Stereotype Smackdown: Dispelling the Myths of Megachurches

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, August 4, 2007

They're big, nondenominational, homogenous churches that are all show with little spiritual depth.

That's what some might assume about the nation's megachurches, but scholar Scott Thumma is out to bash the stereotypes and explain the churches' appeal.

"Everybody takes those general characteristics and applies them to all megachurches," he said.

Yes, they're big, he says, but only 5 percent have 3,000 seats or more, and only two or three can seat 10,000 at one service.

He and Dave Travis have written "Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches" to reveal what research says about the 1,250 Protestant churches across the country that attract at least 2,000 worshipers each weekend.

Thumma's favorite myth is that the people sitting in megachurches tend to all be from the same racial, ethnic, political or economic group.

"One of the most fascinating things that I have always found about megachurches -- and it's probably due to size -- is that there's a tremendous amount of diversity in any congregation," said Thumma, who teaches at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "I think there's something about it being big that allows it to draw in all kinds of folks -- some Democrats, a lot of Republicans, some impoverished people, but also [some] quite wealthy."

Thumma and Travis based their book in part on a 2005 study that was conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, where Thumma is based, and the Leadership Network, a church-growth think tank in Dallas, where Travis is executive vice president. The book, out this month, is published by Jossey-Bass.

Megachurches are also more linked to denominations than some might think. The authors found that about 65 percent of megachurches are affiliated with a denomination, although some may downplay the link. Thumma estimates that about 10 percent of those churches are affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations, such as First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

The authors compared their 2005 megachurch study to a larger 2005 random study of congregations to delve into the myths about the spiritual rigor of megachurches. They found that 51 percent of megachurches said their congregations greatly emphasized personal prayer, meditation or devotions, compared with 42 percent of congregations in general. Likewise, 54 percent of megachurches placed a significant emphasis on personal Scripture study, compared with 47 percent of congregations in general.

Congregations of all sizes were twice as likely as megachurches to greatly emphasize keeping the Sabbath holy.

Even as these large churches emphasize strong beliefs, they do so in innovative and unusual ways. A motorcycle may be ridden onto a stage, which happened at Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano, Tex. Or a video clip of a popular commercial may play on the large screens in a sanctuary.

"The megachurches . . . do push the envelope," Thumma said. "They want folks to say, 'Wow, this really fascinating thing happened at my church the other day,' so that people come and check it out."

The nonconventional approach to Sunday morning distinguishes these churches from more traditional ones, Thumma said.

"A traditional church says you go out and you save people," he said. "The megachurch says, 'We cast our net really wide and we bring in everyone, and then we evangelize the people that are sitting in the pews.' . . . They have, in some sense, antics and other intriguing things that draw people in."

Thumma and Travis say that much of what is working successfully in megachurches -- using sermons to address contemporary issues and fostering small groups to encourage community service, for example -- can help smaller congregations.

"We are absolutely convinced that these congregations are doing some things right, and it's not just related to their size," Thumma said. "What they're doing as big churches can also be translated to smaller congregations."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company