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Growth of Megachurches Explored
According to Mark Chaves in the Christian Century published November 28, 2006, “In every denomination on which we have data, people are becoming increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches, and this is true for small and large denominations, for conservative and liberal denominations, for growing and declining denominations.”

After saying “The rate of increase in the number of very large churches seems to have picked up in the 1970s, but the trend toward more very big churches did not begin in that decade,” Chaves shares examples of the increase of large congregations between 1900 and 1970. He then points out that there is no easy explanation for the burst of growth in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chaves explains that “The median church has fewer than 100 regular participants, but the median churchgoer attends a congregation with 400 regular participants. . . The biggest 20 percent of churches have between 60 and 65 percent of all the people, money, and full-time staff. . .This has been true of American religion for a long time, but the level of concentration is increasing.”

Another finding:  “Yesterday’s very biggest churches are not today’s very biggest churches. Many of today’s biggest churches grew very rapidly; their size is not the result of a steady, long term increase. And this has been true for at least 100 years. Across all the denominations examined and across the entire 20th century, the half-life of being one of the 20 biggest churches in a denomination is 20 to 30 years. That is, of the 20 biggest churches in a given year, only half of them will still be on that list 20 years later, only one-quarter still on the list 40 years later, and only two or three still on the list 60 years later. It is not that these very large churches peak and then shrink dramatically, although some do. Rather, the biggest churches of the moment are overtaken by a new cohort of churches that have caught the latest cultural wave and ridden it to the top. . . .”

Chaves says that “Explaining this concentration trend is more difficult than documenting it.” For instance, overall church attendance is not increasing—despite the growth of megachurches. Nor can it be said that these churches are new types of organizations: “Very large churches in the 19th and 20th centuries exhibited many characteristics typical of today’s megachurchs—rapid growth under a gifted leader, high-quality preaching and music, multifunction buildings, extravagant theatrical displays, many and varied small groups and activities, and auditorium-style worship spaces with stages instead of pulpits and little or no Christian symbolism.”

INNOVATIONewsletter, March 4, 2007, The Center for Creative Ministry