|TWIN CITIES — The church experience worldwide is as varied as the individuals who make up each worship community. House churches litter the globe, with very little accouterments and oftentimes very few members. On the other side of the spectrum, the mega-church—mainly a Western phenomenon—reaches thousands of people and relies on the latest in technology to enhance the worship experience.
The mega-church experience, however, is a relatively recent development in the American Protestant religious landscape. Typically, a mega-church is defined as having more than 2,000 attendees. According to Barney Warf and Morton Winsberg in the “Journal of Cultural Geography,” there were only 50 churches in the U.S. that met that distinction in 1970. That number gradually rose each decade until 1990, when slightly more than 300 churches could be classified as mega-churches.
Shortly after 1990, the number of mega-churches in the U.S. rose dramatically, with more than 1,300 recorded in 2005.
According to the Rev. Dr. John Mayer, executive director of City Vision, there are currently approximately 25 Protestant churches in the Twin Cities that regularly see 2,000 attendees each week. That includes the largest mega-church in the Twin Cities—Eagle Brook Church—with 16,000 attendees, followed by Living Word Church, Wooddale Church, Hosanna Lutheran Church and North Heights Lutheran Church, among numerous others.
The Twin Cities is also home to eight of the 10 largest Lutheran churches, according to Mayer, the four largest Baptist General Conference/Converge Worldwide churches and the third largest Presbyterian Church in America, Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina.
While the number of mega-churches and attendees has continued to increase, some have recently speculated that the mega-church in America would ultimately serve as a trend, slowly running out of steam and essentially dying out.
Since that doesn’t appear to be the case currently, one of the possible reasons for this could be related to the unique set and amount of resources mega-churches provide.
“I think a key strength of the mega-church model is that it is resource rich,” said Sue Payne, assistant professor of Church Ministries at Northwestern College in St. Paul. “It has the best of preachers/teachers, it has gifted worship/music leaders and musicians. It has a program for almost anyone; it has the comfort of good coffee, nice décor and an on-site bookstore.”
With a plentiful supply of resources, these large church communities also have the potential to accomplish things smaller churches cannot.
“[Mega-churches] build amazing facilities for children and youth,” Payne continued. “They have the latest in technology. The gathered community can do ‘big’ things together—like run a food pantry, sponsor thousands of children in a third world community, supply mentors or tutors for an entire school or raise a million dollars for disaster relief.”
While immense resources and numerous ministry possibilities attract many believers—and non-believers—some criticize the mega-church for its focus on what they perceive as entertainment over community, an environment where the group is emphasized to the detriment of the individual and the possibility of “getting lost in the shuffle” of a church that can often function like a small city.
Nevertheless, Payne believes that the mega-church will survive as long as the Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers, the generations who essentially developed the model, are still alive and still attend these churches.
Yet she believes that younger generations may miss the “sense of relationship and community” that smaller congregations can impart. The idea is this: “If I am not there, it will be noticed, and I will be missed—the desire to build deep relationships with a few and the willingness to sacrifice my desires in order to do that.”
While the mega-church phenomenon has continued to grow in America, there are challenges and changes ahead.
Mayer believes that as we move into the future, there will be fewer one-site mega-churches and more multi-site congregations.
“I think we will see less traditional big-building, one site-type mega-churches and more multi-site mega-churches,” he said. “Multi-sites create more flexibility in structure than traditional church plants. You get the same budgets, can share staff more easily, and you get the same DNA. So it is much riskier than a traditional church planting situation. You can also have some sites that are part of a mega-church multi-site that aren’t mega-churches and are smaller in size and so you get the best of both worlds in this case: a big church in a smaller setting.”
Currently, Mayer said there are 70 multi-site churches in the Twin Cities; 24 of them are mega-churches.
Each culture around the world approaches worship with its own particular emphases. In the U.S., the focus on individualism will continue to make the mega-church an attractive option for many, according to Payne.
“I think the current mega-church folks will continue to like them,” Payne said. “I also think the American culture, with an emphasis on individualism and ‘what I like’ will make the resources available in the large churches continue to be attractive for a church choice.”
However, Payne wonders if technology, a strong attractional point for some mega-church attendees, will have a negative impact on these congregations down the road.
“It will be interesting to see how the more recent (last five years’) easy availability of podcasts, live video, etc. will change whether more people turn to a computer screen instead of making the drive to church,” she said. “The mega-church has always known they had to figure out the community piece—so those who attend only for the top-notch teacher may download their teaching but find a community for fellowship somewhere else.”
ACTIONPOINT: For more information about City Vision and for a variety of church data, visit www.cityvisiontc.org.