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Megachurch Definition

The term megachurch generally refers to any Protestant (see below regarding very large Catholic churches) congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2000 persons or more in its worship services. 

Most discussions of megachurches focus on very large Protestant Christian congregations in the United States - of which there are roughly 1600 presently.

Likewise, there are significant numbers of megachurches throughout the world, especially in Korea, Brazil, and several African countries, although no exact count exists for this worldwide phenomenon.  Visit the non-USA megachurch list. The largest megachurch in America averages 45,000 in attendance; however, one church in Korea claims over 250,000 attenders. 

Although very large congregations have existed throughout Christian history, there has been a rapid proliferation of churches with massive attendance since the decade of the 1970's.  As such, some researchers suggest that this church form is a unique collective response to distinctive cultural shifts and changes in societal patterns throughout the industrialized, urban and suburban areas of the world. 

While size is the most immediately apparent characteristic of these congregations, the Protestant megachurches in the United States generally share many other traits. Virtually all these megachurches have a conservative theology, even those within mainline denominations.  A large number are nondenominational but the majority are affiliated with a denomination. The groups in the table below account for 80% of all megachurches.

Nondenominational 40%
Southern Baptist 16%
Baptist, unspecified 7%
Assemblies of God 6%
Christian 5%
Calvary Chapel 4%
United Methodist 2%

In terms of theology of the congregation, the label that 336 megachurches, surveyed in 2011, selected to best fit their membership's orientation were as follows:

Evangelical 71%
Pentecostal 8%
Charismatic 5%
Seeker 5%
Missional 4%
Moderate 4%
Fundamentalist 1%
Other 1%


The majority of megachurches (over seventy percent) are located in the southern Sunbelt of the United States - with California, Texas, Florida and Georgia having the highest concentrations.  

Most megachurches are located in suburban areas of rapidly growing sprawl cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Orlando, Phoenix and Seattle.  A number of these large churches occupy prominent land tracts of 50 to 100 acres near major traffic thoroughfares.  

Generally, these congregations have significant parking lots and sanctuaries that are able to accommodate the large numbers of worshipers they attract.  The average megachurch has weekly attendance of 3943 persons.

Megachurches tend to grow to their great size within a very short period of time, usually in less than ten years, and under the tenure of a single senior pastor. Nearly all megachurch pastors are male, and are viewed as having considerable personal charisma. 

The senior minister often has an authoritative style of preaching and administration and is nearly always the singular dominant leader of the church.  Supporting these senior pastors are teams of 5 to 25 associate ministers, and often hundreds of full-time staff.  

The 406 megachurches surveyed in 2005 averaged 20 full time paid ministerial staff persons, and 22 full time paid program staff persons.  The average number of volunteer workers (giving 5 or more hours a week to the church) was 284.

Megachurches host a multitude of social, recreational, and aid ministries.  Likewise, a majority of megachurches employ intentional efforts at enhancing congregational community, such as home fellowships and interest-based small group meetings.  Contrary to expectations, these congregations promote intense personal commitment in a majority of their members but also contain a large percentage of anonymous spectators in their ranks.

Few megachurches have been exceptionally large for longer than the tenure of their current minister.  Evidence suggests, however, that these churches can remain vital following a shift in leadership from the founder to his successor.  Although some researchers argue the era of megachurch proliferation is drawing to a close, the total number has increased from 350 in 1990 to over 600 in 2000 and there are now nearly 1600 megachurches in the US.  It seems clear that reports of the demise of the megachurch are greatly exaggerated.

To see a more extensive description of the megachurch phenomena read the book Beyond Megachurch Myths by Scott Thumma and Dave Travis. You might also want to read "A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States," "Megachurches Today 2008 - Changes in American Megachurches," "Megachurches Today 2005" research summary or examine the survey data collected from a study of 153 megachurches in 2000. Additionally Scott Thumma's Exploring the Megachurch Phenomenon: their characteristics and cultural context offers a general introduction to the phenomenon.

Very Large Catholic Churches - why aren't they megachurches?

At this time the Institute only focuses its research on Protestant megachurches.

There are many very large catholic churches and if we extended our interest in megachurches from just the Protestant megachurches to very large Catholic congregations with attendance over 2000 on average weekly we would add roughly 3000 additional Catholic churches to the 1200 or so that are over 2000 in attendance. 

There are several reasons we have chosen not to include Catholic churches: 

First, we do not solely use the 2000 in attendance figure as the only characteristic to define a mega - rather it is a host of characteristics that create a distinctive worship style and congregational dynamic.  Our studies and readings of worship and the congregational life of Catholic Churches has not convinced us that most very large catholic churches really function like the Protestant megachurches.  There are a few that we have come across that do, but most don't have strong charismatic senior ministers, many associate pastors, large staff, robust congregational identity that empowers 100's to 1000's of weekly volunteers, an identity that draws people from a very large area (sometimes an hour or more) and across parish boundaries, a multitude of programs and ministries organized and maintained by members, high levels of commitment and giving by members, seven-day-a-week activities at the church, contemporary worship, state of the art sound and projection systems, auxiliary support systems such as bookstores, coffee shops, etc. huge campuses of 30-100 acres, and other common megachurch characteristics.
 
The US Congregations Study (large national study from a few years ago) had a number of very large catholic churches in it and when compared to the few protestant megachurches in that study - the results looked very different... they don't seem to have the same internal dynamics at all.
 
Second, when we did try to get lists of churches with attendance figures from many dioceses to confirm attendance numbers, we met with no success. 
 
Third, Scott Thumma, the person researching megachurches at the Institute, is not an expert on Catholicism so he has avoided including them in his work. Therefore, the discussion of the Megachurch phenomenon thus far on this site has been limited to Protestant churches.
 

Click to buy the book

If you are interested in megachurches, you might find this 2007 book
co-authored by Hartford Institute professor, Scott Thumma, interesting.

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