Americans find community in megachurches

Lakewood, largest church in US (picture by j foong)

Lakewood, largest church in US (picture by j foong)

In megachurches across America (churches regularly drawing over 1000 congregants), Americans are finding community more than smaller churches.

A new study by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion found that megachurch members were twice as likely to have friends in the congregation than members of smaller churches. Megachurch members also were more personally committed to the church — attending services and tithing more often.  ISR’s co-director, Rodney Starke noted that Baylor’s biennial survey disabused several stereotypes of megachurches: “They’re big. … they’re kind of cold, they (have) kind of theater audiences — all wrong.”

The community-building of megachurches is of a piece with a chapter by Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein in Better Together (2004) on Saddleback Church in Southern California (Pastor Rick Warren’s church — of Purpose-Driven Life fame). Putnam/Feldstein described the powerful small-group structure in these churches that gives parishioners strong personal contacts, gives them a sense of community, and taps their passions. There is also an excellent article by Malcolm Gladwell on this cellular church structure in “The Cellular Church“.

The Washington Post noted that the Baylor study found that: “Ninety-two percent of megachurch members believe that hell “absolutely exists,” compared with just over three-quarters of small-church members, the survey found. And eight in 10 megachurch worshipers believe that the Rapture — when followers of Jesus Christ believe they will be taken to heaven — will “absolutely” take place, compared with less than half of those who attend small churches.

“In addition to their evangelical mission, megachurches thrive because of the social experience they provide and their emphasis on music. “The same things that made them popular — contemporary music and practical, applicable sermons that apply to people’s daily lives — remain a real draw for folks,” said Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.”

The Washington Post commented that the Baylor survey follows upon “a survey released last week that found that megachurches’ three-decade expansion shows no signs of abating. That study, of churches with weekend worship attendance of 2,000 or more, found that the average megachurch’s attendance grew 50 percent in the past five years.”

See: Big Churches Not Always Impersonal, Study Finds (Washington Post, 9/19/08, p. A6, Jacqueline L. Salmon)

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One response to “Americans find community in megachurches

  1. This seems to me to be just one more reason that all those who would not be interested in attending mega-churches need alternatives that do as good of a job at creating meaningful community. I think the alternatives for the future may be focused on ethics more generally, and not be religion-specific, while still sharing some of the characteristics of churches.

    I discovered the idea of “ethical societies” recently and think that they may be a form of that new model, though I think there are a number of other things it seems they might focus more on (like political activism, volunteerism, developing “bridging” social capital with all income levels, ages, religions, etc.). Although that’s a limited observation since I’ve only checked out one of these in the DC area that is pretty neat, with small groups, weekly lectures on ethical topics, numerous community events, etc. (http://www.ethicalsociety.org) Would be interested in any thoughts you might have on all of that…

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