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Friday, February 03, 2006

Debunking the Myths About MegaChurches

According to a groundbreaking research study just released by Leadership Network (http://www.leadnet.org ) and Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research (http://hirr.hartsem.edu ), many of the most widely held beliefs about megachurches couldn't be farther from the truth.

The Megachurches Today 2005 survey is the most thoroughly researched study ever made of the Protestant megachurch movement in the United States. Since June 2005, more than 1,800 churches have been contacted by e-mail, phone and mail, with complete data for more than 400 qualifying congregations received, tabulated and analyzed.

According to Warren Bird, Leadership Network's Director of Research, "Based on the results of this survey, we are able to conclude that there are at least 1,210 Protestant churches in the United States today with average weekly attendance of over 2,000. That is nearly double the number of megachurches that existed five years ago."

While tremendously significant as a cultural study and as a how-to guide for large churches, the survey also is instructive for churches that are anything but "mega." Scott Thumma, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford Seminary and primary architect of the survey, said, "I am absolutely convinced that megachurches have blossomed, at least in part, because they have responded creatively to the new needs and interests of people in a new cultural reality. There is much to learn from megachurches -- and it isn't all about being big."

As Dave Travis, Executive Vice President of Leadership Network, also noted, "Not a week passes without megachurches figuring prominently in one or more national news stories. During 2005 alone, four megachurch pastors had books on The New York Times bestseller lists. And megachurch pastors always dominate the lists of the most influential religious leaders in the country. The Megachurches Today 2005 survey provides the perspective that to date has been missing from most reporting on this movement."

The wide-ranging survey includes data on the many attributes that together define the nature and impact of megachurches in our society. Collectively, the results debunk 11 of the most common beliefs about megachurches, namely:

     MYTH #1:  All megachurches are alike.
     REALITY:  They differ in growth rates, size and emphasis.

     MYTH #2:  All megachurches are equally good at being big.
     REALITY:  Some clearly understand how to function as a large institution,
               but others flounder.

     MYTH #3:  There is an over-emphasis on money in the megachurches.
     REALITY:  The data disputes this.

     MYTH #4:  Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious
               about Christianity.
     REALITY:  Megachurches generally have high spiritual expectations and
               serious orthodox beliefs.

     MYTH #5:  Megachurches are not deeply involved in social ministry.
     REALITY:  Considerable ministry is taking place at and through these

     MYTH #6:  All megachurches are pawns of or powerbrokers to George Bush
               and the Republican Party.
     REALITY:  The vast majority of megachurches are not politically active.

     MYTH #7:  All megachurches have huge sanctuaries and enormous campuses.
     REALITY:  Megachurches make widespread use of multiple worship services
               over several days, multiple venues and even multiple campuses.

     MYTH #8:  All megachurches are nondenominational.
     REALITY:  The vast majority belong to some denomination.

     MYTH #9:  All megachurches are homogeneous congregations with little
     REALITY:  A large and growing number are multi-ethnic and intentionally

     MYTH #10: Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming.
     REALITY:  Megachurches grow because excited attendees tell their friends.

     MYTH #11: The megachurch phenomenon is on the decline.
     REALITY:  The data suggests that many more megachurches are on the way.
Downloadable copies of the complete Megachurches Today 2005 survey (in both html and PDF versions) are available on the two organizations' Web sites:

Leadership Network: http://www.leadnet.org/links/MegachurchesToday2005
Hartford Seminary: http://hirr.hartsem.edu/org/faith_megachurches.html
A 15-minute podcast discussion of key survey findings is also archived on the Leadership Network site at
http://www.leadnet.org/links/podcast-MegachurchMyths.asp . For more information or to schedule media interviews of the principals behind the Megachurches Today 2005 study, contact:

Dave Travis, Leadership Network, dave.travis@leadnet.org or 770.972.8792
Scott Thumma, Hartford Seminary, sthumma@hartsem.edu or 860.509.9571
Warren Bird, Leadership Network, warren.bird@leadnet.org or 845.368.4379
About Leadership Network: Based in Dallas, Texas, Leadership Network is a non-profit 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. Through its Halftime initiative, the 22-year-old organization also inspires high-capacity business and professional leaders to embrace God's calling and move from success to significance. For more about Leadership Network, see http://www.leadnet.org and http://www.halftime.org or contact Rick Long at 1.800.477.6698 x 102 or rlong@sourcepub.com .

About Hartford Seminary and its Hartford Institute for Religion Research: Hartford Seminary is a special kind of seminary, focused on interfaith relations, congregational studies and faith in practice. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has a 30-year record of rigorous, policyrelevant 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 http://www.hartsem.edu or http://hirr.hartsem.edu or contact David Barrett at 860.509.9519 or dbarrett@hartsem.edu .

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February 3, 2006 in Megachurches | Permalink

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I appreciate this article greatly, not because I attend a megachurch but because I really am tired of hearing the withering criticisms that are based on ignorance and fueled by envy.

Good one.

Posted by: Billy Cox | Feb 3, 2006 9:50:58 AM

"The majority of attendees in a mega-church are transfers from other churches."

Is this a myth? I didn't see it addressed and it seems to be the biggest criticism I hear about mega-churches.

Posted by: pjlr | Feb 3, 2006 10:05:55 AM

Aren't most attendees of any church transfers from another church? A lot of people change churches at least once in their lifetime. So it would stand to reason that attendees at any church, mega or not, are a transfer, wouldn't it? From my own experience at a megachurch, most of the attendees are new believers and are new to attending church. So I guess that statement could be a myth.

Posted by: Sarangel | Feb 3, 2006 10:42:00 AM

Interesting timing on this post, Todd, in light of some of the other recent discussions going on! I'm just as interested to hear what the megachurch critics might have to say about the reliability of the research; I expect that some will debunk it for one reason or another, but I hope that people on all sides of the question will take the time to look at it objectively.

On transfer growth: I'm pretty sure that the largest percentage of people joining churches is still the result of transfers from other churches. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. People are moving all the time, and so it is very natural to see churchgoers transfer their membership from one church to another.

It is the "local transfers" that should be most significant - but even there, the concern may not mean that there is a problem with either a church or the people changing churches.

Our concern should be raised not simply because someone leaves Church A and goes to Church B, but rather, is Church B intentionally targeting people at other churches with a message that their church is more biblical or more "right"? That, I have a problem with. If the churches are merely - and I do mean merely - advertising their distinctions, I don't think that's a bad thing.

Posted by: Randy Ehle | Feb 3, 2006 11:13:02 AM

"Since June 2005, more than 1,800 churches have been contacted by e-mail, phone and mail, with complete data for more than 400 qualifying congregations received, tabulated and analyzed."

Come on...how can anyone take this survey seriously?

The people conducting the survey "contacted" these organizations, apparently with some type of questionnaire, and then compiled the fluffy answers which afforded them "the most thoroughly researched" results ever?

This survey didn't involve "research" but was designed to get answers from those in power who are naturally going to put a good face on all that they do. Instead of truly conducting research by travelling to and observing, speaking with members and those who have left as well as people in the communities where the organizations are located to get to the truth, the survey tossed softballs to the leaders of these organizations.

This is akin to taking Bill Clinton's "My Life" as an accurate and serious take on history.

When I was a cop, I can't tell you how many times that I received the answer "no" to the question, "Did you do it?" It wasn't until after a thorough, objective investigation that the truth came out.

Which is why the results of this survey should be suspect, at best.

Posted by: Ricky | Feb 3, 2006 11:44:01 AM


I want so badly to disagree with you on that, but I can't.

You make an excellent point. I think calling a questionnaire sent to church leaders is suspect at best, too. I don't know enough about the research on this project to comment in full, but if it is merely the result of tabulating questionnaires, then the answers to the myths above which are more subjective (especially 3,4,5,6, and 10) should be taken with a grain of salt.

The data may be useful, however, in letting us see how megachurches view themselves. And they are DEFINITELY not on the decline, that's for sure.

Posted by: Peter Hamm | Feb 3, 2006 12:23:03 PM

Maybe the research could have been better conducted. But at least it is a whole lot better than the type of 'research' done by those on this board who love to bash megachurches. I have yet to read any criticism of megachurches on this board that was based on anything more than subjective observation of a very limited number of examples.

Posted by: Gerry | Feb 3, 2006 11:11:44 PM

Hi Sir,

why should we be concerned about numbers?
After all we shall all be judged as
individuals.No single church will save
any one,we need to teach people that God
is not confined to any one church.Some
time back,the catholic church declared that
there is no salvation outside it.It seems to
me that saved christians are becoming too
attached to particular churches that they
they will swallow anything preached to them,
this is the reason why i have choosen not to
go to any church.

Posted by: Peter Mungai | Feb 3, 2006 11:34:41 PM

Didn't take long for the critics to come out swinging. I've worked in both large and small churches (not a mega MEGA however) and have seen both good and evil, gain and loss, fervor and apathy, and so on in both. I personally much prefer the smaller church, yet I constantly pray that it will grow.

Why? Because every number is a soul, therefore it IS about numbers. Every person who walks through the door is one we can strive to let the Holy Spirit influence through us.

Additionally, seeing as there are many more "small" churches than "mega" churches, then lets get the beam out of our eyes and realize that there are probably just as many individuals (if not more) being led astray (social gospel, prosperity gospel, etc.) by "small" churches. So, let the flames fly higher! ;)

As for transfer growth, every church I've ever been in has experienced growth mainly by transfer growth. Blame the transferer, not the transferee. What are we going to tell them at the door? "You from a local church? If so, you're not welcome here."

I think not. My 1.5 cents.

Posted by: Jeff M. Miller | Feb 3, 2006 11:52:45 PM

Whatever peoples' qualms are with the survey, it is still the largest and best to date. I've seen it and much of the information provided is objective, quantifiable data. I'm no statistician, but 406 full responses out of a population of 1,201 megachurches seems like a pretty good sampling to me. I wouldn't be as quick as Ricky to dismiss this study.

Christian Science Monitor has done a good job of sifting through all the information and presenting some of the most interesting along with expert opinions.

Posted by: kim | Feb 5, 2006 7:34:49 PM

I admit right up front - I haven't seen the survey. But a quick response to Ricky and Peter's comment that "a questionnaire sent to church leaders is suspect at best." If I follow that logic, then there could never be a valid survey. Is the annual Church Compensation Report suspect merely because it's a survey sent to churches? NO.

Without having reviewed the Christian Science Monitor research and the questions and possible responses, it is impossible to make a justifiable statement about the reliability of the survey. I will say that - theological differences aside - I think CSM has generally done a pretty good job of conducting research. (Though my preference would be The Barna Group.)

As to Ricky's suggestion about what would constitute "truly conducting research," I have to disagree. "[T]ravelling to and observing, speaking with members and those who have left as well as people in the communities where the organizations are located..." might be included in thorough research, but if that is the extent of it, then the results would be no less subjective than a survey may be.

There is a difference between "investigating" and "researching." I would suggest that an investigation is never truly objective. In one sense, neither is research. In both cases, you have people bringing their own presuppositions to bear on the situation. I would argue that a survey with fixed questions and standard answers will provide a MORE objective analysis...but ONLY if the questions are written from as unbiased a standpoint as possible.

Posted by: Randy Ehle | Feb 6, 2006 4:27:10 PM

There is always going to be a Pro's & Con's with anything we do & there is always room for improvement. But what is ironic is this: everyone is always praying and asking God to move in a powerful way and or to send a revival so the church can grow then when he's answer's our prayers in the way he wants to answer but not to our liking we do nothing but gripe and complain about it.
I remember a story about an older southern gentleman setting in his house while a flood was going on. A man in a row boat passed by and said get in and I'll take you to dry land. No I am trusting in the lord to get me out of this. Ok.. Next he is on the roof and another row boat passes by. Hop in and I'll take you to dry land. No sir, my trust and faith in the lord and he's going to get me out of this. Next he's on the chimmney and a lady in a helicopter flys over. They yell down at him "grab the ladder and we'll pull up and take you to dry land. "No, thanks the Lord is going to get me out of this." Well he ends dying and going to heaven. He is standing before the Lord and say's Lord I told everyone of those people that I was trusting in you to help and you never did help me. The Lord Replied, "I sent you two row boats and helicopter what more did you want...
I believe the Lord must be a country boy at heart... Because he always does everything simple but leaves it to us to mess it up with all our technology and small minds...

Posted by: Clairvoyent 1 | Feb 6, 2006 6:05:38 PM

Well I visited a town I once lived in. Right along the highway was a huge religious facility - a Universalist Unitarian Fellowship - and I inquired later. It had a couple thousand in attendance. Hmmm - a mega-"church"?

I share a chaplain's office with a Catholic Chaplain. I read one of his magazines about Catholic mega-churches. They shut down the small churches and combine into one.

Let's talk about mega-churches. I know of one major church that got up to a thousand the old fashion way - soul-winning - but offered contemporary services. Three local churches split in a year and zoom - they went to 3,000 in a year. Talk about your transfer growth.

Seems like a remembered Jack Hyles, W.A. Criswell, and Jerry Falwell have "mega-churches" before the term was coined. They used bus ministries, evangelism, and I suspect there were some transfer growth.

In my church, growth is slow. For every two or three we win to Christ, we get one transfer. Most potential transfers prefer the "programs" of the local big churches. So we wish them well and get on with winning lost souls who don't have a church background and probably can't spell "mega-church" either.

One thing I wish the survey would have investigated is the type of transfer. Those who move to the community - we expect that type of transfer...but what about those who transfer locally? What categories would they consist of? Food for thought.

Posted by: Dan Moore | Feb 6, 2006 6:54:11 PM

Dan writes, "In my church, growth is slow. For every two or three we win to Christ, we get one transfer." Regardless of the size of your church, Dan, I would say that's a pretty good ratio of salvation to transfers!

I share your curiosity about the cause for local transfers. Anyone working on that for a doctoral dissertation?!

Posted by: Randy Ehle | Feb 6, 2006 7:35:37 PM

Have to agree with Randy and disagree with Peter and Ricky re: the validity of this research. The article indicates that methodologies included contact by mail, e-mail and phone. My hunch, if we read the complete description of the methodology, we see that it involved some initial screening criteria which produced the list of churches whose pastors were called and interviewed using standardized questions. Like Randy, I think this is about the most objective way to gather data. Actual conversations enable to interviewer to better insure their questions are understood in the same way. Data to inform most of the “myths” could have been evaluated with information about programming or budget emphasis, or methodologies.

Actually, I would also guess that the most difficult information to gather is "hard" data involving growth and assimilation numbers. Thom Rainer’s book “Breakout Churches” based on a study modeled after Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” offers interesting information about gathering data from churches (both great reads BTW). Rainer discovered that very few churches really track good data about conversion growth, assimilation and participation. Evidence of this is that responses to such questions were given in whole numbers, suggesting rounded numbers. Many churches simply didn't know what their real numbers were. Ranier's final study group of churches included only thirteen (from 50,000 initially contacted).

Being staff at a small “mega-church” that is proudly “seeker-sensitive” and uses much of the PD programming material, I appreciate this report because I know that none of those “myths” would be true of us. It is difficult, week after week, to read (here on the blog) and hear (from our own local FBC type critics) that we are wrong, unbiblical, preaching a watered down or false gospel, not committed to discipleship, starving the body, tricking people into thinking they are saved when they are not, on and on. I know that these accusations, when directed at us, are flatly false. Sticks and stones aren’t supposed to hurt, but they do. I know that this survey doesn’t PROVE anything scientifically, but I’m grateful for the solid evidence that many “mega-churches,” are truly not guilty of the things they are so regularly accused of.


Posted by: Wendi | Feb 6, 2006 8:46:58 PM

If numbers are good to measure and track (growth, breadth), how about a study on the spiritual maturity of the members of churches (growth, depth)?

There's a saying,,, you get what you measure...


Posted by: Bernie Dehler | Feb 6, 2006 8:51:32 PM

I agreee Bernie. We count annual conversion growth NOT based on decision numbers but on the number of people who make a decision and who can also be accounted for in some kind of discipleship / growth relationship after a year. We call it "prayed and stayed."

We tend to think that tracking and measuring is unspiritual, but I think it is just plane good stewardship.


Posted by: Wendi | Feb 6, 2006 9:00:13 PM

Bernie & Wendi,
You guys just drove the final nail into the coffin. I couldn't agree with you more. I know what I said in my comments eariler but after all you have to have both. It's called balance. If you have more of the head count "Numbers" but no actual spiritual growth then it's a waste of time.
For instance: The old job I worked at we began having Bible study with just two of us. Next thing you know we went to 3,4,5,7,8 then back down to 4. I asked the Lord about this and he said, "Don't worry about the number's, just teach them my word." I said, "yes sir, and moved out smartly"
The last church we attended was just like that. They wanted to get everyone into church but they didn't want to give them the word. Then when they did they shot it off like the space shuttle and it never did come down.
Use a measuring stick to mark the growth of the church in height. "NUMBERS"
But use the same measuring stick to measure the depth. "SPIRITUAL DEPTH"
The reason I say this is because when I was a boy our day used the same stick to measure our height, and the same stick to measure the depth of our cistern water level.

Posted by: Clairvoyent 1 | Feb 6, 2006 10:54:06 PM


"I would argue that a survey with fixed questions and standard answers will provide a MORE objective analysis...but ONLY if the questions are written from as unbiased a standpoint as possible."

C'mon, Randy. This survey tossed softballs to these organizations, which led to the skewered answers.

Based upon the so-called "realities" listed in the article, I'm pretty sure that some of the questions were like:

1. How many attend your services? What is the primary target audience of your services? What is your annual "growth rate" (i.e., attendance gains)?

2. Describe your successes? Contrast those with your failures...if any.

3. Is there an unhealthy emphasis placed on money in your organization?

4. Would you say that your organization generally has high spiritual expectations and place a great importance on being doctrinally orthodox?

5. How you rate the degree of ministry that is conducted at your organization (circle one): Considerable Average Negligible.

6. Does your organization risk running afoul of IRS regulations regarding the involvement of religious organizations (501C[3]) in political campaigns? (Circle one)

Yes - No - Hell No.

7. Circle the one that more accurately describes the number of individual buildings used by your organization:

More than 1 building - More than 3 buildings - More than 5 buildings - Heck, we lost count.

8. Indicate the name of your denomination affiliation:

Baptist - Methodist - Catholic - Presbyterian - Pentecostal/Charismatic - Purpose-Driven - Willow Creekites.

9. Do you have separate seating areas, programs, or bathroom facilities for African-Americans and whites?

10. What would you say has been the most effective way of getting the word out about your organization? (circle one)

Evangelistic outreaches - Word of mouth - Family-oriented programs - Great preaching - Buckets of money spent on mass marketing.

11. In your opinion, is the mega-"church" movement on the rise or the decline?

Randy, have you ever played or watched a Tee-Ball game? They make it so that even the smallest of "players" can hit the ball.

That's what this survey was/is.

Posted by: Ricky | Feb 6, 2006 11:07:48 PM


"If you have more of the head count "Numbers" but no actual spiritual growth then it's a waste of time."

But how does an organization determine "spiritual growth?"

Posted by: Ricky | Feb 6, 2006 11:11:33 PM

Ricky - did you read the summary? Although the appendix does not offer a list of the questions, there appears to be almost no yes or no quesions and none like the ones you suggest.

Of course, only God knows the heart so one's actual spiritual growth cannot be precisely evaluated. However, to simply do nothing in attempt to evaluate and track spiritual growth is lazy and ignoring our responsibility to the stewardship of resources. In the parables of the talents and the good steward the master rewards results. We too can determine what the results should be in the life of a person who is growing spiritually and then track how well these "results" are being manifested in our church.

I believe this is how spiritual growth is evaluated.


Posted by: Wendi | Feb 6, 2006 11:26:18 PM


"I believe this is how spiritual growth is evaluated."

Wendi, my question was as honest as can be and one that is usually answered with some type of "track" system, where the convert's "growth" is more determined based upon his/her participation in classes, retreats and how much he/she is immersed into the organization (i.e., "service," tithing, etc.).

This does little to accurately guage a convert's status of discipleship and, in fact, I believe hinders it greatly because the outcome is a person who more resembles the pastor than it does Christ.

I believe John the Baptist's words as to his declining participation once Jesus was baptized speaks volumes as to how the maturity of a disciple can be measured.

"I must decrease and He must increase."

It is my growing conviction that mature disciples of Christ are seen as just that: disciples of CHRIST and NOT some organization or religious leader.

The mere fact that John knew that his time was coming to a close and his acceptance of it tells me that true spiritual maturity leads one to fade into the background of the glory of Jesus and sacrificing his/her ministry for the benefit of others by giving their ministry away.

However, today's lame attempts at gauging a convert's "growth" focuses more on how that person can become a convert rather than a disciple.

Posted by: Ricky | Feb 7, 2006 12:02:25 AM

You evaluate them on their knowledge of the bible. For instance: My son is 5yrs old. I can tell a difference in him now than six months ago. Six months ago he knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a manager. Three months later he had learned not only was he born in a manager but now he knows that he is God's Only Son, He died on the Cross, He was placed in a tomb, and He arose again on the third day. Now he knows that the reason Jesus died is because we are sinners and that we are lost without him. He also knows about hell and the devil and he does not want any thing to do with that. He wants to go to heaven.
Also. Three weeks ago he wanted to leave children's church and set with us in the sanctury. He is very attentive to what our pastor preaches about and will often ask me questions about certain things the pastor said.
Last, Paul said it best. When I was a child I thought like a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.

Posted by: Clairvoyent 1 | Feb 7, 2006 12:37:25 AM

Ricky, I can't believe you still haven't checked out the study yourself. You don't have to speculate about what the questions are, just follow the link and see for yourself - the report includes the questions that these churches were asked. In case you didn't see the links in the post here is the address - you can copy and paste it into your browser: http://hirr.hartsem.edu/org/megastoday2005detaileddata.pdf

Posted by: kim | Feb 7, 2006 2:13:42 AM

Yes, if you look at the report you find that it was as well done as could be, perhaps. I still might argue that the picture you get on some issues is more of how these churches see themselves... but...

Any church that grows to such a size is very likely to look very carefully at what they are doing on a regular basis, and to be pretty honest about a great many things. Otherwise, the growth would stop.

While I agreed with Ricky's original concerns, I don't agree with his subsequent reaction. I fear that again you are being contrary for the sake of being contrary. After reading the report over pretty carefully, I think I can conclude that the study is very useful indeed.

Also, as one of the pastors of a 1000-attendee church, I was not surprised by any of these conclusions. Indeed, I don't think I ever beleved any of those "myths" myself.

Posted by: Peter Hamm | Feb 7, 2006 6:34:22 AM

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