Megachurches and Wal-Marts

by | Mar 25, 2023

In the summer of 2005 I spent two months in France, my first sabbatical after 36 years in the ministry. Living in post-Christian Europe was sobering. The church has been marginalized; foundational spiritual and intellectual truths of Christianity have been usurped by radical secularism and materialism. Islam is lurking in the shadows.

Figures on European church attendance are abysmal—under 10% in France, Sweden, and the Netherlands. And while regular church attendance in Ireland is 60%, that is a significant drop from 85% in 1975. In England weekly Anglican attendance is 2% of the population.

Church attendance statistics are important, because they are objective measures of faith vitality. And while there is a widespread belief that you can “believe without belonging,” hard data suggests otherwise.

Dr. David Voas at the University of Manchester in England says, “The dip in religious belief is not temporary or accidental, it is a generational phenomenon—the decline has continued year on year.” He adds, “The fact that children are only half as likely to believe as their parents indicates that, as a society, we are at an advanced stage of secularization.”

Voas observes that the importance of belief in God in England fell by 5.3% to 32.5% between 1991 and 1999. This compared with a fall of 3.5% in church attendance over the same period—the proportion of people who believe in God is declining faster than church attendance.

Every major Christian religion except Islam is declining in Western Europe, according to the Center for the Study on Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Not coincidentally, anti-Semitism is again rearing its ugly head, especially in countries like France and the Netherlands, which boast large Muslim immigrant populations.

Leave no doubt: European Christianity is a dim light in the public square.

What about America?

As I wandered the idyllic French countryside, I wondered if the future of Christianity is as bleak in North America. My conclusion: I think so. Let me explain.

First, let’s be clear about something: North American Christianity is already declining. Televangelist scandals, Catholic clergy pedophile crises, and the secularization of mainline Protestant denominations are eroding church attendance and finances. Since 1990, Americans claiming to be Christians have fallen from 88.3% to 79.8% of the population.

Further, these negative trends have muted Christianity’s spiritual, ethical, and moral voice. Televangelists are on the lunatic fringe of popular culture; “recovering (lapsed) Catholics” are ubiquitous; and the average age of many mainline congregations is, as one pastor jokingly quipped, deceased. (An Episcopal priest recently told me that the average age of his congregation went from 70 to 69 over the past year, concluding—tongue in cheek—“We’re starting to reach the younger generation!”)

And while many historic Christian denominations struggle, heterodox religions like Mormonism, and Eastern religions (including Buddhism and Hinduism), are growing at alarming rates.

Like Europe, North American atheism and agnosticism are on the rise, accounting for 15% of the population—up from 8.4% in 1990. Muslims represent only 0.6% of the US population—insignificant compared to Europe, which runs above 10% in many countries. Still, Muslim presence in America has doubled over the past 15 years.

But is the light of Christ in North American that dim? Many think not. 

1,200 points of light

There’s always the hope of evangelicalism and its “1,200 points of light,” better known as the megachurch movement. In 2005 the Hartford Institute reported there are 1,210 Protestant churches in the United States with weekly attendances over 2,000—the benchmark of megachurches—nearly double the number of congregations of that size five years earlier.

In 1900 there were only six megachurches; by 1960 there were 16—though they were not well known in the broader culture. That all changed in the 1970s with churches like Dr. Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral and his Hour of Power national television production.

Over 25% of all megachurches have been founded since 1990, with the average attendance growing from 2,600 in 1946 to 3,440 today. A typical megachurch annual budget tops $6M, with “mega-megachurches” (over 10,000 attendance) averaging $24M and 131-member paid staffs. In the early 1990s I served on a megachurch staff with 150 full- and part-time employees—larger than the average attendance in a typical American evangelical church!

In sum, today there are more megachurches with more people attending them, taking in more money, adding more staff, and offering more programs. I suspect they will continue growing, probably at a greater rate.

Overwhelmingly evangelical

Megachurches are overwhelmingly evangelical. Thirty-four percent are non-denominational; 26% are affiliated with a variety of Baptist denominations; the rest are from small, emerging denominations (like Calvary Chapel and Vineyard), and Pentecostals (most notably Assemblies of God). The exception to the “mainline Protestant” trend is among the United Methodists, though almost all the Methodist megachurch congregations are evangelical.

The perception in the secular media is that megachurches are middle-class white bread, which isn’t always true. I recently visited the Brooklyn (NY) Tabernacle, a 10,000-member plus, multi-ethnic congregation known for its Grammy Award winning choir. Led by Pastor Jim Cymbala, the Tabernacle has helped revitalize inner-city Brooklyn. Cymbala’s vision from the beginning—he came to a tiny church in 1971—was to reach the various subgroups of their multi-ethnic community. He has attained that goal; the Brooklyn Tabernacle is one of the most ethnically diverse churches in America.

Another perception is that megachurches are overwhelmingly politically conservative. In fact, research shows that few megachurches are openly politically active, though according to surveys their memberships tend to vote Republican. They would be better described as morally conservative, openly opposing abortion and gay marriage.

Megachurch pastors like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen are clarion voices in American culture, and their congregations—with regular weekly attendances topping 30,000—are the great cathedrals of modernity, meeting on multimillion dollar campuses that offer a smorgasbord of spiritual, educational, physical, and even dietary programs. The pastors are icons of success and wealth, top-selling authors and television personalities, even power-brokers who advise Presidents and billionaires.

Megachurches and Wal-Marts

What accounts for the rise of evangelical megachurches and their influential pastors? Not to discount the work of the Holy Spirit and gifted leadership, I believe there are cultural and economic trends that inevitably led to this unique experiment in American Christianity, and some of these same factors could be megachurches’ undoing.

A remarkable similarity exists between megachurches and megastores—perhaps best symbolized by the ubiquitous Wal-Mart Super Centers. Wal-Mart controls one in every five retail sales in America—a staggering $312 billion in 2005—with an aim to double their sales within the next five years. Smiling greeters welcome 176 million customers to Wal-Marts every week. The reasons for Wal-Mart’s success are obvious: A better selection of high quality goods at lower prices in a one-stop shopping environment.

The reasons for the ascendancy of megachurches are quite similar to Wal-Mart’s keys. Simply stated, megachurches do church better than their small- and middle-sized church counterparts. Their virtues—which are obvious to the most casual observer—are considerable: 

  • Clean, modern campuses that look more like office buildings than ancient Cathedrals—or even like the Presbyterian Church down the street. In this age of secularism, Americans are strangely comforted by the sanitized feel of conference-center churches. It also helps that they have big parking lots. 
  • Dynamic speakers with relevant, engaging messages that equip people to cope with the everyday trials of modernity—marriage and children, business stress, personal finances, sex, addictions, emotional trauma. Mega pastors are usually supported by research staffs that pepper their messages with compelling statistics and engaging anecdotes. 
  • Their messages are supplemented with high quality live dramas, video presentations, and rocking bands or majestic choirs, utilizing millions of dollars worth of sound, lighting, and staging props. Some churches have a theater-production feeling, others a weekly Pentecostal revival—but all of them are engaging and exciting. 
  • Megachurch programming is outstanding, starting with sizzling and safe children’s and youth ministries—the first concern of most parents in a culture that’s seen an explosion of child abuse in recent years. Computer tracking, video taping, and professional staff background checking put parents at ease. For adults, state-of-the-art sub-ministries promise you will grow spiritually, overcome addictions, lose weight, and find new friends. 
  • Finally, a healthy distance from senior pastors allows members to admire them without the messy complications of knowing them personally and learning about their human shortcomings. One megachurch pastor I know has a policy of not having meals with church members, joking that when he does they usually leave the church within a few months. Smaller church pastors don’t have this luxury.

It was General George S. Patton who observed, in his famous speech to the 3rd Army in May of 1944, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time.” Indeed, Americans love winners, and megachurches are the Super Bowl champions of religion. No wonder they attract millions of fans every week. 

 

~ Adapted from Appendix D of Power Evangelism

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