The Improbability of a Megachurch

One of the dominant stories in American Christianity in the last 25 years has been the rise of the “megachurch.” According to a recent study published in the 9 June USA Today there are 1,300 “megachurches” in the USA. For the purposes of the study “megachurch” was defined as having 2,000 or more persons attending. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of churches in the USA are less than 200 people. This means about 5 million Americans attend megachurches. If the  ISAE is correct then there are about 60 million “evangelicals” in North America;  only about 8% attend megachurches. All this makes me wonder why so many pastors are sitting in their studies (do pastors have studies any more or do they only have “offices”?) this morning wondering what they have to do to make their congregations into “megachurches”? (HT: John Bales).

Buildings, bodies, and budgets. This is what most American pastors are expected to produce. These are thing things for which they get rewarded, but, apparently, it’s statistically unlikely. Most pastors have a less than 1/10 “chance” of pastoring a megachurch. If so and if “success” = having a megachurch then most pastors are statistically doomed to failure.

Shouldn’t such realities cause pastors to re-consider their vocation? After all, statistically, their chances of “success” are less than those of the worst batters in the lowest levels of unaffiliated, minor-league baseball. Perhaps such statistics should cause ministers, after another exhausting and frustrating Sunday of managing people and programs, to take stock on Monday of what their vocation really is? What if their vocation isn’t to manage or to achieve outcomes but to be faithful to a message (the good news that Christ is risen!) and to a process (Word and sacrament ministry)? What if their vocation actually is to leave the outcomes to God the Spirit?

The AP also highlights the fact that the average age of a mega-church attenders is 40, about 13 years younger than what the AP calls “typical” Protestant churches. I guess the latter category includes declining and aging mainline denominations such as the United Methodist or PCUSA or UCC where the average age probably trends higher. This study reminds me how little I know about the demographics of the NAPARC congregations. I have experience and anecdotal evidence but has anyone ever conducted a serious demographic study of who attends NAPARC congregations?  What is our average age? Ethnicity? Education level? What is our median income? How much do NAPARC-ers give to their local congregations? What’s the average attendance of a NAPARC congregation? Does anyone know these things? Does anyone even know the actual membership of the largest NAPARC denomination (the PCA)? I’m told that many PCA congregations do not report their attendance—what does this mean?

Pastor, if you preached the gospel and loved your people yesterday, then you fulfilled your vocation. If the Spirit brings 1900 more people to your congregation, praise God. If he doesn’t: praise God. The church belongs to our sovereign, gracious, all-wise, triune God. You and I are only ministers. We’re not management.

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  1. Thank you for this, Dr. Clark. From those of us who labor in the world to pay the bills and labor in the Word to be faithful to our vocation, our collective thanks.

  2. How many evangelicals is that again? Check out The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church (Hardcover) by Christine Wicker.

  3. I don’t know about the PCA or URCNA but the OPC (being small and feisty) does track its numbers fairly well. The last time I counted/estimated the numbers in the NAPARC denominations it came out to about 600,000 with upwards of 400,000 in the PCA.

  4. What is with the “Big is better ,small is sin” outlook that still prevails years after the CHurch Growth Movement? There are about a handful of megachurches here in Australia ,the largest being HillSong which has 20,000 members.
    The Church where I go to ,yes it is Baptist,but we have Anglicans,Presbyterians,Lutherans and people who had no religious affiliation before they became Christians. We hold to the Creeds,and we are growing. Starting out 7 years ago with 25 people,it is now nearly 300 and we have been asked to pray ,as the pastors believe that the church needs to decentralise or develop in other areas,so as to reduce the risk of becomming BIG

  5. Oh, I know the ethnicity of our churches! Don’t know about the rest of it, but I’ve got some good guesses.

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