An infographic featured on Good Magazine is very telling and potential reason for concern among communities of faith. As indicated in the Pew Forum Report on the Religious Landscape (2007), movement in and out different denominations characterizes the transformation of the American religious landscape, with the group of unaffiliated people being of similar influence to swing voters. Furthermore, appeal for traditional places of worship is waning, while enrollment in these megachurches, sometimes with weekly attendance over 4,000, is on the rise. The financials of these megachurches indicate that faith as a form of Sunday morning entertainment is a booming business strategy.
As someone who grew up in a very small Unitarian congregation, I appreciate the value of knowing everyone on the coffee receiving line. We build relationships through the most personal of interactions: social volunteer activities of around twenty people, pot luck suppers with an attendance between 50 and 100, and summer services numbering in the teens. Community worship allows for organic capacity building, but unfortunately, it can rarely go to scale by definition.
When these megachurches promote large-scale communities of faith and large-scale collections of dollars, and tend more often to lean toward the right side of the aisle, traditional faith-based communities must ask themselves: what is our role in the new economy?
Communities of faith serve multiple purposes. One is individual, the sensations a person receives during each service by internalizing the weekly sermon. The other two are collective: first, to create a community of spiritual pursuit beyond the level achieved by an individual; second, to be a body focused on a singular purpose to the world outside the congregation or parish. While individuals may opt out of actively pursuing this shared purpose, the purpose itself lives on through the faithful.
Looking at the Dunbar number, it seems questionable whether a megachurch can organize beyond the first or maybe the second purpose. Can four thousand individuals hold a shared community vision with intent and intelligence, or does megachurch social action become more like sheep herding?
By the numbers, these megachurches seem to pose a threat to faith-based social action (scale of dollars versus scale of intent), or do they? Can smaller churches use the intimacy of shared vision to demonstrate to the world that movements and dialogues start from the actions of a few, not from a stadium of thousands? Perhaps these “right-sized” communities of faith can take notes on the practices of the megachurches, implement “right-sized” entertainment and spectacle (inspiring speakers giving calls to action every Sunday, using social media to extend the conversation beyond the pulpit) and regain the engagement of those parishioners who left for bigger ball games.
The future of social action and social activism depends upon a faith-based revival of the power of community.