November 14, 2011
Skye Jethani: The Megachurch Bubble (Part 1)
Research shows large churches are getting larger...but for how long?
Megachurches are predominantly white, suburban, conservative congregations led by baby-boomer pastors. This is what an infographic about floating around the web lately has revealed. It's based on research compiled by Forbes, The Christian Post, and Leadership Network.
For the most part the stats look very positive for mega and gigachurches (yes, that is a term now being used). These massive congregations, unlike many other churches, are still growing. They're expanding staff, seeing increasing budgets and have an optimistic outlook.
But buried in the positive stats about megachurches may be signs of challenges ahead. Could a bubble be forming? And when it finally bursts will the mega-model be abandoned or severely reengineered? Are we seeing the maturation of the megachurch movement into a sustainable and long-term model for the American church? Or, like Wile E. Coyote, is the ground going to suddenly disappear under its feet? Let's look more closely at the numbers.
First, the average age of a megachurch pastor is now 50. Not surprising perhaps, but when linked with the fact that most megachurches are less than 30 years old, it means the senior pastor was likely the founding pastor, or the leader who took the congregation from average size to mega-status. Research found in James Twitchell's book, Shopping for God, reveals the number of megachurches exploded with the baby-boomers:
Approximate number of U.S. congregations with 2,000+ in weekly attendance:
Of course this rapid growth of megachurches doesn't mean church attendance has increased. On average 50 small churches close their doors every week in America. We've seen 40 years of the Walmart effect -- consolidation rather than expansion. And while the latest infographic reports the average megachurch was founded in 1971, most were not megachurches in 1971. They were average-sized congregations that reached mega-attendance levels in the 80s or 90s under the leadership of a baby-boomer pastor. (We've profiled a number of such churches in the pages of Leadership Journal over the years.)
With most of these congregations being led by boomers nearing retirement in the next 10-15 years, how will they navigate such a transition? Some will be fine. But these are uncharted waters for the young megachurch movement, and churches of all sizes tend to decline sharply during leadership transitions. It's part of the natural life-cycle of an organization. And some never recover at all -- the sad story of the Crystal Cathedral in California comes to mind.
So, while things are looking bright for megas right now, there are serious challenges ahead for these boomer-led churches.
Secondly, the infographic shows that half of all megachurches (48 percent) are located in young, growing suburbs of a major city. Anyone who has studied church growth or church planting knows that growing communities tend to fuel growing churches. (When was the last time you read about a growing church in Detroit?)
But like pastors, communities also age. I live in suburban Chicago. 30 years ago Dupage County was the growing edge of the Chicagoland area. Numerous churches were planted and grew to mega-status here. But today the growth edge is further west of the Fox River, and since the real estate bubble burst in 2008 growth has slowed significantly.
My point is that a megachurch located in a growing suburb in 1990 may no longer find itself in the same demographic soup that ignited it's rise to mega-ness. Some churches come to this realization and launched satellite campuses to tap into the new growing suburbs, but the long-term sustainability of such a model isn't clear. We're seeing an increasing number of multisite churches, including early pioneers of the model, release their campuses to be independent churches. Colonization, as history has shown, is rarely sustainable.
Adding to the dilemma is the megachurch model of very large facilities. It isn't likely that a megachurch formed in 1985 will abandon it's massive $30 million facility and relocate 40 miles away to be on the growing edge of the city again. They're going to have to find a way to fill and fund their facility in a suburb that is no longer growing demographically. For many that could prove challenging.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Skye's post on the megachurch bubble.