Flexible Megachurches Rival Denominations

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, October 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Flexible Megachurches Rival Denominations


Dart, John, The Christian Century


Displaying swift adaptability in the early 2000s, America's largest congregations may be reshaping institutional church life, suggests a national megachurch survey, the third conducted in eight years.

"In some sense megachurches can be seen as becoming de facto replacements for denominations in that they are duplicating many of the functions of these bureaucratic national bodies," wrote the coauthors of the study of about 400 Protestant congregations that draw more than 1,800 adults and children on a typical weekend.

In the late 20th century Vineyard churches and the Calvary Chapels expanded beyond their founding megachurches to become quasi-denominations. The founding pastors of large churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback Church have since grown in influence partly through their annual leadership institutes and informal networking with "tens of thousands" of pastors via the Internet and newsletters, researchers said. The number of megachurches sponsoring pastor conferences grew from 47 percent to 54 percent in the last eight years.

Church education literature as well as worship and music materials produced by the largest churches are already "consumed en masse by smaller churches" of various denominations, wrote Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and Warren Bird of the Dallas-based Leadership Network.

Working with questionnaires from a survey that ended in August, the researchers pointed out in an Internet news conference September 11 some adjustments and innovations that might be mimicked in other midsized or big churches.

"More megachurches are adopting Web-based streaming media to broadcast their message than the more costly radio and TV approaches," they said.

Fewer big churches are running church schools, the study found. In 2000, 42 percent of the churches surveyed operated a Christian elementary or secondary school, compared to only 25 percent this year.

When it comes to training potential staff and ministerial candidates, 69 percent of big churches say they have their own internship or residency programs, the report said. It was not clear if those programs serve as substitutes for seminary education, but there is some indication that they are functioning that way for associate pastors, said Thumma. …

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