Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Suburbia and the rise and fall of megachurches

I just finished reading Christine Wicker's The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, which chronicles the tenuous state of American evangelicalism. She's a former religion reporter (and former evangelical) who argues that evangelical Christians are far less numerous or influential than often assumed in the popular media. Rather than 1 in 4 Americans being evangelicals, the real numbers are probably more like 1 in 14. Not insignificant, but not quite as dominant as usually touted. Southern Baptists claim about 16 million in membership, but actual church attendance suggests that the truly committed are more like 4 million. A few years ago the Southern Baptists aimed for one million new converts, but actually had just a third of that, less than previous years. And denominations across the board are losing members. Overall, the evangelical church may well be losing a thousand people every day.

Something that jumped out at me were some of her comments relating to megachurches and their suburban context.
A large reason megachurches grow is because of where they usually locate--in burgeoning suburbs. Young families, attracted to the suburbs' less-expensive housing, want religion for their children. They're energetic, and they have rising incomes. Megachurches have enormous overhead and a huge need for volunteers. Burned-out megachurch staff members sometimes complain that they spend more time "feeding the beast" than feeding the flock. Feeding the beast requires a constant hunt for "good" families. To the dismay of the more idealistic, good families don't mean those who need God the most but those who are committed, able, energetic, and prosperous. (pp. 105-06)

... trouble may soon hit megachurches too. The suburbs that gave megachurches their growth are filling up and growing older just as suburbs closer to cities did. These giant churches may find themselves in the same situation as the inner-city churches, saddled with million-dollar facilities that they can't merely jettison for a move to greener pastures. (p. 107)

[Megachurches are] top heavy on services for members, which means they must have huge budgets to keep the pace. Their building programs, their missions, their children's programs, their worship services--all have to be top-rate, which requires top-rate staff and plenty of volunteers. At Willow Creek the children's programming alone requires a thousand volunteers a week. As quickly as megachurches burn out one family, they need to replace it. Add to their troubles the fact that their growth has been supported by location. They started in rapidly growing, young communities. As young families are priced out of communities served by megachurches, they'll move farther out, and the megachurches, pinned down by big-box facilities, won't be able to follow. (p. 114)

So are the suburban megachurch's days numbered? Perhaps. One of the dirty little secrets in church growth circles is that many prominent megachurches are plateaued and or declining in attendance. I suspect that the multi-site church movement is one way that traditional megachurches are already retooling themselves to adjust to changing demographic and geographic realities. Instead of maintaining bigger facilities with more people commuting in from farther away, out of necessity churches are rediscovering the need to go local. Instead of focusing all of the church's programming and activities at a central hub, churches need to decentralize and distribute their ministry activity into local communities and neighborhoods.

Of course, with every death comes the possibility of rebirth. Many newer suburban churches today meet in buildings that were once discount stores or strip malls that failed when the economy changed. Historic mainline churches that died off are now homes for thriving new immigrant and ethnic-specific congregations. If megachurches become unsustainable and begin to fail, it will be interesting to see what new things happen with their old buildings and facilities. If foreclosed suburban McMansions become the new multi-family housing for the suburban poor, perhaps consortiums of five or ten smaller churches could join together to share an old megachurch building. Who knows? Suburbia has always been a place of new possibilities, so there could be new life yet for the declining megachurch.


Bill Kinnon said...

A very good and very important post. Thanks for this.

Chris said...

Well that is a pretty broad brush eh? There is so much she is right about and so much that should be nuanced a lot more.

As part of an 80 year old mega church some of what she says applies and much of what she says does not.

Al, I would love to chat with you. I have no idea how to get a hold of you. Could you email me? cmcelwee at wheatonbible dot org ?

Matthew said...

Hey Al,

I am reading the Great Giveaway by David Fitch. One of the things he questions at the beginning of the book is "Why do churches keep seeking buildings that house more and more people in one facility when the greatest church growth happens between 50-200 members?" His solution... when a church hits 200 divide into for smaller churches of 50. Seems to go with along with the multi-site churches.

Al Hsu said...

The Great Giveaway is a fantastic book. And check out Fitch's blog:

especially his recent June 22, July 7 and 12 posts, which hit on similar megachurch issues. He says that today's missional communities are to megachurches what monastic orders were to medieval cathedrals. Great stuff.

TedE said...


I just discovered your blog through a link. Great post.

There is indeed a fresh wind blowing and it will be interesting to see what it blows up, in every sense of the phrase. And to see if the wind is the wind of the Spirit, or another church marketing scheme.

Jason Clark said...

Hi Al,

I'm in London, UK, and teach some Masters/M.Div and D.Min at George Fox Seminary, Portland.

I'm using your book this term with students on a module, and would love to connect with you on email. I haven't been able to find an address here.

If your up for it, can you email me?

I'm at

Thanks, Jason

Joel said...

You say "One of the dirty little secrets in church growth circles is that many prominent megachurches are plateaued and or declining in attendance."

Can you provide any type of sources for this? I'm looking into this topic myself, and am curious. Thanks!

pearce . joel at gmail . com