Big Churches Not Always Impersonal, Study Finds

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

Congregants find megachurches offer more personal worship and sense of community than smaller churches, according to a study released yesterday that challenges the conventional wisdom that some large churches are too big to offer a spiritual experience.

Researchers at the Institute for Studies of Religion, who defined megachurches as those with more than 1,000 worshipers, found that their members were twice as likely to have friends in the congregation than members of small churches. They also displayed a higher level of personal commitment to the church -- attending services and tithing more often than small-church members.

Megachurches are often criticized for having "all sorts of flaws," said Rodney Stark, co-director of the institute, based at Baylor University. "They're big . . . they're kind of cold, they have kind of like theater audiences -- all wrong."

The findings come on the heels of a survey released last week that found that megachurches' three-decade expansion shows no signs of abating. That study, of churches with weekend worship attendance of 2,000 or more, found that the average megachurch's attendance grew 50 percent in the past five years.

The Baylor researchers found that megachurches tend to be more evangelical than small churches.

Ninety-two percent of megachurch members believe that hell "absolutely exists," compared with just over three-quarters of small-church members, the survey found. And eight in 10 megachurch worshipers believe that the Rapture -- when followers of Jesus Christ believe they will be taken to heaven -- will "absolutely" take place, compared with less than half of those who attend small churches.

In addition to their evangelical mission, megachurches thrive because of the social experience they provide and their emphasis on music. "The same things that made them popular -- contemporary music and practical, applicable sermons that apply to people's daily lives -- remain a real draw for folks," said Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

At Reston Bible Church, an evangelical church with an average weekly attendance of 1,750, three-quarters of the congregation attend Sunday services weekly, according to Executive Pastor Ed Nalle. "It's a serious bunch of folks," he said. "It's just something they do. It's part of aligning your life with God and His people."

Because evangelical Christians are encouraged to share the Gospel with others, the Baylor researchers found that more than half of megachurch members said they shared their faith with strangers in the past month and more than 80 percent witness to friends -- far more than those who attend small churches.

Researchers say that probably explains why four of 10 megachurch members say that at least half of their friends attend those congregations.

To achieve a less impersonal environment, researchers said, megachurches consciously break down the congregation into smaller groups that meet regularly.

Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, which draws 5,500 people to its Sunday services, offers more than 100 types of small weekly groups -- choirs, Bible study, sports teams and mentoring programs, the Rev. Grainger Browning said. "We are a large church during the weekend, but it becomes a small church during the week," he said.

Megachurches' success has smaller churches scrambling to keep up.

St. James Episcopal Church in Bowie, which has about 40 worshipers on a typical Sunday, is bringing in a consultant to talk about ways it can grow, said the Rev. Anne-Marie Jeffery. "We live in a megachurch world," she said. "It's going to be interesting to see if we can."

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