`Close-Knit' Megachurches

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, September 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

`Close-Knit' Megachurches


Dart, John, The Christian Century


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.

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. …

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