Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches - Scott Thumma and Dave Travis
A megachurch is defined as "a Protestant church that averages at least two thousand total attendees in their weekend services" (xviii). Currently, there are 1250 megachurches in the United States. This accounts for .5 percent of all the religious congregations in the nation. But this statistic is misleading. The influence of megachurches far exceeds their relatively small numbers. "If all the people who are members of megachurches were combined, they would be the third largest religious group in the United States. Their combined annual income is well over $7 billion" (1). Furthermore, "[t]he pastors of these churches wield tremendous power within their denominational groups, in the larger Christian world, and even in the public and political realms" (1). "Beyond the raw number and power of these churches, we believe that megachurches, their practices, and their leaders are the most influential contemporary dynamic in American religion. They have superseded formerly key influences such as denominations, seminaries, and religious presses and publishing" (2). In the authors' words, "There is nothing insignificant about the megachurch phenomenon" (1).
We should not be surprised at the success of megachurches: "After a week of working in a major corporation, shopping in a food warehouse and megamall, viewing movies at a multiplex theater, and having children who attend a regional high school, it seems incongruous that this family would feel comfortable in a forty-person church. So the force of cultural conditioning is on the side of megachurches" (15). We should not expect people to automatically "downsize" their expectations when it comes to religion. There is relatively little in our culture that suggests this is advantageous.
It is the large size of megachurches that makes them an interesting object of study. "The megachurch is more than just an ordinary church grown large. The size and approach of a megachurch alters its social dynamics and organizational characteristics, making it bear little resemblance to smaller, more traditional congregations" (2).
This book is set apart from others in that it deals with hard data. Its purpose is not to bash or affirm megachurches, but to invite all churches to "learn from megachurches in order to improve the health and effectiveness of their own ministries" (xxv).
In order to learn from megachurches we must put aside all the common myths that surround them. These myths include:
- "All megachurches are alike." This is not true. We should not paint all megachurches with the same brush: "The truth is that although there are many similarities across megachurches, there are also significant differences among them" (21).
- "Megachurches are too big." According to the data, megachurches do a consistently good job of integrating people into the life of the church through small groups, service, and other avenues.
- "Megachurches are cults of personality." Sometimes, the lead pastor is exalted to a larger-than-life status, but this is not always the case.
- "Megachurches water down the faith." On the contrary, megachurches generally call people to a high level of service and a deep level of faith. The fact that many are able to attend and test the waters without becoming committed is a strength of the megachurch, not a weakness.
- "Megachurches are full of people of the same race, class, and political preferences." Because they often draw from a wide geographic area, this is not the case. Megachurches generally possess more diversity than critics give them credit for.
- "Young people hate megachurches." Though a small group of vocal young people give this impression, the facts tell a different story. Megachurches are growing and a large segment consists of young people.
For me, the most helpful insight has to do with the common criticism that megachurches accommodate themselves to a consumer mentality. For a while, I have questioned this criticism. Thumma and Travis have given words to my thoughts. They write, "Megachurches take the desires, wishes, and interests of the individual seriously as a valid starting point for the whole of their ministry" (98). This focus on "felt needs" is harshly denounced by critics as appealing to a "consumer mentality." On the surface this criticism appears valid, until one recognizes that all churches - big and small - seek to recognize and meet the needs of attendees. Thumma and Travis rightly admit that "the effort to cater to the market interests of attendees can be seen in pastors of all sized churches. These clergy carefully consider their congregations' point of view and needs and work hard to craft interesting sermon titles and illustrations designed to pique a listener's interest. Likewise, leaders of churches of all sizes have always sought to and interesting. Megachurches do the same for their entire ministry. It becomes a matter of degree more than anything else" (98). The common complaint against a "consumer mentality" is empty, in my opinion. We all seek to influence others, to package our ideas in appealing and persuasive containers, to present the gospel message in ways suited to a contemporary audience.
So, if your experience of a megachurch was negative, refrain from painting all megachurches with one large brushstroke. The data reveals that the megachurch phenomenon is far more diverse and positive than its critics will admit.