Close-knit Megachurches

by John Dart

Formerly religion religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, John Dart is news editor of the Christian Century magazine.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 12-19, 2001, pp. 11 and 13. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at . This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A compilation of megastatistics about the megachurch.

The first systematic survey of U.S. megachurches has shown that while they average some 3,850 worshipers weekly, a full 50 percent of them say they feel like "a close-knit family." The study also found that the very big congregations affiliated with a denomination tend to have tenuous ties at best to their national bodies.

Theological Character of Megachurches:

Evangelical 48%

Charismatic 14%

Moderate 12%

Pentecostal 11%

Traditional 8%

Seeker 3%

Fundamentalist 2%

Other 3%

The "close-knit" sense was due largely "to extensive use of small-group fellowship in megachurches," said principal researcher Scott Thumma of the seminary-based Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Fifty percent said the small-group structures were central to their strategy for Christian nurture and spiritual formation; another 44 percent said they had small groups but it wasn’t a key strategy.

While independent congregations made up a third of the responding churches, the survey also included numerous Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God churches and several mainline congregations. Only 30 percent of the megachurches with denominational links said their congregation "expresses [its] denominational heritage" and 49 percent said that denominational leadership was "of no importance," according to the survey related to the large Faith Communities Today (FACT) study, which was released earlier this year.

Mainline-aligned congregations totaled only 10 percent among both the 604 churches that were sent questionnaires and the 153 that returned usable responses, Thumma reported. The survey includes only churches with an average attendance of at least 1,800 per week. As expected, most very large churches are conservative in theology, with 48 percent seeing themselves as evangelical, another 25 percent as charismatic or Pentecostal. The least popular self-description was fundamentalist (2 percent), with moderate (12), traditional (8) and "seeker" or "other" (3 percent each) rounding out the choices.

The fact that many high-profile megachurches do not feature their connections to, say, Baptist, Presbyterian or Lutheran denominations is not a totally disturbing trend, suggested Thumma. "After all, the denomination has more to gain by having these congregations as part of its flock than the church benefits from being part of a denomination," he said. The average yearly income for the survey-participating megachurches was $4.8 million in 1999. Given their choice, many megachurches create their own educational materials with only 27 percent purchasing worship, educational and other supplies primarily or exclusively from denominational sources.

Megachurches represent less than 1 percent of U.S. non-Catholic congregations, but Thumma said that they warrant further study because of their impact on other churches. Aspiring big-church pastors read about them. In addition, the survey showed that 47 percent of the megachurches sponsored pastors or ministerial conferences, and about four of every ten churches in the study had a radio or television ministry.

"Even if a small congregation doesn’t desire to have a 3,500-person worship service, it still looks to the programmatic characteristics of the megachurch for clues about what it should be doing," wrote Thumma in an analysis of the data recently posted on the Hartford Seminary Web site (

Since churches with large attendance usually cannot accommodate everyone Sunday morning, nearly half in the survey have a Saturday service and 20 percent conduct a service on Friday. Some 65 percent have a Sunday evening worship time. The average Sunday morning attendance alone is 2,913 people and the median seating capacity is 1,700, the study showed.

Sixty percent of megachurches always or often have altar calls in their services. About 72 percent use visual projection equipment and 43 percent include recorded music in services. Though organ and/or piano music is a staple in 92 percent of the churches, 75 to 80 percent report using some combination of electronic keyboards, guitars and drums.

The senior pastor is almost always male -- 99 percent in this survey, said Thumma. Six percent are African-Americans and another 6 percent of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Nearly all (97 percent) of the senior pastors had at least an undergraduate college degree, and 73 percent had at least one seminary degree. An average of 13 full-time paid ministers and 25 full-time paid program staff serve those churches.

"Megachurches are predominantly a phenomenon of the suburbs of very large cities," said Thumma, who was assisted in the research by John Vaughan of Church Growth Today, Bolivar, Missouri. Nearly four in ten churches were founded before 1961, but about two-thirds moved to their current locations after 1970. States with the greatest concentrations of megachurches: California, Texas, Florida and Georgia.