World’s First Megachurch?
by Warren Bird
At Easter, Christmas and other big days when church attendances surge, newspapers like to raise the question of which congregations are the biggest. Many also try to name which church was the first megachurch – churches drawing 2,000 or more adults and children in worship on a typical weekend.
Journalists often identify the first megachurch in the United States as the 2,890-seat Crystal Cathedral founded by Robert H. Schuller (and which declared bankruptcy in 2010). But that’s wrong because it was founded in 1955 and didn’t cross the 2,000 attendance mark until the 1970s.
Others cite greater Akron, Ohio, where three of the nation’s largest-attendance churches were based in the 1960s. One was Rex Humbard’s 5,400-seat Cathedral of Tomorrow, Cuyahoga Falls, OH, built in 1958 and filled on a regular basis. However, after lawsuits and a severe attendance decline in the early 1980s, Humbard sold the facility and accompanying television studio to fellow televangelist Ernest Angley in 1994, and the church is now known as Grace Cathedral in Akron, but no longer a megachurch in attendance.
Even earlier was Akron Baptist Temple, started in 1934 by Dallas Billington as a Sunday school, which like most churches until the 1960s drew more people in Sunday school attendance than in worship. By the 1950s the worship attendance regularly exceeded 4,000, but currently is no longer a megachurch in attendance.
Likewise First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, reported a Sunday school attendance of 5,200 in 1928, at least 2,000 of which attended worship. Also in downtown Dallas, Texas, several churches — First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First Methodist and First Christian — were among the largest churches in their denomination, typically drawing 2,000 or more attendance at worship during the 1950s and beyond. Notable churches subsequently grew in many cities across the United States, such as First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana, which during the 1970s was the nation’s largest-attendance church.
Some churches that draw more than 2,000 in weekly attendance today (or in recent years) were founded in the 1700s and 1800s, but their worship attendance did not regularly exceed 2,000 until more recent decades. These include: The Falls Church, Falls Church, VA, an Episcopal congregation founded in 1734 (but has relocated due to a doctrinal and property dispute); Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baltimore, MD, founded in 1784; First Baptist Church, Sevierville, TN, founded 1789; Mud Creek Baptist Church, Hendersonville, NC, founded in 1803; Park Street Church, Boston, MA, founded in 1807; and Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City, founded in 1809.
Early American Megachurches
Other churches had 2,000-plus attendances in their early days but have not been that size in the last 100-plus years. These include Sansom Street Church, Philadelphia, built in 1812 and seating 4,000; First Baptist Church, Baltimore, built in 1818 and seating 4,000; Chatham Street Chapel, Philadelphia, built in 1832 and seating 2,500; Broadway Tabernacle, in the Bowery section of lower Manhattan, built in 1836 and seating 4,000; First Free Baptist Church, Boston, an African-American congregation, built in the 1840s and seating 2,000; Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, built in 1850 and seating 2,000; and Bethany Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, built in 1866 and seating 3,000.
Many churches had temporary surges past the 2,000 attendance marks, even ones in small communities like Nantucket, MA, during late 1700s where the Quaker Meeting House “sometimes attracted as many as 2,000 people—more than a quarter of the island’s population” according to Smithsonian magazine. In the mid 1800s, as many as 2,000 people per week attended church in the Capitol in Washington DC as a congregation raised money for building a new sanctuary they could call their own. For example, on December 13, 1857, the Rev. Dr. George Cummins preached before a crowd of 2,000 worshipers in the first public use of the House chamber, according to William C. Allen (Architectural Historian of the Capitol), A History of the United States Capitol, A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 2001), p. 271.
However it is The Moody Church of Chicago that bears the distinction of being the oldest to both break the 2,000 threshold in attendance and to also be over 2,000 in the current era. The church facility, built in 1876 and known as Chicago Avenue Church, could hold 10,000 people. It was founded and led by the famous evangelist D.L. Moody. The church was filled to overflowing many times before Moody’s death in 1899. The church today, now known as Moody Church and moved in 1915 to a nearby location, has an auditorium seating capacity of 4,000, and its current facility currently draws some 3,000 people in weekly attendance.
Big Churches First Seen in the New Testament?
Worldwide, the practice of forming very large-attendance churches goes back many centuries. The New Testament refers to certain banner-attendance assemblies, such as Pentecost when “about 3,000” were converted (Acts 2:41). The overall church continued to grow to 5,000 (Acts 4:4) and beyond (Acts 21:20). But the weekly meetings were not akin to today’s megachurch because the earliest Christian communities generally met as smaller groups in homes, according to New Testament record. The first known church building was not built until 201 A.D., and many churches continued to convene in homes even after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in 313.
Yet over the centuries occasional large-attendance churches developed including the great Abbey of Cluny, the great cathedrals of Constantinople and Europe, and the tabernacles build around the ministries of such evangelists and teachers as Charles Spurgeon in England. As a case in point, Spurgeon preached regularly, often 10 times in a week to audiences of 6,000 and more. He once addressed an audience of 23,654 (without aid of amplification). He grew the congregation of New Park Street Church, later named the Metropolitan Tabernacle, from an attendance of 232 in 1854 to 5,311 in 1892, making it the largest independent congregation in the world. Prime Ministers, presidents, and other notables flocked to hear him. However, attendance there today has been considerably less than 2,000 for several decades.
These were not Europe’s first megachurches either. The last ten years of John Calvin’s life in Geneva (1555-1564) were preoccupied with missions in France, such as in Bergerac: “From day to day, we are growing, and God has caused His Word to bear such fruit that at sermons on Sundays, there are about four- to five-thousand people,” he wrote. Another letter from Montpelier rejoiced, “Our church, thanks to the Lord, has so grown and so continues to grow every day that we are obliged to preach three sermons on Sundays to a total of five- to six-thousand people.” A pastor in Toulouse wrote: “Our church has grown to the astonishing number of about eight- to nine-thousand souls.”
Today the world’s largest-attendance churches are in Korea, Africa, and South America—symbolic of the geographical shift in Christianity noted by historian Philip Jenkins (2002). Most of the world’s best attended churches were started in the last century, many in the last decades. It is still unknown which church globally was the earliest both to exceed 2,000 in attendance and to continue at that size to this day (see list of global megachurches at www.leadnet.org/world).
Megachurch Researcher Firsts
First to identify and track the world’s and nation’s largest attendance churches: Elmer Towns, first in magazine articles, and then in books like The Ten Largest Sunday Schools and What Makes Them Grow (1972), The World’s Largest Sunday School (1974), and The Complete Book of Church Growth(1979)
First to use the word megachurch in a book: Francis Dubois, How Churches Grow in an Urban World, 1978.
First book with specific chapters on megachurches: Prepare Your Church for the Future, Carl George with Warren Bird, 1991.
First book to use the word megachurch in a book title: John N. Vaughan, Megachurches and American Cities: How Churches Grow, 1993.
Where Did the Word Megachurch Come From?
The word church has been with us for centuries, but the prefix mega first emerged in the 19th century. Most uses were specialized such as megalith (stone of great size), megalopolis (very large city), megaphone (device that makes the voice sound much bigger) and megahertz (a million cycles per second). In the 1940s, it became part of common speech with the terms megaton and megabuck. In the 1970s, institutional uses arose such as megacorporations and megamall, both of which described new developments associated with controversy. The word megachurch was used by scholars and researchers in the 1970s, likely coined by them.
The term megachurch first appeared in a newspaper the week of Easter 1983 in the Miami Herald describing the 12,000 people anticipated to attend the 3,400-seat Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Soon other newspapers and magazines were using the term megachurch to describe big-attendance churches with very large facilities. The new term filled a vacuum: a small number of large-attendance Protestant churches had existed for centuries in metropolitan areas, with fewer than 100 in the United States by 1983, but there was no unique term to describe them other than perhaps super church, a term used only occasionally.
More Megachurch Trivia
For other blogs in this “megachurch” series see “Biggest Megachurch Sanctuaries?”, “Youngest Megachurch Pastor?”, “Megachurch Languages?”, “Megachurch Books”, and “How Many Megachurches?” each of which links to others in this series.