For the past decade or so, America’s fastest-growing churches have been megachurches – churches with 2,000 or more at their weekend services.
And megachurches continue to grow rapidly, according to a new report by national authorities Scott Thumma and Warren Bird.
Via email last spring, the authors asked U.S. megachurches about their worship services and their membership, receiving 209 responses, which they incorporated into their Dec. 2 report. Among their findings: Over the past five years, the churches’ median growth rate was 26 percent, with nearly three-quarters growing by 10 percent or more.
The fastest-growing church anywhere has been Cincinnati’s own Crossroads Community Church, which grew by 33 percent in the past year, adding 5,674 members, according to Outreach Magazine. Weekend attendance neared 23,000 at the time of the Outreach report, but Senior Pastor Brian Tome said in a recent service that it dipped to about 19,500 during the church’s capital campaign last month.
According to Thumma and Bird, not only are existing megachurches growing rapidly – the number of megachurches is growing, too. In the past five years, the list of megachurches compiled by the Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research has seen a net increase of 39 churches.
That seems to bode badly for smaller congregations, as the church landscape looks more and more like a case of “grow big or die.”
The survey also found that megachurches founded since 1990, such as Crossroads that was founded in 1995, are growing much faster than older megachurches. They also have a greater percentage of young adults in their congregations.
Another young, rapidly growing megachurch is Church on Fire Ministries in Harrison. Founded in 1996, it has weekend attendance of between 2,500 and 3,000, said events and operations manager Lisa Daniel. The church opened a second campus, in Batesville, Indiana, on Easter Day 2014, which has doubled in attendance, she said.
Weekend attendance at the First Church of Christ in Burlington, Kentucky, one of the tri-state’s oldest megachurches, has leveled off at about 2,200, said Outreach Pastor Brian Heckber. The church grew most rapidly in the late '90s and early '00s, he said, after it moved to Burlington in 1995 from Florence.
Attendance fell off after L.D. Campbell retired in 2010 after 38 years as senior pastor, Heckber said.
In October 2012, the church launched a satellite church in southern Boone County and last summer moved it into a permanent facility.
“That has been a big win for us,” Heckber said.
At the satellite campus, everything is live except for the sermon, which is preached in Burlington and streamed live for the Walton congregation. According to the survey, this arrangement continues to grow in popularity among megachurches, with 46 percent of them being multisite in 2010 and 62 percent as of this year, with another 10 percent considering the approach.
When megachurches passed the collection plate in 2014, they had a median annual income of $4.7 million. When adjusted for inflation, that's less than the $4.8 million they reported in 2010. Nevertheless, 43 percent of churches surveyed said their financial health was excellent in 2015, versus only 30 percent in 2010.
Crossroads received more than $85 million in three-year pledges during its “I’m In” capital campaign that ended last month. Tome told the church during the Nov. 29 service that the per-person amount pledged had increased from the last capital campaign in 2010, when the church had 12,000 weekend attendees, which raised $44 million.
The capital campaign wish list included upgrades to some of Crossroads’ five campuses, but Tome said in the service that it would also include $10 million for Crossroads Anywhere, the church’s online campus.
According to the survey, 30 percent of the nation’s megachurches have an online campus, with video streaming of services and interactive features, and 18 percent are considering creating one.
One thing megachurches aren’t considering, though, is a return to worship styles of yesteryear. According to the survey, just 18 percent of megachurches use organ music in services often or always, compared to 28 percent five years ago. Over the same period, choir use fell from 43 percent to 35 percent.
Montgomery Community Church in Symmes Township still uses an organ and choir, but only at one of its four weekend services, said communications director Billy Belshaw. As you might expect, that 8:30 a.m. service typically draws more senior citizens than the other, contemporary services.
The church also differs from other megachurches in that it’s affiliated with a denomination: the American Baptist Church, Belshaw said.
According to the survey, about 40 percent of megachurches are nondenominational, but two-thirds of those affiliated with denominations reported that their denominational ties were not very important or not at all important to the congregation.
Megachurches also aren’t big on ties with other churches. According to the survey, only 22 percent had participated in worship services with other churches in the past year, down from 38 percent in 2010. Only 46 percent had participated in community service activities with other churches, down from 61 percent five years ago.
Church on Fire Ministries participates in This City, His City, an informal group of Harrison pastors and public school officials that meets monthly to address the city’s problems, Daniel said. Last spring, the members hosted a two-day event by Hope Over Heroin, an addiction-help program created by Solid Rock Church in Monroe, another local megachurch.
“They (This City, His City) are very much working together to get this city ministered to,” Daniels said.