While megachurches are supposed to be on the way out over the long term because of young people’s search for more intimate, authentic spiritual experiences, singles, young adults and youth are fueling their growth.
Because this finding originates with Dallas-based Leadership Network, a pro-megachurch type of think tank, critics are likely to fault its objectivity. (Indeed, co-author Scott Thumma also helped write 2007’s "Beyond Megachurch Myths.")
Still, it is worth examining the newly-released National Survey of Megachurch Attenders, completed between January and August of last year. The report was written by Thumma—a professor at Hartford Seminary—and Warren Bird, a researcher with the network.
A look to the future
One of the most interesting findings concerns the average age of megachurch attendees, a statistic that bodes well for them for the future. And, conversely, not so good for traditional congregations.
The authors found that the average age at U.S. megachurches is 40, compared to 53 for the typical congregation. In addition, nearly two-thirds are under 45; in all churches, nearly two-thirds are over 45.
Other interesting numbers: nearly a third of megachurch attenders are single, while in the typical church unmarrieds number just 10 percent. Just 55 percent of megachurches’ population is married or widowed, compared to 80 percent of traditional churches.
"If you lose the younger generation, in 20 years your church is going to be dead," comments Derek Horn, a singles pastor at Fellowship Bible Church of Northwest Arkansas. "You have to see each generation as being equal, and we try to have staff members and leaders who are just as passionate for every age group."
Open to the young?
I once lived in a Midwestern city where a well-known megachurch was the topic of frequent criticism and jealousy. And, having attended one when we lived in the Denver area, I know the passions "McChurches" can evoke.
Instead of wasting time on petty sniping, though, church leaders ought to consider the good and bad that surfaces in this report and how that might apply to their church.
A good starting point is observing how megachurches attract young people, since the authors say the ability to reach and serve younger generations is a common megachurch characteristic.
"A number of factors can be attributed to this reality," Thumma says. "Young people are drawn to the contemporary styles of worship, they are more tech savvy, they want to have a choice of ministries and they like being in large gatherings of other young people."
Naturally, if your congregation has a fraction of the 2,000 or more that define a megachurch, you can’t reproduce those large-scale gatherings. But you can begin by opening the door to younger people and welcoming their participation.
I have been in and heard about churches that proclaim their eagerness to attract young people. Yet, members instinctively rebel against changing any tradition in hopes of appealing to those young people. It doesn’t take long for them to get the message and leave.
Change is never comfortable. However, to paraphrase Pastor Horn, those churches that refuse to change are looking down the barrel of a death wish.
Next week: More characteristics of megachurches.