Leadership Network’s work with innovative pastors regularly pairs us with megachurches. Indeed, in recent years no one has done more megachurch research than us.Thought leader @lensweet recently tweeted “No one knows more about the megachurch than @warrenbird.” (By definition, megachurches are Protestant congregations that draw 2,000 or more to weekly worship.)
We are also quick to affirm the importance and strategic role of smaller churches. Many are pacesetters in evangelism, missional connections and compassion ministries. We and other researchers have much to learn from them.
But what about megachurch researchers who are not connected with Leadership Network? Do their findings square with Leadership Network’s megachurch biases? In a recent “mystery church shopper” report, megachurches fared quite well. Hard research is likewise affirming. National studies like FACT, USCLS and NCS touch on megachurches, but two others drew enough large church participants to reach significant conclusions:
1. Rodney Stark of Baylor University compared churches with attendances under 100 against those over 1,000, reporting it in What Americans Really Believe. He sought to determine whether large or small congregations provide a better religious experience – see the two infographics which highlight a number of his findings. He concludes that the “mile wide and inch deep” accusations of megachurches, taken as a whole, lack a research base.
2. Barna Research wroteIts study found attenders of large churches were more likely than those engaged in a small or mid-sized congregation to give an orthodox biblical response – such as that Jesus led a sinless life, the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches, Satan is not merely symbolic but exists, God is the all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe, etc. Further, on seven of the eight behavioral measures, attenders of large churches scored substantially better than those of small churches. Activities included attending church in the past week, reading the Bible in the past week, and volunteering at their church in the past week. The average difference related to the seven behaviors was 17 percentage points.
Dave Travis, co-author of Megachurch Myths and CEO of Leadership Network, is not surprised by these findings. “Large churches and small churches are both valid expressions of Christian discipleship. But the fiercest critics of larger churches poke at them without data from those that actually attend them. Most of the data cited in this blog tends to show how literally millions of Americans find large church expressions of church life vital, renewing and life giving for their spiritual journeys,” he says. For more from Dave Travis on larger churches, see also What’s Next? A Look Over the Next Hill for Innovative Churches and Their Leaders.