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Ask an Evangelical: Are megachurches always Evangelical?

SpokaneFāVS Presents_What do you want to know about Evangelicalism? Pastor Rob Bryceson, of The Gathering House Church, and Elizabeth Backstrom, a member of The Gathering House, co-author this column. Submit your question here.

In pop culture, it looks like megachurches always belong to Evangelical congregations. Is this true? And if yes, why is this the case? And if not, do you know why the perception exists that megachurches are Evangelical?

Response from Rob Bryceson:

Rob Bryceson
Rob Bryceson

Thanks for the question. I honestly don’t think it’s simply a “perception” issue, that the vast majority of megachurches are Evangelical; it’s more of a reality. The term megachurche applies to any single congregation that gathers more than 2,000 people on a Sunday. But recently some church leadership conferences are starting to use 5,000 for the term “Mega” and 2,000+ as simply “very large.”

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research claims that there about 1,650 churches in the USA that fit the 2,000-plus attendee’s definition. Interestingly enough their study also indicates there are 3,000 Catholic churches that fit the attendance definition but do not share any of the same characteristics of and therefore are not considered to be megachurches by definition.

The Formats of megachurches:

There are different formats for megachurches. Some are huge single campuses that seat thousands of people at one time in a massively large complex. Usually the church seating capacity is divided up into multiple services. So a church of say 3,000 may only build an auditorium with a seating capacity of perhaps 1,000 while children’s ministry holds a large number of attendees. The entire church never meets at one time. Examples of the largest of these churches nationally are Willow Creek in South Barrington, Illinois, and Saddleback in Orange County California. Local examples would include Life Center on Government Way and Real Life Ministries in Post Falls. These kinds of megachurches are also often responsible for planting many other churches around a metropolitan area.

Another type has a single campus and several satellite campuses where the service is broadcast in from the host location into the other area campuses. The whole church meets in numerous buildings across a wide metropolitan area. The locations are usually not independent churches but are part of the property holdings and under the leadership of the main host church. Typically the music and announcements are all performed live at each campus with all of them sharing the same song list and format but the sermon is broadcast in. Sometimes even the satellites can hold thousands in a single service. Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in the Atlanta area and its five campuses has over 24,000 attendees each week. Craig Groeschel of Live.church in Oklahoma with six other campuses in six different states, would be another example.

Characteristics of megachurches:

The phenomenon of the megachurch started in the 1970’s. Megachurches are typically led by a single, dynamic, charismatic leader who has built the church over a 10-plus year period. Most of the 1,300 churches that fit the title are located in the Sun Belt region of the USA, from Southern California across Texas, the South to Florida. These churches have dozens of full time associate pastors, numerous fulltime and part time support staff and thousands of weekly volunteers. Many of these churches can count the number of their paid staff in the 300 range. They have coffee shops, sprawling campuses, huge parking lots, Christian book stores, and even e food courts.

They work diligently to create a sense of community by hosting numerous studies and groups that break the large assembly down into more intimate subgroups and affinity ministries which meet weekly, often in homes, and they are all active in missions and social change. Most people in a community have no idea how much counseling, marriage building, parenting classes, Bible Study and Recovery is going on inside the walls of those large complexes in a given week.

The Hartford Institute’s 2015 study showed that only 0.5 percent of mega churches are classified as liberal. They also state: “Virtually all these megachurches have a conservative theology, even those within mainline denominations.  A large number are nondenominational but the majority are affiliated with a denomination.”

The Role of Theology:

Theologically conservative churches make up the vast majority of megachurches. I’m using the term conservative here to mean the belief in the literal life, miracles, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Son of God, while also holding a view of the bible as the Holy Spirit breathed, inspired word of God to humankind. Where megachurches differ and split theologically would be on issues of the role of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals and charismatics emphasize a personal experience with signs and wonders, healing miracles, supernatural tongues and prophecies, while many other denominations and churches eschew these practices. Many of these churches can hold to what is called prosperity doctrine which is the belief that God wants all his children to be rich, healthy and happy. These goals are obtained through faith as demonstrated by generous donations to the church and pastor. The prosperity doctrine churches tend to be among the charismatics and are staunchly rejected by the main host of us Evangelicals as a false teaching.

Evangelicals would say that reason our churches have grown so fast and so strong is because they hold to the ancient and historic understanding of Christianity. Evangelicals are keeping the faith as handed down from the apostles and the bible and therefore the Spirit of God is present building up our churches. Modern Americans who are looking for a relationship with God will find it in the churches that hold fast to the teaching of Jesus Christ as historically understood by the church for the last 2,000 years. After all it was Jesus himself who said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me,” in John 14:6.


Response from Elizabeth Backstrom:

Elizabeth Backstrom
Elizabeth Backstrom

Hi, thanks for writing in! From my perspective, megachurches are represented as Evangelical in pop culture because this is largely an accurate stereotype. See the study that Pastor Rob Bryceson referenced above.

Attendance at these churches is also growing steadily, the study shows, with most churches growing 5 to 10 percent or more a year.
Additionally, many of the most well-known evangelical pastors lead megachurches, and these pastors get press time. Names like Franklin Graham, Rick Warren and Joel Olsteen are easy pop-culture references to make because they’re most familiar to many people. Televangelists and megachurches thus become synonymous with evangelicalism (and a certain brand of evangelicalism that everyone does not ascribe to).
But largely, I believe the perception exists about megachurches and Evangelicalism because it is accurate.
I think megachurches are so successful partially because they cater to the consumerist culture so prevalent in worship today. They also offer community people are seeking, or at least the illusion of it.
They have the staff and capacity to hold different types of services and groups at different times of day based on variables like music preference, and the money to pay for extras like auxiliary classes, educational staff and amenities like food and coffee. They can afford nice equipment and full worship bands, and marketing staff to sell the whole package. It’s not what everyone wants, but this worship experience certainly appeals to a segment of the population, and I believe that’s part of the reason these types of churches flourish. It’s ready-made community, and in our increasingly isolated society, we want this.


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Eric Blauer

It’s interesting to me how people weigh in on different aspects of the ‘mega’ church issue. On one hand folks will often complain about how there’s a “church on every corner” and also make disparage remarks about mega-churches too. Would people rather see more church buildings built in their community or see larger buildings used multiple times? If you filled every church building in spokane with people, you still wouldn’t be making much a dent on reaching new folks. The need is WAY ahead of the means to gather anywhere near the amount of people in this town that could be attending. If a serious spiritual awakening takes place, churches will be scrambling to find adequate space to gather together for encouragement, equipping and education.

Eric Blauer

I saw this today: Biggest megachurches located not in U.S. but in Asia, Africa: More people embracing Jesus Christ worldwide. http://www.christiantoday.com/article/biggest.megachurches.located.not.in.u.s.but.in.asia.africa.more.people.embracing.jesus.christ.worldwide/85123.htm

Ben Backstrom

I for one always had the idea that all megachurches are Protestant and Evangelical. The statistic about Catholic churches with over 2,000 attendees shows that’s not true. Very interesting.

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