By definition, megachurches have always existed; the church in Jerusalem represents the first “megachurch” (Acts 2:42-47). Nevertheless, a few particular brands of megachurches began to develop in the middle of the twentieth century as modern Americans became used to large structures and large crowds in other venues; such a trend is now recognized as the megachurch movement. Megachurches are defined by their oversized organizational structures that developed to meet the needs of their vast numbers of members, focus on small groups, use of contemporary imagery and technology, and the innovative individuals who begin and promote such organizations.
Sections on this Page
- Origins and History
- What is a Megachurch?
- Denominations Involved
- General Considerations
- “Seeker Friendly” Assemblies
- Multisite Congregations
Origins and History
While, by definition, many individual congregations have been “megachurches,” the megachurch movement proper has its precedents in many of the large Protestant congregations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries1. Beginning in the 1950s, and especially toward the end of the twentieth century, as Americans became used to large venues and institutions, extremely large congregations became appealing to many. Some churches, based upon charismatic leadership, location, and other factors, started to grow exponentially, and felt compelled to develop new structures and organization styles to meet the needs of their congregations. It is the organizational structures necessary, more than anything, that provide coherence to the megachurch movement2. The movement is growing, and congregations worldwide continue to grow to the “megachurch” level.
What is a Megachurch?
Confusion often exists in understanding precisely what a megachurch is. Strictly speaking, a megachurch is any single Protestant congregation averaging over 2,000 people attending weekly services3. By necessity, such groups exhibit a high level of structure, with nothing being left to chance; indeed, they are probably over-structured.
This represents a very broad definition that can include many different types of churches. Four distinct types of megachurches exist today: old-line or program-based, represented by some traditional Protestant denominational congregations that exceed 2,000; “seeker” churches, megachurches focusing on “seeker services” and bringing in the “unchurched”; charismatic, pastor-focused churches, having been built up largely on the charisma of the founding pastor; and new-wave or re-envisioned megachurches, an emergent set of megachurches attempting to reach a younger demographic4. These four approaches lead to much variety among megachurches; nevertheless, we will focus primarily on the second and third varieties, since they represent the commonly understood paradigms for the “megachurch movement”.
Many Protestant denominations are able to number megachurches in their ranks, including Baptists, Methodists, and some Pentecostal groups. Some Roman Catholic parishes number in excess of 2,000, but are normally not considered part of the “megachurch movement”.
Most megachurches are within the main evangelical stream. Many megachurches not affiliated with denominations are part of the community church movement. As noted above, at least one stream of megachurches is part of emergism.
Megachurches reflect the same variety seen consistently in movements. The list below represents many features consistent with most megachurches.
“Seeker Friendly” Assemblies
One innovation developed among many megachurches, especially of the “seeker” strain, involves the concept of the “seeker friendly” assembly. In their attempt to reach the “unchurched” among them, such groups design Sunday assemblies entirely around this group, intentionally directing all programming, messages, and focus upon the unbeliever5. Separate assemblies, usually in the middle of the week, focus on the members and their development, including observing the Lord’s Supper6. Is this consistent with the New Testament?
While there is certainly value in attempting to promote Christianity among unbelievers, and there may be appropriate times set aside to promote the faith among such persons, the Scriptures indicate a quite different story for the regular assemblies of the churches of the New Testament, especially the assemblies on the Lord’s Day. In Acts 20:7, we see that the disciples met that day to “break bread”; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 indicates that such was also the day for the collection. Paul provides a glimpse into such assemblies in 1 Corinthians 14:1-40; we will focus upon 1 Corinthians 14:22-26:
Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to the unbelieving: but prophesying is for a sign, not to the unbelieving, but to them that believe. If therefore the whole church be assembled together, and all speak with tongues, and there come in men unlearned or unbelieving, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one unbelieving or unlearned, he is reproved by all, he is judged by all; the secrets of his heart are made manifest; and so he will fall down on his face and worship God, declaring that God is among you indeed. What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
Paul speaks about the “unlearned” or “unbeliever” who happens to be in the assembly in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, but such persons are by no means the focus; the focus, as indicated in 1 Corinthians 14:26, is the edifying of the brethren, consonant with Hebrews 10:24-25:
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.
The assemblies of the saints in the New Testament, especially on the first day of the week, were designed for the edification of the saints. The concept of the “seeker-friendly service” as envisioned in many megachurches and others who adhere to the philosophy is rather backwards: let the Lord’s Day be spent on the Lord’s Supper and the edification of brethren (1 Corinthians 11:17-34, 14:1-40), and use other opportunities to preach the Gospel to the unbelievers!
Another recent development, particularly among some megachurches, involves the concept of a multi-site congregation. As many buildings and facilities strain to contain the numbers involved, many are electing to follow a “franchise” type of model, having one church that just happens to meet in different locations7. The different locations may have satellite uplink to the “main church” or have their own pastoral system preaching the same type of message as presented in the “main church”. The same leaders have oversight of both the main church and the “satellite” churches. Is this a system consistent with what the Scriptures teach?
The New Testament certainly demonstrates the existence of multiple local churches, but never do the Scriptures indicate any such “multi-site” system. Each individual local church was to represent a community of God’s people, shepherded by elders and served by deacons (Acts 2:42-47; 14:23, Philippians 1:1). We do not see any system in the New Testament where elders have oversight of more than one local congregation at a time.
Likewise, God expects the local church to function like a body where its members are accountable to each other and are to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Galatians 6:1-2, Hebrews 10:24-25). How can this truly be accomplished when brethren in the same “church” do not even assemble together?
The “multi-site” model looks more like a “mini-denomination” than a truly Biblical model for a growing church. If a local congregation grows and multiplies, each congregation should maintain its autonomous status, patterned after the New Testament rather than modern American trends!
1: Thuma and Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths, 24
2: ibid., xxi
3: ibid., xviii
4: ibid., 31
5: Hybels and Hybels, Rediscovering Church, 73
6: ibid., 176
7: Thuma and Travis, 40