Multiplication Center

World’s Largest Churches: Report from the Field (Part 2)

October 29, 2013

Published on 10/29/2013

By Warren Bird

Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church’s facility was dedicated by evangelist Billy Graham in 1974

Back in Easter 1983, the Miami Herald published an article describing the 12,000 people anticipated to attend the 3,400-seat Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The writer wanted to emphasize that this was no ordinary church, so he used the term megachurch. The word already existed, but he introduced it to the public eye. 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 many years in metropolitan areas, but with fewer than 100 in the United States by 1983 (and fewer than 25 megachurches for all of North America back in 1970).

Fast forward thirty years: Today North America has some 1,650 churches that match the widely accepted definition of a megachurch: a Protestant congregation with 2,000 or more average weekly attendees (both adults and children) at all services and physical locations. That’s roughly 1,625 in the U.S. plus about 25 in Canada. Last weekend, of those who worshipped in a Protestant church, 1 out of 10 went to a megachurch, introducing a whole new generation of architecture as well.

But it turns out that North American growth statistics pale in comparison to what’s happening on other continents. For example, all the world’s churches with 50,000 or more attendees reside outside North America. So far I’ve found 13 churches worldwide who gather on that scale, including Africa, Asia and South America. The Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, is the world’s largest known church with 480,000 weekly attendees.

The main sanctuary at Yoido Full Gospel Church holds over 21,000 worshippers with seven Sunday services.

Other continents have seen an explosion of churches of 10,000 people or more. To date I have accounted for 83 churches outside of North America. Asia also leads the parade of congregations with 10,000 or more attendees—with 45 that top that mark. There are 23 African churches of that size, while South America (11 churches), Europe (3) and Australia (1) also join the 10,000-plus club.

Online List of Global Megachurches

To draw attention to this worldwide development, I created what seems to be the world’s only online, active, searchable and sortable database of global megachurches. I’ve been researching global megachurches since 1991, contributing to a North American megachurch list since 2006, and posting the global version online since 2010. It’s been nearly an impossible task without help from readers who graciously offer suggestions, additions and corrections.

The global megachurches list is not based on membership but on actual worship attendance. It is limited to Protestant congregations. Multisite churches are counted as part of one congregation if they are all under the same leader and governance, adhere to the same doctrine, identify together under a similar name or association, and share finances at some level.

The list is still in its infancy, with less than 1,000 entries. But we’ve gathered enough information about these churches to come to some important conclusions about why such a list is important to our efforts here at home. Most notably, we have much to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters around the world. And, with technology shrinking the globe into near-real-time connectivity, we believe there are golden opportunities to partner with megachurches around the world for even greater kingdom impact.

Why Should a List Like This Matter to North Americans?

First, accurate data allows us to see the bigger picture of what God seems to be doing. And a clear view of the bigger picture is always a vital component in the hands of world-shaking leaders. For starters, you’ll see which countries have the newest growth of larger churches (and as the list continues to grow, I’m convinced that we’ll discover far more megachurches outside the U.S. than in it). You can explore everything from average pastor age to the widespread presence of Pentecostal/charismatic theology in these large churches.

We’ve also found that churches on this list tend to be innovators. This ranges from how they use technology to how they impact their communities for Christ. By visiting the websites of some of these churches, reading their mission and vision statements, and perusing the ministries they list, you can sense the heartbeat and future directions of these pacesetters. For example, look in the “Australia” section, pick a handful of churches, go to their websites and read their “about us” section that describes their history. It’s amazing how many changed their name to connect better with today’s culture. We can learn much from why they made those decisions, as various churches describe in their history section.

Third, a list like this invites a level playing field for helpful conversation about global movers and shakers. For good or bad, larger churches are influential, both in their communities and also in influencing other churches. It’s amazing how many larger churches have started schools, hospitals or clinics, and community development activities. Living Faith Church (known locally as Winner’s Chapel) in Lagos, Nigeria, led by David Oyedepo, launched Covenant University in 2002 and is graduating 114 students in 2013. It recently set a ten-year goal to become one of the world’s ten best universities.

The vision of Covenant University is to be a leading world-class Christian Mission university committed to raising a new generation of leaders in all fields of human endeavor.

Our hope is this list also helps churches who are listed to network with each other—and that U.S megachurches will be inspired to connect with their global counterparts. Churches have more in common by size (attendance and/or budget) than by most other factors. People always like to know who their peers are, and they’re often stretched by rubbing shoulders with them. Also, as more U.S. churches get involved in global ministry ventures, we also think this list could provide a jump-start for churches on both sides of the globe to connect and bring synergy to their efforts.

Networking More through Leadership Network

All this research leads me to a strong sense of encouragement for North American church leaders: the world has become rather small. Pastors are not just learning from other pastors in their nation, but a wonderful cross-pollination is occurring globally. Partnerships are emerging from leadership mentoring to genuine mission partnerships that are two-way and reciprocal.

Never in history have churches had such a rich trove of resource networks available. Wherever your church is stuck or small-minded, it doesn’t have to remain there. In fact, maybe a great way to start is by hanging out with other front-line innovative churches, such as through various networking groups sponsored by Leadership Network.

Warren Bird, Ph.D., research director at Leadership Network, with background as pastor and seminary professor, is author or co-author of 24 books for ministry leaders including Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Jim Tomberlin. His most recent title is Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller. Some of Warren’s recent online reports include The Heartbeat of Rising Influence Churches,” Pastors Who Are Shaping the Future and A New Decade of Megachurches.” Follow him on Twitter @warrenbird

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