November 22, 2011
Skye Jethani: The Megachurch Bubble (Part 2)
The challenges of facing megachurches in a post-baby boomer society.
Finally, the chart shows that 85% of megachurch attenders are white. And I’m guessing that stat is probably equally true about megachurch leaders as congregations and leadership usually reflect one another. (Sorta the way owners resemble their pets.)
In 2008 the census bureau reported that whites will be a minority in the U.S. by 2042, eight years earlier than last predicted. And that date may accelerate once again depending on immigrant birthrates. And in some parts of the country the date will be much earlier. The point is, if most megachurches remain 85% white they will find a shrinking pool of potential members as the population becomes increasingly brown.
Am I predicting the demise of the megachurch movement? By no means. I think these large churches will continue, and we cannot lump all megachurches into the same category. Not all megas were started in 1980 by a baby-boomer in a growing white suburb. And many will navigate into the future with wisdom and skill.
But the cultural and demographic conditions that have fueled much of the megachurch movement, multiplication, and growth are changing. And whenever a new movement tries to leap from one generation to the next there are some who don’t clear the gap.
I’m reminded of an article by Walter Kallestad in Leadership. Walt led Community Church of Joy in Phoenix, a megachurch that had been an average congregation of 200 before he took over in the 80s and oversaw it’s growth. But in 2002 he suffered a massive heart attack requiring six-way bypass surgery. The heart attack, says Walt, was a “wake up call” for the leaders to develop a succession plan to ensure the megachurch continued to thrive after Walt’s tenure.
Kallestad began networking around the country looking for a young pastor he could bring onboard and eventually hand the church over to. One conversation stuck with him.
“It’s a pretty good opportunity,” Walt said. “We have 187 acres just of a major freeway, multipurpose buildings, and a great staff.”
The leader looked him in the eyes and said, “Who’d want it? Who in their right minds would want to run that?”
“That’s when it dawned on me,” Kallestad reflected. “By the time we service the $12-million debt, pay the staff, and maintain the property, we’ve spent more than a million before we can spend a dime on our mission. At the time, we had plans for a spectacular worship center with a retractable roof. After that conversation, I scrapped it.”
As Walt Kallestad discovered, for younger church leaders who value mission, social activism, and innovation, the thought of maintaining the mega-institutions built by their parents generation may prove to be a tough sell. No matter what happens, the next 10-15 years are going to be critical ones for the future of the American megachurch movement.