A continued rise in megachurches?

Megachurches continue to grow in the United States and around the world:

Even with a growing share of the American population who say they do not identify with any religion, megachurch domination continues to rise. In all, 10% of worshipers attend churches that draw in more than 2,000 people, totaling nearly six million megachurch attendees nationwide each weekend.

And it’s not just the U.S. that catching onto super-sized congregations. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a single church in Korea says more than 250,000 people attend services there. By comparison, Hartford researchers say America’s largest megachurch has an average of 45,000 attendees…

A major driver behind the rapid expansion are often the leaders themselves. As congregations slowly began to swell in numbers, so too did the star-status of the leaders at the church’s helm. Church leaders and televangelists like Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson paved the path in becoming household names marketing themselves in the big business of bringing faith to the masses…

Churches built a franchise out of the success, setting up satellite branches just to keep up with the demand. In what critics have called the “Wal-Mart effect,” megachurches are expanding in suburban areas, absorbing congregants from small-town churches and running them dry. To keep up with the demand, megachurches lead multiple services held throughout the entire weekend. For church campuses hosting guest speakers or church leaders from out of town, live video monitors bring services to congregations sometimes held hundreds of miles away.

“Clearly the majority of the people who came to a megachurch were coming from a congregation nearby. Then there’s also a sizable number of folks that say they came to that congregation and they hadn’t really gone to any for a long time,” Thumma said. “If you’re moving to a suburb, the megachurch allows you an almost instant community of people who think like you.”

I’m not sure this article says much new about megachurches. It hits some of the key points: lots of Americans attend, it has spread to some other countries, charismatic leaders often lead the way, and they are typically suburban and draw from across a metropolitan region.

Alas, this article could go a lot further to actually discuss megachurches beyond having a catchy headline. For example:

1. The average size of American churches is actually quite smaller. According to the National Congregations Study, the average church was 75 people in 2006-2007. See wave three of the NCS data here.

2. Just how common are megachurches around the world? The article cites one church – a really big one in South Korea – but doesn’t say anything else.

3. It is easy to focus on superstar pastors like Rick Warren or Joel Osteen or T.D. Jakes. But, is this the primary reason people attend megachurches? Are they primarily drawn by the big name or do the churches offer key features?

4. The satellite church phenomenon is relatively new for a lot of big churches. How effective is this model?

Overall, this is the sort of media piece that rehashes information for readers who don’t know much about megachurches but misses an opportunity to go deeper.

The benefits of institutions over charismatic authority for evangelicals

American evangelicals may often prize celebrity pastors and figures but sociologist and college president Michael Lindsay argues institutions provide more lasting impact:

Weber distinguished between different kinds of authority. Traditional authority is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority is what President Obama has. You’re on top of a major bureaucracy, and that’s how you get things done. And then there’s charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had. It’s the authority that Jesus had. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized; in other words, it has to be channeled into an institutional form. The authority of a charismatic individual has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, for instance, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, his ministry will continue. Charles Colson died two years ago. But much of his work is continuing in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Charismatic leaders are rare and it can often be difficult to take the better things they do and imbue that into institutions. Yet, institutions can have incredible staying power and operate at a broader level of society.

While evangelicals may be showing more interest in institutions, such a viewpoint rubs against the typical evangelical tendency toward individualism. The charismatic leader can fit the American story of working hard and making something of oneself. The attractive leader can pull in individuals through new technologies as evangelicals effectively used the ascending radio and television scenes. (Interestingly, I’ve seen much less about evangelicals effectively harnessing the Internet for their ends. Perhaps such an analysis can come with time.) Appealing to institutions requires both leaders and adherents to turn their focus more to the communal than their own interests. This is a difficult switch, particularly in certain areas like Smith and Emerson demonstrate in Divided By Faithwith the inability for white evangelicals to beyond the individual to the social dimensions of race in America.

Can Weber’s concept of charismatic authority predict a decline for Apple?

One analyst suggests that Apple without Steve Jobs will decline because as sociologist Max Weber suggested, organizations change after their charismatic leader is gone:

Weber described three essential business categories: Legal/bureaucratic, traditional, and charismatic, with the latter companies typically helmed by individuals with the “gift of grace.”…
“Followers and disciples have absolute trust in the leader, fed by that leader’s access to nearly magical powers. Charismatic authority repudiates the past, and is in this sense a specifically revolutionary force.”

According to Colony, Apple chose a “proven and competent executive” – Tim Cook – to succeed Jobs. Nevertheless, the analyst believes the new CEO’s “legal/bureaucratic approach” will prove to be a mismatch for an organization that feeds off the gift of grace…

“Apple’s momentum will carry it for 24-48 months. But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation,” the analyst predicted.

I guess we can wait and see if Weber’s ideas apply to this situation. Weber described this transition after the loss of a charismatic leader as a process of routinization where the group bureaucratizes this charisma.

A few things make this process more messy:

1. At one point, Steve Jobs didn’t have this “magic” either such as before he was inventing things or when he stepped down from Apple. This suggests that context matters: certain ideas are produced or take off based on a variety of other circumstances.

2. Judging by the recent stock price, investors don’t seem too worried about Apple’s future. At what point will they and other start publicly suggesting that the loss of Jobs is a really big hurdle to overcome? Is this an “acceptable” reason for a company to plateau?

3. Shouldn’t one measure of a good leader be the ability to empower others to take over and do well (or even better?) in the future when that leader is gone? If so, perhaps we should be asking whether Jobs was equipping others at Apple to succeed after him or not.

4. Is this an inevitable process for groups that lose a charismatic authority?

Learning from the organizational structure of al-Qaida

Studying organizations is hot today and here is some real-world evidence: US Special Operations forces were aided in their search for terrorists by mimicking al-Qaida’s structure.

One of the greatest ironies of the 9/11 Era: while politicians, generals and journalists lined up to denounce al-Qaida as a brutal band of fanatics, one commander thought its organizational structure was kind of brilliant. He set to work rebuilding an obscure military entity into a lethal, agile, secretive and highly networked command — essentially, the U.S.’ very own al-Qaida. It became the most potent weapon the U.S. has against another terrorist attack.

That was the work of Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal is best known as the general who lost his command in Afghanistan after his staff shit-talked the Obama administration to Rolling Stone. Inescapable as that public profile may be, it doesn’t begin to capture the impact he made on the military. McChrystal’s fingerprints are all over the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force that eventually killed Osama bin Laden. As the war on terrorism evolves into a series of global shadow wars, JSOC and its partners — the network McChrystal painstakingly constructed — are the ones who wage it.

Very interesting. This story suggests that factors manpower, equipment, and even charismatic leadership can only go so far: an organization’s structure is vital to its outcome.

Several Weberian thoughts that I have:
1. If this course of action is now considered a success, would the rest of the Armed Forces (and even other organizations) be willing to change their organizational structures? Is this the end of bureaucracy in the Armed Forces or could there be other global situations or battlefields where a traditional bureaucratic structure works better?

2. The article places a lot of emphasis on General McChrystal and his finer and lesser moments. Is McChrystal a classic example of a “charismatic authority” and if so, can his work be routinized? In his forthcoming book, will McChrystal put himself at the center of the story? Since it sounds like JSOC has moved on without him with his ideas, was McChrystal’s ultimate role to introduce these ideas and then bow out? And if McChrystal is good at solving such problems, where could he be put to best serve?

A final thought: how would the American public respond to this idea that adopting al-Qaida’s ideas is what can make America (and its military) great? Is this American pragmatism at work?