Why Megachurches Keep Growing

There’s a reason why churches and denominations are in decline. We continue to be religious about using the same methods hoping and praying they’ll somehow generate different results. That’s a recipe for decline and ultimately death.

Of course, we’d rather be comfortable in our own preferences than take risks that may help us reach the next generations. And, that’s another reason why churches are stuck.

People have been writing about the end of the “megachurch” for years. The funny thing is the research continues to confirm that megachurches are healthy and more and more people are attending them.

Prior to Thanksgiving, the Leadership Network released their “2010 Large Church Economic Outlook Report“. The report compiled research from their survey of large churches and found:

“Generally, the larger the church, the more likely it is to have experienced an increase in attendance and giving from 2009 to 2010.”

In very difficult economic times when you might expect “big church” to experience the same downturn as “big business”, just the opposite has been the case. Bigger churches are healthier than ever.

This comes on the heals of Outreach Magazine finding that the fastest-growing churches are growing faster than they have in the past. And, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research documenting the number of megachurches growing from 350 in 1990 to 600 in 2000 to over 1,400 that they’re tracking today.

It’s interesting to me that the voices talking about the decline of the megachurch seem to get more vocal as the number of big churches continue to increase. Have you noticed that?

1.     The Adaptability Factor

2.     The other day, I highlighted recent research from the Leadership Network confirming that large churches continued to grow over the last year. I promised to share why I think large churches keep getting larger.

3.     One of the factors that I believe leads to this momentum is the adaptability factor. You would think that a larger church would find it more difficult to embrace change. The reality is that large churches have gotten large for a reason, and one of those reasons is that the willingness to change methods is built into their culture. Not every large church has this in their DNA. (And that’s part of the reason why not every large church is growing.) I really believe the vast majority of large church have this ingrained into who they are.

4.     So, when people think church services are boring and irrelevant to their lives, churches adapt and begin changing their worship services to reach new people.

5.     When the ministry environments have lots of people and the gatherings seem impersonal, churches adapt and begin offering a path for people to connect in small groups and serving teams.

6.     When the culture shifts and raises the value of serving the hurting and the hopeless, churches adapt and begin engaging missional communities and strategies to impact people outside the walls of the church.

7.     When it seems people are less likely to attend services in a auditoriums that seat thousands in buildings that exceed financial feasibilities, churches adapt and begin gathering in multiple locations in smaller venues.

8.     Throughout the years, there have been many folks that have talked about the eventual demise of the megachurch assuming these churches would never shift tactics and philosophies. The reality is one of the reasons they became large in the first place was because they were willing to shift tactics and philosophies. The megachurch today is not the same megachurch it was ten, five or two years ago.

9.     When churches become married to their methods rather than their mission, the church plateaus and eventually declines. Typically, large churches don’t experience this. They have the adaptability factor. They’re willing to change and try something new…even if some of those new initiatives fail.

10.   That’s one reason why big churches keep getting bigger.

II. The Leadership Factor

Earlier this week I wrote about how big churches are continuing to get bigger. I’m in the process of highlighting some of the reasons why I believe that’s happening. Today, I’d like to talk about the leadership factor.

I’m in the camp that believes leadership is a spiritual gift. Romans 12:8 tells us, “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.” One of the distinctives of large, growing churches is that they value leadership development. That’s not the case in small, declining churches.

In small churches, leaders are controlled. This typically happens through the way churches are structured. Instead of giving pastors and other ministry leaders the freedom to make decisions and make ministry happen, churches will add layers of boards and committees, rules and processes to prevent leaders from doing just about anything on their own. The smaller the church, typically, the more complex the structure.

In growing churches, what I usually find is that leaders have been released to lead. Boundaries are established to create a framework for decisions and actions, but within those boundaries is the freedom for leaders to leverage their spiritual gifts. Unfortunately, many churches are willing to embrace shepherds, teachers and pastors, but they’re unwilling to embrace leaders.

Churches who understand the leadership factor share these characteristics:

  • They are staff-led and not committee-controlled.
  • They empower the senior pastor and the spiritual authority of that position.
  • They see leadership as critical not only at the very top of the organization but in every layer of the ministry.
  • They know that leadership is a gift, and it must be developed.
  • They understand that not everyone is a leader and they’re intentional about moving people into ministry that best fits their gifts.
  • They embrace both staff and volunteer leaders. Paid staff are not the only people with the leadership gift.
  • They recognize leadership isn’t just for men over the age of 40.
  • They are careful to prioritize the character over the skill of a leader.

The bottom line is that it’s impossible to grow a healthy church and have an environment that values control over empowerment.

If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on leadership, check out this series of posts on my theology of leadership.

III. The Reach Factor

When churches value keeping who they have over reaching people outside the church and outside the faith, their thinking, language and actions tend to look like this:

  • They program for people who already attend the church.
  • They create environments that assume only Christ-followers will be present.
  • They use insider language that’s confusing to people new to the church.
  • They assume any growth that happens will be initiated by a heart-change outside the church rather than one inside the church.
  • They never stop ministries because that might offend someone inside the church.
  • They are slow to do something new because it might offend someone inside the church.
  • They think it’s a choice between “going deeper” and “reaching the lost” when it’s actually both.
  • They choose personal preferences over potential ministry impact.
  • They make decisions based on who they’ll keep rather than who they’ll reach.

There are a couple of ways to know whether or not your ministry has “The Reach Factor” in play. One way to think about it is to pretend someone is just hired to fill a student pastor (or any other ministry role) at your church. If one of the key objectives in their first days on the job is to try to get people who have left the church to return, that’s a good sign your church or ministry is more about “The Keep Factor”.

Also, when I’m working with churches, I have them go through this exercise. I have them list every single ministry environment at their church. Then create two columns by that list. One column is called “Reach” and the other column is called “Keep”. They go through their entire ministry list and determine if it’s more to “Reach” people outside the church or “Keep” people who already attend the church. I’ve noticed that churches that aren’t growing tend to have an overabundance of “Keep” ministries. Healthy churches need to have “Keep” ministries to help people take their next steps toward Christ, but it’s not healthy when almost every ministry is a “Keep” ministry.

http://www.churchrelevance.com. Used by permission.



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