Reshaping the American Megachurch

What are the trends among the country’s largest congregations?

Mars Hill Church, based in Washington, includes 14 churches in four states with an average weekend attendance of up to 15,000, says Justin Holcomb, a pastor at one of its campuses.

He says the multisite model works for them.

“It’s effective at proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples and planting more churches,” Holcomb says.

Multisite also allows megachurches to cater to a wide range of preferences by offering various types of weekend services at different times. Mars Hill’s university district campus, which Holcomb leads, is near a college, so perhaps it’s no surprise that its 8 p.m. Sunday service is packed, Holcomb says. Other Mars Hill sites don’t even offer a service at that time.

North Coast Church, which consists of multiple worship music-style venues at its main campus and a total of three campuses in nearby cities, offers 24 options to choose from, Osborne says. The sermon is the same, but music options and congregation demographics differ. For example, singles can get together and watch the sermon in one part of the church, while those with an affinity for country or edgy music can attend together in other parts of the campus.

“We are trying to broaden our demographic,” Osborne says. “Megachurches are moving in the direction of diversification.”

Embracing an Online Presence

Many megachurches also cater to those who can’t or won’t walk through their doors, harnessing the Internet to broadcast sermons, complete with concurrent chat rooms that boast online greeters, prayer volunteers and pastors who post relevant Bible verses and answer questions.

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That’s the setup employed by Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, where as many as 20,000 people attend weekend services at one of its seven brick-and-mortar locations, and another 10,000 or so watch the sermon online on Sundays and throughout the week, says Internet Pastor Dan Hickling.

“Our heart is to take what happens in our sanctuary to as many places as we can, to get to those who can’t get to us,” he says.

Those who watch online sermons may live in secluded areas, feel skittish about attending church, serve overseas in the military, or live in other countries, he says.

“We are not trying to replace a local church life, but we want to be there for those who primarily can’t or won’t take that first step,” Hickling says.

The closest Bible-teaching, nondenominational church to Lisa Supp, 42, who lives in West Wendover, Nev., is a 120-mile drive, so the English teacher began to attend Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale’s Sunday service online.

Over time, she became a volunteer greeter and prayer helper in its chat room.

“God is providing all my needs right here in my own living room, and I appreciate that,” she says. “I use Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale for connections, growth, relationships and fellowship with like-minded people.”

Another online concept, this one utilized by Northland, is called “House Church,” where people meet in living rooms to watch sermons together using the Internet. The church has developed 18 house churches led by trained volunteers in locations nationwide, Lacich says.

For LifeChurch.tv, more than 150,000 people across the globe view its latest sermon online weekly, Gruenewald says. The church designs, records and produces a special online version of its Sunday service to cater to those masses, and it’s replayed about 60 times throughout the week. During those rebroadcasts, church volunteers sit in chat rooms to talk to, pray for, and fellowship with viewers, he says.

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“It’s connection and conversation taking place,” he says. “We have hundreds of volunteers all over the world at all times of the day and night. While we are sleeping, there is a volunteer team up in Africa facilitating the discussion and prayer.”