Sunday, February 05, 2006

Megachurch Myths Debunked

A new study conducted jointly by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and the Leadership Network shows that the number of "megachurches" (protestant churches with congregations of 2000+) has nearly DOUBLED in the last five years!

The surprises don't stop there.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

The study debunks many myths about supersized congregations. The vast majority, it turns out, are not politically active. Nor are they homogenous: On average, 19 percent of the congregation is a nonmajority group; 56 percent of churches are making efforts to be racially inclusive.

They are not mostly independent churches; two-thirds are affiliated with denominations. And they are part of a broader trend found in other research: a growing concentration of worshipers in the largest churches.

"Something is happening that is leading more and more people to shift from smaller to bigger congregations within all denominations, liberal and conservative," says Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona. His research shows, for example, that 15 percent of Southern Baptists attend the largest 1 percent of their churches.

What's the appeal of large churches? Commentators' favorite explanation has long been a baby-boomer desire for anonymity. People close to the scene say that may have been true 25 years ago, but not today. They see a cultural shift in which people are comfortable in big institutions. Yet most compelling, they suggest, is the expectation of quality.

"Today people demand quality, even if it's subconscious," says David Travis of Leadership Network, a church consultant group. "They find quality almost everywhere else in their lives and expect it in all venues - music, visuals, preaching, written communications."

The cost of running churches has increased, and it's increasingly difficult for small churches to deliver that level of quality, Dr. Chaves says.

The founder in 1992 of a new church that is now home to 3,000 members (70 percent formerly "unchurched") sees it a bit differently: "Churches don't get large by accident - there is an outreach of spirit, a heart for reaching people outside the church," says the Rev. James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C.

The Hartford study confirms that, while most megachurches have a range of evangelism programs, what most contributes to their growth is word-of-mouth, enthusiastic members reaching out to neighbors.

Megachurches are successful because they attract and retain more people over time. They have hospitality programs, hold orientation classes, encourage participation in fellowship groups or volunteer community service. In short, they make people feel at home.

What newcomers are after, Dr. White says, "is a sense of spirituality; they want the transcendent in their lives. And they are hungry for relationships, to be interactive as they carry on their search for God."

While many are seeking community, worship remains the central focus of the church, the study shows. It's also a myth that megachurches grow by offering "theology lite." The churches generally hold strong beliefs; have a clear mission and purpose; and have high expectations for scriptural study, prayer, and tithing.

For more news coverage on this story click here.

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