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Today, megachurches (with attendance of 2,000 or more) are not only growing, they are growing in certain notable ways. To start, they are getting younger and more ethnically diverse, and they’re attracting more singles.
Not only are they growing numerically, but the combined number of them in America is growing as well; from 150 in 1980, 350 in 1990, 600 in 2000 and about 1,600 today. Fifty percent of churchgoers attend one, though megachurches account for only 10 percent of American congregations. The latest research by The Hartford Institute and Leadership Network reports that “the stated average attendance for these churches grew from 2,604 in 2005 to 3,597 in 2010.” Big churches are getting even bigger.
Fifteen years ago, business expert Peter Drucker referred in Forbes magazine to the rise in the megachurch movement as “the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years.” Of course, the movement has grown significantly since he wrote those words.
In their book Beyond Megachurch Myths, Scott Thumma and Dave Travis write that “megachurches, their practices and their leaders are the most influential contemporary dynamic in American religion.” This influence has now superseded that of denominations, seminaries and religious publishing, they say. These older and established institutions are, no doubt, wrestling with these new realities.
Whether or not these claims are overstated, the influence of megachurches undoubtedly continues to grow. Among the evangelical church world today, these megachurches are the prime influencers of leadership development, worship styles and ministry innovation. The pastors who lead them are writing the books most pastors are reading and keynoting the conferences most of them are attending.
While megachurches continue to experience mega-growth, the question emerges: How are they adapting as the culture changes and the megachurch movement matures? What are the megatrends?
1. Timothys on the Rise
In the 1970s and ‘80s in America, with the number of large churches much smaller than today, big church pulpits were even more coveted and selectively filled. Denominations tended to reserve those opportunities for their most “seasoned” pastors—those who were older and had “paid their dues” in ministry.
That trend has changed. The average age of lead pastors in megachurches is getting younger. Today, 25 megachurch pastors range in age from 30 to 37. As of last year, the average age of the lead pastor at the largest 100 churches in America was 47.
Along with this growing number of Timothys has come aging Pauls who are recognizing that the thing their congregation may need the most is for them to make room for younger leaders.
At last year’s general council of the Assemblies of God in Orlando, Fla., J. Don George (long-time megachurch pastor of Irving, Texas’, Calvary Church) talked about making a place for Timothys. When he faced an 18-year-long “plateau” of 3,000 attendees, George said, “God showed me that my church was too old. When I looked in the mirror, I knew it was true. So I told God I would spend the rest of my life making a place for young leaders to emerge.” Today the church is replete with numerous NextGen leaders. Calvary Church is much younger on average and running more than 9,000 in attendance.
2. A Spiritual Formation Reformation
Megachurches are often accused by outsiders of being shallow. Some say: “It’s true they are big, but they are 1,000 miles wide and about one inch deep!” The implication is that while sizeable, megachurches are just not that spiritual.
But, there are clear signs of megachurches digging deeper. Joel Hunter, pastor of Orlando, Fla., megachurch Northland, A Church Distributed, says, “It is slowly sinking in to many megachurches that we live in a culture similar to first century Christianity, where the gospel was advanced in a non-Christian, often hostile environment by making disciples within relational networks.” Spiritual growth is happening in “new” ways, and many megachurches are finding ways to nurture it.
The approaches are moving away from podiums and classrooms to cafés and living rooms. According to Hunter, “The modern institutional paradigm in the West is waning in favor of simpler generic gospel evangelism and discipleship groups.” Programs are out; mentoring is in.