ in your sphere of influence, praise God. But don't take this attitude that your way is the only way of creating disciples or doing church or expressing your faith. That attitude, I would posit, will do more to hamstring the Church in this generation than any of the windmills we will face in the coming years. God uses the Church in many ways, let's not limit Him to one.

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Andy Rowell

December 05, 2008  9:09am

Tim is right that the subtitle of the piece "both are doing well" is problematic. Does any of us missional or mega think that we have nothing to improve? I should not have said it that way. Better would have been: Mega or missional? The stats say that both megachurches and new church plants have growing attendance and seem to exhibit relatively strong quality based on poll results as compared to average smaller churches and longer established churches. He is also right that church leaders are responsible to be good stewards of the resources that they have been given including funds. This is a sober calling. I think of Paul's comments in 2 Cor 8:20-21, "We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of others." I also think Tim is right in his zeal to see Christians truly following Jesus in the way they live their lives. He rightly points out that sermons are not enough to form people in Christ-like living. Thus, Tim ably points out some of the most profound questions which dog every pastor I know: (1) How do we leverage the resources both human and financial so that more and better disciples are formed; how do we best "equip the saints for works of ministry" Eph 4:12? It is wrong to waste people's time and to waste people's money, which is of course really God's. (2) How do we facilitate the teaching, prophecy, preaching, dialogues, study and relationships of church for the effective development of more and better disciples of Jesus? In the post I recommending churches do a survey to test whether we are being as effective as we hope to be. Ask some question you are curious about so that your church can continue to try to improve. I don't mean to say that this is all human effort. Paul again, we "press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of" us (Philippians 3:12). God is already at work by his Spirit in our midst. Again, the "missional" and "megachurch" leaders I know are daily focused on these questions because they feel called by God to do all they can to be good stewards and to develop more and better disciples of Jesus.

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scott in vegas

December 04, 2008  11:42pm

Andy - ...i totally agree, and as a pastor, first in a cell church, then of a traditional church, and now of a house church network...ALL the structures are absolutely valid, ...but the structures house the life, not create it. Anyone who either leans on a structure for success or uses it as an excuse as to why their walk with God and ministry aren't working is missing it. If God can speak through a donkey, then I'm not sure that structure matters as much as we think. And to get caught on structure, from either the small-relational or large-production, and all things in between, does not serve the purpose of leading people to Jesus and equipping them to do the same. Form follows function, but we aren't functioning, so why talk about form? In fact, the on-going structure discussion/argument seems to be putting the cart before the horse, particularly when we plant churches and license pastors who can run a business but can't lead a person to Jesus outside the four walls of the church...simple evangelism and basic discipleship...and yet we talk about structure? Structure of the local church fails to matter if it doesn't house actual spiritual life. If there IS life that reproduces life, then you could meet in barn or a theater or have light production, or no stage, or a big stage, and it would be good...if there is no life, then you could produce and polish and meet in Madison Square Garden or meet in a pub or in a house with all the candles and potlucks and coffee you'd like and it wouldn't bring life. again...just banter by a guy who can barely walk and chew gum, so i would seriously question most of what i write...

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The Walk

December 04, 2008  10:29pm

I think we need to do both models to an extent–be missional by reaching out to those outside of our walls, while also reaching out to seekers within our own churches. At the same time, we need to remember that our ultimate goal isn't to bring people to church but to equip people to Be the Church wherever they are at, whether it's working at a daycare center or at a large company. Church is a place for us to reach out to those both inside and outside of the Church.

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Casey Taylor

December 04, 2008  8:51pm

Just a thought after reading Ericpo's initial comment. I've NEVER heard of "homechurch" before. I assume this is supposed to be something like homeschooling but have no idea - theologically or practically - what that means. His comments reveal a striking attitude I find in many parents, even the ones who describe themselves as "mature" in the faith. There's an expectation that the Church - i.e. Christians beyond myself - should rear my kids in faith. That may be a shared responsibility, but the primary responsibility lies with parents. So I guess "homechurch" is a somewhat accurate description of what parents should do.. Off topic but interesting...

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December 04, 2008  6:59pm

Both Mega and Missional are doing well? 1. Is consuming 75 - 85% of the giving to buy services for the "givers" doing well? Both large and small churches that require hired experts and special buildings for crowd oriented gathering demand this sort of pooling instead of real giving where all the "giving" goes beyond the giver. This shift requires rediscovering the power of Paul's teaching on "refusing the right to be paid". 2. Is being perpetually dependent upon getting a professional driven Bible lecture in order to "grow up" a sign of doing well? A large percentage of men who have heard 500 or 1000 professional sermons do not perceive themselves as being able to reproduce what they have heard. Jesus teaching that "A student is not above his teacher but when he is fully trained he will be like him" is rendered meaningless. These men in no way consider themselves to be "like" their "teacher". When "their teacher" leaves to go somewhere else, they need to hire another one to do exactly what he did. Nothing has been "entrusted" to them so they can "teach others also". Perpetual dependency feels okay and brings in money but it is not "doing well". Is it "doing well" or "missional" when 3 times more money is funding delivering a professionally prepared Bible lecture to saints who have heard 500 or 1000 sermons already than to bring the gospel to those who have not even heard it once? Tradition is addicting specially when it brings in a pay check for some and brings a measure of passivity and outsourcing of responsibility to the rest. God's grace can still save and build the saints, but when full obedience to what He has asked is ignored, then the wood, hay and stubble will be burned up. It is very easy to congratulate ourselves based on comparing ourselves with ourselves, rather than with God's Word. I'm just a messenger promoting growing beyond what men masquerade as "doing well".

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