Megachurch, LA 3, by gruntzooki, Creative Commons 2.0
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.
Mike, you did a beautiful job here of outlining a multifaceted issue and you made a great argument for the inability of megachurches to create the intimate community found in smaller congregations. But I wonder how those big congregations DO serve people. I think maybe we need to look at these churches not just as places of faith but as towns. So I’m asking myself: how do towns come together in useful ways? Within their “town” are there still opportunities for small group interactions and meaningful connections? I’m not really pulling for megachurches, but I am interested in what they’re doing right – which is obviously a lot based on the success of building such huge organizations.
Kate, great points. Clearly more research is needed on the anthropology of megachurches. I too am curious as to how much they function like towns and if there are mini communities within them. I’ll have to dig deeper, but you are correct to point out that they are a faith-based business model to consider as a way to grow to scale.
I love the way you relate relationship circles to the mega-church trend. The idea of mega-churches leaves me cold. Which is one reason their popularity is so intriguing. I wonder how the whole concept of strong ties and weak ties functions in those communities.
One significant way megachurches serve individuals is through small group ministries. The classic SGM has between six and twelve members, and they covenant together with certain rules. Meeting weekly or biweekly–often to discuss a single ethical, moral, or religious question–members become much closer to each other. Larger congregations may have dozen of these groups. They are generally lay-led. This book–The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry: Saving the World Ten at a Time by Robert L. Hill (Jun 2003) –is used by Unitarian Universalist congregations all around North America to train lay leaders of SGMs.