A Research Summary Of America's Largest Churches

Using many of the Faith Communities Today survey questions, Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research collaborated on a 2015 survey of megachurches. Their report offers insight into trends that are shaping America's largest Protestant churches, and indirectly influencing all other congregations as well. The following excerpts from that report highlight a few of trends and challenges evident in these large and growing churches.
View the full megachurch report for greater detail of these and other results.

Rapid growth remains a hallmark of very large congregations. The median growth rate was 26% over five years - over 5% a year on average. The median weekly attendance in 2014 was 2,696; with a median of 3,800 persons who regularly participate in the life of these churches. Worship at these very large churches is characterized as contemporary (including electric guitars, bass, keyboard and praise band), highly technological (having projection, large screens, sound boards, and wifi) and is self-described as inspirational, joyful, nurturing of faith, thought-provoking, and filled with sense of God's presence. These churches offer a wide array of programs for members and have significant outreach to the larger community. The membership of megachurches is significantly younger and more racially diverse than congregations of other sizes.

Noteworthy Continuing Trends

* Increasing numbers of churches are adopting a multisite strategy.
In 2010, 46% of megachurches were multisite, and now five years later that has grown to 62% of very large churches, with another 10% contemplating the approach. With this strategy, a church can maintain a smaller physical size, grow larger and, as evidenced by the survey findings, grow faster than single-site megachurches.

* Small groups remain critical to success.
Megachurches continue to have a very high level of intentional use of small groups. Seventy-nine percent say it is central and that they are intentional about maximizing the number and variety of small groups they offer. A median of 40% of the adults in these congregation are involved in small groups. Having such groups is highly beneficial; those which are intentional about the practice are much more likely to report being spiritual vital.

* Use of online campuses is rising.
Currently 30% of megachurches offer an online campus experience-described as more than video streaming of the service, including interactive features, staff involvement and online attendee accountability-and 18% more are considering this approach. This effort goes hand in hand with other major uses of technology.

* Significant involvement in missions, world missions, and social outreach.
Global mission programs are a major emphasis or a specialty of the congregation for 81% of megachurches. Likewise, giving to all missions has increased in the last decade to median of 14%. Additionally, 81% of megachurches report having a major emphasis on engagement in community service programs.

* Many megachurches are extensively multiracial.
In 2015, 10% of megachurches claimed to have congregations with no racial majority. Additionally, 37% of churches surveyed had between 20% and 49% minority presence.

Ongoing Challenges

Often megachurches are perceived as having a world of advantages over smaller congregations. Their relative numerical success often masks other dynamics that pose real challenges for a large church's leadership team. Findings from the survey highlight a number of the more serious megachurch challenges. It is critical, however, to remember that these ongoing challenges are not just felt by very large churches but plague all congregations alike whether big or small.

* Promoting the active engagement of participants.

It is a known fact that the larger the group, the more difficult it is to engage those participants in the active life of the congregation. Much like a pattern observed in congregations of all sizes, regular members are attending less frequently - those who once came every week are now as likely to attend 2-3 times a month as they are every week.

The connection between attendance and involvement is a crucial issue for any church, and especially for these very large congregations. Having a high percentage of robust actively engaged members enhances many congregational dynamics. The greater this percentage of total participants as active attendees, the larger the per capita giving amount. Likewise, there is a positive correlation between the percentage of active persons and the percent of members in small groups. Additionally, churches that implement intentional systems of member accountability show significantly higher levels of participation.

* Continuing to attract, maintain and minister to young adults.
Megachurches in general are more attractive to young adults than smaller congregations, yet even they garner a smaller percentage of 18-34 year olds (19%) than is found in the general U.S. population (23%). There has also been a very slight decrease in the percentage of this age group since the 2010 survey. Yet, sixty-eight percent of megachurch leaders say their programs for 18-34 year olds are a top or a main ministry priority. Giving young adult ministry a priority status makes a difference; the more a church is intentional about young adult ministry, the larger percentage of them it will have in the congregation.

* Sustaining innovation and the willingness to change
Innovation and willingness to change are strongly correlated to growth and health in congregations. Both these characteristics are strong components of megachurches. Yet figures from the 2015 megachurch study show dips in scores for both these characteristics. Ten percent fewer respondents indicated that worship as innovative fit them very well compared to five years ago. Barely a third (37%) of churches in 2015 strongly agreed they were willing to change to meet new challenges whereas 54% did so in 2010.

The largest-attendance Protestant churches in the United States remain strong and vital in how they self-assess themselves on a number of issues. At the same time, these very large churches face many of the same challenges as congregations of other sizes. Additionally, their large size makes aspects of their religious work that much more difficult, such as creating commitment, community, and member engagement. This report hints at a number of patterns evident in the findings that provide possible paths for strengthening many of these critical facets of ministry.

Continuing News About Our "Engaging Young Adults" Report

The recent Faith Communities Today 2015 Report on Engaging Young Adults has been featured by various media outlets in the past month. Check out the following resources and links:
Articles and video by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership's online newsletter, Leading Ideas:

Lessons from Churches that Reach Young Adults

What Churches Do Young Adults Attend?

Engaging Young Adults (Video)
Audio Interview with Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi by the Columbia Partnership's FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community:

"Passion, not money, needed for vibrant young adult ministries, study shows" Article by Baptist News Global:
Coming Attractions

Watch for our next report coming soon!

school and congregational education programs are the focus of the next Faith Communities Today report. Written by Joseph Crockett, Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, this extensive report will cover the interesting findings from our survey's section devoted to understanding educational programs and their influence on congregational dynamics. 

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