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HARTFORD, CT. Nov. 8, 2001–The first major study of "megachurches" clearly shows that location is very important, according to Scott Thumma, faculty associate at Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR), Hartford Seminary.
Nearly 72 percent of churches with average weekly attendance of at least 2,000 persons are found in swath from Georgia and Florida across Texas to California. (See FACToid.)
Fewer of these very large congregations are located in New England (a mere 2 percent) than in any other part of the nation.
Thumma's research is part of a sweeping study, called Faith Communities Today (FACT), which covers 90 percent of all U.S. Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations.
Thumma's analysis focused on these huge Protestant congregations where average weekly attendance last year was 3,857. His work is based on an extensive questionnaire that was sent to 600 very large congregations.
The FACT study shows that the rapid development of these large congregations took place during the last two decades. Attendance during that period shot up at an average rate of 90 percent.
The research indicates that the megachurches are a phenomenon of the suburbs of very large cities. Nearly two-thirds are located in or around cities of 250,000 or more.
Despite their size, nearly half of the megachurches described themselves as a "close-knit family." Thumma reported that nearly all of the large churches have small fellowship groups and that fully half had an intentional strategy of utilizing the more intimate small group structures.
When asked to describe the theological character of the megachurches, 48 percent of the respondents characterized the congregations as "evangelical." Another 14 percent were described as "charismatic" while only two percent used the term "fundamentalist." (See FACToid)
Thumma says that the megachurches are generally regarded as pacesetters. "Even if a small congregation doesn't desire to have a 3,500-person worship service, it still looks to the programmatic characteristics of the megachurches for clues about what it is doing." His analysis has been posted on the project's website: www.FACT.hartsem.edu.
The Hartford Seminary researcher is not surprised at the relatively conservative bent of the huge congregations. He pointed out that by nature the conservative Christian world is pastor-centered or pastor-driven. Pastors of megachurches have very high visibility.
Seventy percent of all the megachurches in the study reported that the growth took place during the tenure of the current senior pastor.
On the average, the senior pastor is 52 years old and has served the congregation more than 12 years. Eighty-eight percent of the megachurch pastors are white, six percent African American and six percent are of another racial or ethnic background; 99 percent are male. These churches have an average of 13 full time ministerial staff persons and 25 full time paid program staff people. Still, the megachurches use large numbers of volunteers; on average they report 297 volunteer workers giving at least five hours a week to the church.
The FACT website lists the core questions used in the survey and offers an online, interactive workbook enabling congregations to compare themselves with others. The FACT survey of U.S. congregations is the most extensive ever conducted. It was funded by the Lilly Endowment and coordinated by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Hartford Seminary's Professors Carl S. Dudley and David A. Roozen are co-directors of Faith Communities Today.
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Nearly one third of the megachurches are independent, unaffiliated with a denomination. Even those that have denominational ties tend not to participate in their faith group's meetings and activities. Only 30 percent of the huge congregations that acknowledge denominational links say that they "express [its] denominational heritage." Forty nine percent said that denominational leadership was of no importance to them.
Thumma believes that denominations "have more to gain by having megachurches as part of their flock than the large congregation can gain from the national church body." Only 27 percent purchase educational or other materials from denominational sources.
Worship styles in these large congregations are different, according to the survey. They are not highly liturgical. They use visual projection devices, electronic amplification, and between a third and a half of the megachurches have a radio and/or a television ministry. Nearly 8 out of 10 of these churches utilize electronic keyboards, guitars and drums in their services.
Sunday school and youth programs are almost universal in the megachurches, according to Thumma's findings. The average adult Sunday school attendance is 856 and the large churches have an average of 788 children and youth under 18 years of age in their educational programs each week. Fifty-nine percent have sports and physical fitness teams.
The megachurches also support social ministry programs in their communities. Seventy eight percent host or contribute to thrift stores and provide temporary or permanent housing / shelter. Nearly every megachurch provides counseling services or support groups.
They place high reliance on the authority of the Bible (88 percent) and very small importance on historic creeds, doctrine or tradition (8 percent). Sixty percent of the congregations always include an altar call in the service of worship.
The average total annual income of the very large churches was $4.8 million.
For additional information contact:
Dr. Scott Thumma