On megachurch study, RNS offers brisk account but leaves some big questions hanging


Megachurches are increasing yet losing members. They're offering more "intimate" settings, but Americans are increasingly seekers, not longterm congregants. And more people attend, but less often.

Several paradoxes lace the Religion News Service's story on a newly released study of megachurches. Some paradoxes may be rooted in the shifting nature of the churches themselves. Some, though, may be simply holes in the story.

The study itself comes with impeccable credentials. As RNS reports, it was co-produced by Leadership Network, a Dallas-based think tank for church growth; and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a branch of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. RNS does a good, brisk summary of (at least some of) the findings.

Defining megachurches as congregations with 2,000 or more in attendance, the report abounds in bons mots:

* Among people who attend Protestant churches, 1 in 10 are in a megachurch any given weekend, yet most people attend only monthly or less.

* Millennials, or young adults, are holding firm in attendance rate, but the middle-aged Generation Xers are "drifting out the door."

* Megachurches are still increasing, but they're being built slightly smaller at various sites to achieve a more intimate feel. "Getting bigger by getting smaller," one of the experts tells RNS.

* More than 7 of 10 megachurches call themselves evangelical, whatever their denomination.

* Older megachurches "have a more diverse age range, higher member involvement in programming and $500 more in per capita giving than the big churches founded since 1990."

* But younger congregations, those founded after 1990, are growing faster -- 91 percent versus 39 percent.

* Worship styles vary considerably between services at many of the churches.

* Outreach is more important than ever, with many churches supporting global missions and community service alike.

RNS writes the story in a conversational style, even making the two co-authors sound human and non-stuffy.

Scott Thumma of Hartford comments on the spotty attendance: "They think ‘regular attendance’ is ‘I get there when I can' … We found many of these large, successful congregations still have many of the same challenges of smaller congregations. They are not immune to the cultural dynamics in society."

And Warren Bird of Leadership Network says churches are "getting bigger by getting smaller" -- meaning that they now build more and smaller meeting places. He adds that worshipers now want a church "that knows where it's going and what it's about. They like clarity of vision in a church."

As much as the article impresses, it also leaves questions.

"Change is coming to American megachurches," says the story lede, but it never shows that this is something new. Over several decades writing religion for a daily newspaper, I saw such churches changing constantly -- in music, outreach, technology, interior design, even architecture when they built new homes. Staying "culture current" is the essence of most churches of the type.

Second, RNS says megachurches are still being built, but I don’t see the total number of congregations, either in the report or the study; it says only that 39 have been added in the last five years. (The Hartford site estimates about 1,650, but doesn't give a date for that count.) But as long as RNS had Bird and Thumma on the phone, why not ask for that basic fact?

Third, the article says more people are attending megachurches than ever, but it offers no comparative numbers. It says five million are there on any given weekend, but how many attended five or 10 years ago?

There also seems to be an undropped shoe in saying that "individual attendance is down to once or twice a month — or less." So, if five million attend any given weekend, does that mean two to four times as many people -- 10 million to 20 million -- attend megachurches over a month?

The study has a few other facts that, in my opinion, would have graced the RNS story:

* Megachurches are "significantly younger and more racially diverse than smaller congregations."

* Traditional worship is fading, with fewer megachurches using choirs and organs than five years ago.

* Online "campuses" are increasing, an approach taken by 30 percent of megachurches -- half of them within the last three years.

* Members feel like the churches have recovered from the "Great Recession" of 2008 -- however, income has changed little for 15 years.

* Innovation is slowing, at least in congregants' eyes. Only 37 percent of members said their churches were "willing to change to meet new challenges," versus 54 percent 15 years ago.

* Succession is an issue: 20 percent of megachurch senior pastors are over 60 years old. Those are the ones who led their congregants through rapid growth. They’ll  soon have to decide who can follow suit.

True, some of these choices are a subjective call. They're also affected by a reporter's deadlines, workload, and how much time and length a story is judged to be worth. But in my own admittedly subjective view, readers would want to know some or all of the above facts.

It would have been interesting also to run the study by a few megachurch pastors themselves. Do they think it's accurate, or maybe that it left out something important? Oddly, the article mentions two pastors -- Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Larry Osborne of North Coast Church -- but doesn't interview them. The most it did was to quote Bird quoting Osborne.

And I don't know who added the three links to the online version of the RNS story. Those are usually supposed to be related stories; but in this case, two looked irrelevant and a little antagonistic. One was on the allegedly eyebrow-raising salary of Franklin Graham. The other was about why Rachel Held Evans left evangelicalism. The link most relevant to the topic is "Black churches bucking the trend of decline," from August.

Better would be to link to the megachurch study itself, something RNS didn’t do. Some readers may well wish to see it for themselves. It's 20 pages, but it's accessibly written and full of colorful, easy-to-grasp graphs. And it's free.

Graphic courtesy of Leadership Network.

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