Only megachurches and “minichurches” in the United States?

Recent data suggests there may be two very different sizes of churches in the United States:

Photo by Emily Hopper on

According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100…

“Shrinking attendance figures coupled with an increase in the number and percent of small congregations obviously indicates that a good many congregations are not growing,” the study’s authors found. “Indeed, the median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%,” meaning half of all congregations declined in attendance by at least 7%.

While most congregations are small, however, most worshippers attend a larger congregation. Another prominent report, the National Congregations Study, found that while the average congregation is small — about 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.

The report reflects the reality that religious Americans are being sorted into two kinds of churches — megachurches, and minichurches like Cornerstone.

Are they being sorted or has this been going on for a while? On the larger end are megachurches, congregations with more 2,000 members. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades. Megachurches get a lot of attention due to their size, their programs, and leaders. Since each one attracts many attendees, they could equal dozens of smaller churches in terms of people there for services. Megachurches have been a phenomena for at least a few decades.

If the primary marker of a religious congregation is size and growth, then megachurches are more successful. The article goes on to talk about different reasons why people and leaders might choose smaller congregations. The megachurch experience is not for everyone. Whether there is much left for small congregations if much of the resources and attention is going to larger congregations is another story.

And the answer regarding this competition between megachurches and minichurches might be in between. The big megachurches are known, small congregations are everywhere, and a sizable set of Americans worship in congregations of several hundred. These medium sized congregations can offer some of the amenities of the biggest churches while staying at an approachable size.

McMansions, SUVs, and megachurches

I recently reviewed the book The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry by sociologists Mark Mulder and Gerardo Martí. As the authors describe Schuller’s emphasis on growth, they include this line on page four:


As I studied the use of the term McMansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I found people regularly linked McMansions to SUVs. As the cited passage above suggests, McMansions and SUVs came about at the same time. Perhaps some would go even further and say McMansion owners are likely to be SUV owners or the two consumer goods are likely to be found in the same communities or kinds of places. And, like the passage above, the comparisons could go further than SUVs to include large food items.

Rarely have I seen the growth of McMansions and the growth of single-family homes in the United States connected to megachurches. A similar argument could be made: in a period of growth as Americans liked to consume bigger items in bigger settings with providers happy to produce larger goods, McMansions and megachurches came about or became widely recognized at roughly the same time (McMansions built in the closing decades of the 1900s and as a term widely used by the early 2000s; megachurch as a phenomenon known by the 1980s). As everything grew and appetites expanded, so did churches. And maybe megachurches were likely to spring up in or near McMansion filled suburban communities flush with money, family life, and access to highways.

At least in this study, Robert Schuller was enamored with growth decades before McMansions became a thing. Mulder and Martí suggest Schuller pushed for growth in order to encourage more growth; previous accomplishments became evidence for pursuing and fulfilling future accomplishments (until it could no longer hold together). Yet, Schuller was well-positioned in a booming suburban area: he arrived in Orange County in the 1950s and capitalized on the growing population and appetite for large churches in a way that few other religious leaders could match.

Now, linking these multiple phenomena together would take some more work. Were Orange County McMansion owners more likely to attend a megachurch? Is this a pattern throughout the United States? Did an ideology of growth pervade many sectors at the same time and mutually reinforce each other or explicitly intersect at points?

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.

Why would atheist groups want to be known for meeting in “mega-churches”?

I understand the interest in wanting to meet together regularly but why exactly would atheists want to call their gatherings “megachurches”?

Nearly three dozen gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors have sprung up around the U.S. and Australia — with more to come — after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.

On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted several hundred people bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual…

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection, an “inspirational talk” about forgotten — but important — inventors and scientists and some stand-up comedy.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

I’m a little surprised they would want to be known as “megachurches” as these kind of churches tend to attract some criticism. Here are some critiques: they are big, impersonal, more about entertainment than community, don’t require much commitment from attendees, are devoted to money and programs, encourage a consumer mentality, may not lead to much spiritual growth, and can swell their congregations by taking attendees from other churches. (To be fair, there are others who would praise what megachurches do and can do.)

Here are a few reasons why using the term megachurches might be attractive to atheists:

1. They imply a sizable congregation. The median church in the United States is around 75 people (this was according to the National Congregations study a few years ago). Interestingly, the congregations described in this study sound like they had “several hundred people,” which is not exactly megachurch size. Perhaps these groups will have to pursue church growth strategies.

2. Megachurches tend to get an outsized amount of attention even though most American Christians don’t go to churches that size. Congregations like Willow Creek or Saddleback or Lakeland have well-known pastors and are seen as leading institutions in conservative Christianity in America. Atheist megachurches could have a similar influence in the media and the public at large.

It will be interesting to see how these groups, megachurches or not, fare.

Converting American churches into housing units

More American churches are being converted into housing units:

The building is one of a number of church-to-home luxury conversions popping up around the country. As dozens of churches close or move to different quarters each year, they’re finding second lives as condo developments and townhouses.

The conversion process is growing more common as shrinking congregations and shifting demographics have made it difficult for some congregations to stay afloat financially. According to a March report from CoStar Group, a real-estate research firm, 138 church-owned properties across the country were sold by banks last year, compared with 24 three years earlier…

Architects have found creative ways to convert these historic buildings—which often have 40- or 50-foot-high ceilings, few or no interior walls and stained-glass windows—into homes and apartments that will sell for millions of dollars.

But it isn’t an easy process: Not only do the structures need intensive interior reconstruction and upgrades to meet modern building codes, but they often have been granted landmark status, further complicating renovations.

This is a good example of retrofitting. As the article notes, hundreds of churches have closed in recent years and converting the churches generally leaves the outside while making the interior reusable. One irony in this story is that I have read in recent years about growing conservative churches making use of vacant shopping structures, often big box stores, rather than building new churches or megachurches. So, in the suburbs, some churches are sacralizing profane spaces while in cities, new residents are secularizing once-sacred spaces.

It would also be interesting to hear how these new residential units were received in the communities in which they were built. The article profiles individual owners and builders but doesn’t talk much about the zoning process or reactions from neighbors. It sounds like people generally want to save the historic church buildings but there might be concerns about adding new residents. On the other hand, converting the churches means the property can be added to the tax rolls and generate revenue for the community.

Also, the examples of this article include fairly expensive condos and housing units. Has anyone turned churches into truly affordable housing? If so, the mission of the church might continue even if a congregation no longer meets there.

Possible issues with interstate megachurch sites

American megachurches have had multiple satellite sites for years. But now at least several have pursued satellite sites in other states:

Pastor Mark Driscoll’s megachurch recently announced plans to expand into Portland, Oregon, and Orange County, California, using multi-site campuses that feature live bands and a sermon piped in from the main campus in Seattle.

The move is part of a trend among megachurches to extend their brand of church to new communities, in hopes of reaching unchurched people with the gospel. But critics fear the out-of-state campuses turn churches into franchises like McDonald’s or Starbucks.

The reason for the new campuses is simple, according to the Mars Hill website.

“Oregon needs Jesus Christ,” claims the introduction of the new location. “The city of Portland is known for many things, but the gospel of Jesus is nowhere on the list.”

What might be the issues with this and responses to these issues?

1. It is unclear how far away a satellite campus has to be to be objectionable. Let’s say Willow Creek opened a satellite campus in northwestern Indiana, still within the Chicago region. Is this a problematic interstate campus or not? The distance between Seattle and Orange County or between Oklahoma and Phoenix does seem larger.

2. The McDonaldization/commodification/branding of churches seems to go against the local community aspect of church. This seems to be typically related to the popularity of a particular pastor/preacher who could draw a viable audience all over.

2a. There is a strong case to be made for emphasizing local community or even a parish model. But, evangelical churches left this behind a long time ago so is this simply a logical extension of this trend?

2b. How much of opposition to these new sites is based on the need for community in church versus how large churches tend to draw their members from existing churches rather than from non-attendees? If a megachurch satellite moves into an area, local churches may lose congregants.

2c. How much will this matter in the future as anybody with an Internet connection can easily access sermons and podcasts? If the primary purpose of a satellite church is to share a sermon, people can get this elsewhere.

2d. This is a reminder of the pastor-centric nature of many evangelical churches.

3. It would be interesting to hear discussions within megachurches that go forward for interstate sites: what is the primary motivation for doing this?