New Book Debunks Megachurch Myths

Ginny McCabe | Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer | Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New Book Debunks Megachurch Myths

There’s a new book on the horizon that will take a closer look at America’s megachurches. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches is slated to release in August from Jossey-Bass.

Throughout the course of the book, co-authors Dr. Scott Thumma and Dave Travis reveal what megachurches are, and are not, why they are thriving, what members say about their experiences, and why megachurches have a lot to teach smaller churches.

“It wasn't until I started doing national research in 2000 and again in 2005, that we started to get a much better picture of what megachurches look like, and the nuances within the movement, and the phenomenon, but also some of the commonalities,” explained Thumma. “We are planning another national study in 2008 and hopefully, 2010, and by that time, we should have a really good picture of the phenomenon, how it has been changing over time, and we will know even more.”

Thumma, from West Hartford, CT is a researcher in the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and a faculty member at the Hartford Seminary. Co-author Travis, from Snellville, GA, is the Executive Vice President of Leadership Network, a premier church-networking organization for innovative churches.

Together, in Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches, they take a look at seven common myths about megachurches, including that they: “are just too big to be good,” “water down faith,” and “serve people of the same race, class, and political views.” These and four more are addressed in the book.

“We constantly hear misconceptions about what megachurches are, and about the different misunderstandings that people have about them. What we are trying to do with our research is to say, ‘look, here’s the data we have collected,” and “here’s the data other people have collected,” and if you put it all together, you can paint a much more accurate picture of what megachurches are,” Thumma said. “We also wanted to dispel some of the myths that surround megachurches.”

Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (August, 2007; Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint) uses extensive research to expose some of these popular myths and it provides a clear picture of the unique characteristics and influences of megachurches.

“America has seen an explosion in the number of megachurches over the past three decades. They are growing bigger, faster, and stronger and are thriving in nearly every state in the nation and in much smaller communities than believed possible. A few have grown to hold more people than the town in which they reside. If all the people who are members of megachurches were combined, they would be the third largest religious group in the United States.” This is how the book begins, as it defines the scale and scope of megachurches in America.

To establish the groundwork, Thumma and Travis present a number of facts and figures about megachurches. These churches combined annual income is well over $7 billion. Yet, megachurches account for only one-half of 1 percent of all of the religious congregations in the nation. In 2007, there were 1,250 megachurches out of a total of 335,000 United States congregations of all religious traditions.

The megachurch, this relatively small number of very large (any Protestant Christian congregation that has attendance 2,000 or more persons on a weekend) Protestant Christian churches has the same number of attendees at weekly services (roughly 4.5 million) as the smallest 35 percent of churches in the country.

Yet, in spite of the trends, myths and misconceptions, Thumma and Travis point out that these megachurches are doing something right.

“Megachurches do have things to tell all of American Christianity about changes that are taking place in American society, and at least certain ways to minister and translate the Gospel to those folks,” Thumma said.

Though size is one defining factor of a megachurch, Thumma admits that it is not the only contributing factor.

“It’s in fact, much more complex than that. Because it’s not necessarily just about the number. There’s nothing magical about 2,000. Although the vast majority of megachurches are in this 2,000 to 3,000 range.  If you look at one of these churches over five or ten years, you see that they fluctuate from 1,700 and 1,800 to 2,500 and back down,” said Thumma.

However, he said once a congregation gets to that size, it means that it is a large organization and it has all kinds of complex dynamics that have to be addressed in certain ways.  Once a church reaches this size, it begins to give it characteristics of a general class of churches that function differently then smaller congregations do.

“You have to think about parking logistics, and you have to think about getting people from their cars into the sanctuary with more ease than if you just have one door, one sanctuary and 45 spaces,” he said. “You have to think about the service, in and out, and when the next service comes in, and the style of leadership, how are we going to budget, how are we going to utilize technology. It begins to bring in all kinds of organizational questions in some ways that are outside of the typical (parameters) of the church. If its size is 200 or 300, typically, those kinds of questions don’t come up. Clearly, once you move to the larger scale, congregations have to adapt and shift,” he said.

It’s these kinds of things that put larger churches in a class that is different than that of smaller churches.

“We hope to draw people to the information that we have collected, and that other people have collected about megachurches, what they look like, how they function, what their characteristics are to try dispel the myths and to clear up some of the misunderstandings about the megachurches,” Thumma said.

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