Mega Churches Change to Survive

America’s Megachurches Are Reinventing Themselves to Continue Growth

Some observers predict that in the next decade a church in the United States will hit the 50,000-member threshold

by Leigh DeVore
The number of megachurches–congregations numbering 2,000 or more–nearly doubled during the 1990s to an estimated 500 today, “The Los Angeles Times” reported last week. These churches have transformed religion in America, partly because they have rejected traditional Sunday morning forms and adapted the use elaborate stage productions, contemporary music, mini-dramas and practical sermons offering life lessons for families.

Some experts contend that megachurches have passed their prime and will eventually lose popularity. Yet other trend-watchers are confident that the biggest churches in the United States are on the verge of making a quantum leap. “The first churches to hit 50,000 will do it in the next decade,” said leading independent church growth expert Carl George.

Scott Thumma, a megachurch observer at the Center for Social and Religious Research in Hartford, Conn., said megachurches have been most popular in suburban areas because the areas offer the space needed as well as the type of people they try to serve–mobile, well-educated, middle-class families.

Among the challenges these churches face are the need for space and conflicts with neighbors over traffic, noise and development, “The Times” reported. Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., had a traffic problem resulting in stunted attendance growth for the first time last year. The church built a $4.5 million bridge linking El Toro Road to the parking lot, creating a second street entrance and promoting attendance growth.

Experts say that some churches have seen even more dramatic growth after investing in expansion. Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., moved in December from a 2,500-seat auditorium to a gargantuan 9,100-seat sanctuary. The church’s attendance shot up by 3,500 to almost 14,000 in only a month. Pastors said that even with a heavy dose of ingenuity most churches will run out of room.

The Los Angeles newspaper reported that one way for megachurches to keep spreading their mission and message is through planting daughter churches. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.–the largest megachurch in the country–now counts more than 4,000 churches as part of its association. Churches join the group at a rate of three a day.

In addition to spacial needs, growing megachurches have to find a way to keep congregants from feeling disconnected, partly because its easy for an individual to get lost in a Sunday morning crowd of thousands. Megachurch pastors recognize that their turnover rate is fairly large.

Small groups, or gatherings of six or more believers, is not a new concept for churches. But for megachurches the small group becomes a necessity, “The Times” reported.

“The bottom line is that if you don’t figure out how to get smaller as you’re getting larger, growth will definitely peak,” said Brett Eastman, membership pastor at Saddleback. “If you don’t keep a sense of heart and family and connectedness, then growth tends to level off.”

Some experts predict that future megachurches will resemble the decentralized churches of Korea, where 24 of the 50 largest churches in the world are located. In many Korean churches, “cell groups” are the basic components of the church. Members meet in homes for regular services and attend the Sunday worship service every two or three weeks.

Some experts believe that megachurches could inevitably fade with the aging of baby boomers. Saddleback pastors realize that failing to meet the needs of Generation X could ultimately doom their church growth. Said executive pastor Glen Kreun: “There’s going to be a day real soon we’re going to start losing an entire generation if we don’t design a service for them.”