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New Research Offers Portrait of Megachurch Attendees

For Immediate Release

HARTFORD, CT (June 9, 2009) — Who are the more than five million people who weekly attend megachurches around the country? What attracts and keeps them involved at these churches? How do their attitudes and spiritual activities compare to worshippers at churches of other sizes?

A just-released nationwide survey by Leadership Network (www.leadnet.org) and Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/) provides insight on these and other questions. It is the largest national representative study of megachurch attendees to date.

Conducted from January to August 2008, the National Survey of Megachurch Attenders is based on responses from 24,900 worshippers at 12 carefully selected megachurches across the United States.  Additional site visits, interviews, staff surveys and other data collection procedures contributed to the findings.

“In recent years, megachurch research -- including our own -- has revealed a great deal about the facts and fictions associated with this form of worship,” said Warren Bird, Leadership Network’s Director of Research and one of the principals behind the survey. “But until now, very little was known about the people who attend megachurches. The National Survey of Megachurch Attenders provides an entirely new inside perspective that will help drive a deeper understanding of the people who gather in these churches.”

Scott Thumma, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford Seminary and author of the survey report, said the study shows that megachurch attendees are a distinct group of people – often younger – with complex patterns of involvement. They draft unique, customized spiritual experiences through the multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement that megachurches offer.

“Participants interact with the megachurch on their own terms, to meet their individualized needs rather than following some prescribed or idealized plan created by the church’s leadership,” Thumma said.

Findings in the survey stretch from pure demographics to the nature and quality of megachurch attenders’ spiritual life. Among the most prominent conclusions are:

  • Nearly two-thirds of megachurch attenders are under 45 years old, as compared to only one-third for all Protestant churches (62% vs. 35%).
  • Nearly a third of megachurch attenders are single, unmarried persons.  In a typical church, singles account for just 10% of the congregation. 
  • Megachurch attenders are both more educated and more affluent than attenders at other churches.
  • The majority of megachurch attenders are not necessarily new to Christianity but nearly a quarter had not recently been in another church before coming to a megachurch. 
  • While newcomers almost always attend a megachurch at the invitation of family, friends or co-workers, the real attraction tends to be the church’s reputation, worship style and senior pastor.
  • Long-term attendance flows from an appreciation for the church’s music/arts, social and community outreach and adult-oriented programs.
  • 45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church, and 40 percent are not engaged in a small group, the mainstay of megachurch programming.

“In planning and conducting the survey, our goal went beyond simple curiosity. Rather, we looked for the threads and patterns that would be of practical benefit to researchers and church leaders,” Bird said. “Take, for example, the finding that megachurch attenders are more likely to be single than their counterparts in other congregations. Pastors of mid-sized and small congregations may well want to see how adapting elements from the megachurch model would help them better serve that segment of their community.”

“Similarly, the finding that 45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at church may prompt megachurch leaders to explore new ways to increase volunteerism within their congregations.”

The full report -- Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America's Megachurches -- is available free at both organizations’ web sites: www.leadnet.org/megachurch  and http://hirr.hartsem.edu.

For more information or to schedule media interviews of the principals behind the study, contact:
Scott Thumma, Hartford Seminary, sthumma@hartsem.edu.
Warren Bird, Leadership Network, warren.bird@leadnet.org.

About Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: Hartford Seminary focuses on interfaith relations, congregational studies and faith in practice. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has a 30-year record of rigorous, policy-relevant research, anticipation of emerging issues and commitment to the creative dissemination of learning.  This record has earned the Institute an international reputation as an important bridge between the scholarly community and the practice of faith. For more on the Seminary and the Institute, see www.hartsem.edu or http://hirr.hartsem.edu or contact David Barrett at 860.509.9519 or dbarrett@hartsem.edu.

About Leadership Network: Based in Dallas, TX, Leadership Network is a nonprofit public charity that fosters church innovation and growth through a variety of programs, resources and strategies in furtherance of a far-reaching mission to identify, connect and help high-capacity Christian leaders multiply their impact. For more on Leadership Network, see www.leadnet.org



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