Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Religion writers are well aware that notably large Protestant “megachurches” have mushroomed across the United States this past generation. But they’re still expanding and it might be time for yet another look at the phenomenon.

 If so, the megachurch database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is an essential resource.  The listing is searchable so, for instance, reporters can easily locate such citadels in their regions through the “sort by state” feature.

Hartford defines a megachurch as having consistent weekly attendance of at least 2,000.

There’s a big caveat here: The statistics on attendance, necessarily, are what’s reported by the churches themselves. Such congregations numbered 350 as recently as 1990 but Hartford has by now located 1,667 and there are doubtless others, so untold millions of people are involved.

Overwhelmingly, these big congregations are Bible-believing, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal -- with only half of one percent labeling themselves “liberal” in doctrine.  

Hartford’s data will be a mere launching pad to get experts’ analysis of these newfangled Protestant emporiums and how they are changing the style and substance of American churchgoing. A starting point for that would be this 2015 overview (click for .pdf) from Hartford’s Scott Thuma and Warren Bird of the Leadership network.

They report, for instance, that “the megachurch phenomenon hasn’t waned” and “newer and younger churches are regularly growing to megachurch size.” More and more of them are spreading to multiple sites. An increasing population of adherents participates with church online rather than in person.

Note that Hartford’s information covers Protestants only. Catholic parishes have much bigger memberships than the typical Protestant congregation, and at least 3,000 would rank in the “mega” category.

But as the Hartford team observes, the Protestants constitute a specific cultural movement characterized by distinctively entertaining and rousing worship styles complete with state-of-the-art sound systems and visual projection. They also tend to draw from large geographic areas, offering a multitude of programs on a seven-day basis, with huge campuses and parking lots, and usually in suburban or  exurban settings.

Notably, megas are more racially diverse than the typical Protestant congregation. Also, a hefty 81 percent report engagement in community service projects.

One striking aspect of megas is that 40 percent are “non-denominational” and totally self-governing. Those formally affiliated with denominations usually have only loose involvement with others in their church body. In fact, 13 percent have considered quitting their denominations over the past decade and half have done so.

Reporters note: This drive to independence sometimes creates problems of its own, especially linked to issues of accountability. Related to that, a survey showed only 30 percent of megachurches were involved with any other churches or Christian organizations on education or fellowship over a year’s time.

An obvious disadvantage of huge congregations is that individuals can get lost in the shuffle, and mere “spectator” status is inevitable for some. But megas work hard to engage attendees in small fellowship groups. There are interesting signs of stagnation in finances over recent years. Then there’s the obvious challenge of creating a smooth succession to new personalities when a high-profile founding pastor retires.

What and where are the biggest of the biggies?

Hartford tells us that the following 15 congregations, in decreasing order of totals, report weekly attendance that exceeds 20,000. Each of them would be a feature story in itself.

So, journalists, think location, location, location.

Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas

North Point Community Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

LifeChurch.tv, Edmond, Okla.

Gateway Church, Southlake, Texas

Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Ill.

Fellowship Church, Grapevine, Texas

Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, Ariz.

NewSpring Church, Anderson, S.C.

Elevation Church, Mathews, N.C.

Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, Ala.

Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif.

Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Ky.

Central Christian Church, Henderson, Nev.

Phoenix First Assembly of God, Phoenix, Ariz.

Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas

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