When I helped plant a church in 2012, becoming a megachurch was the dream. We mailed out thousands of invitations, went to church growth conferences and prayed for God to bring the masses.
I remember watching a documentary called “This Is How We Change The World” (about Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC) and being convinced that planting churches to become megachurches is the best way to impact society for Jesus.
It didn’t happen.
We never became a megachurch.
And I’m thankful.
Instead we became a healthy church of 250. We developed intentional community and discipleship. We planted two other churches. We sent missionaries to Africa and Asia.
Meanwhile, many of the megachurches I once revered were not having a good day…
“PASTOR RESIGNS AMID SEX SCANDALS”
“MEGACHURCH PASTOR CHARGED WITH FELONY ASSAULT”
“GLOBAL PASTOR STEPS DOWN AMID INVESTIGATIONS”
“MEGACHURCH CUTS STAFF AMID STEEP DROP IN ATTENDANCE”
You’ve seen the headlines. I don’t need to belabor the point, cast blame, or link the articles.
But what does this mean for the state of the church?
I believe the 2010s represented “Peak Megachurch” and that mode of ministry will likely never return to its former prominence.
This isn’t just my opinion, it’s supported by several sources:
- U.S. Church Attendance Lower Than Before Pandemic
- 33% of Americans Have Quit Church
- Andy Stanley talks about losing half of his church
- Elevation Church lost 12,000 members (2019 ; 2022)
- Lakewood Church attendance drops by 50%
Obviously, the decline in church attendance was accelerated by the pandemic in 2020, but the fracturing of megachurch had been evident for some time.
America’s first megachurch (The Crystal Cathedral) shut its doors in 2010 after declaring bankruptcy amid financial misuse. That same year, Francis Chan left his megachurch expressing doubts about the model.
In 2014, Mars Hill Church made headlines by dissolving operations after pastor Mark Driscoll abruptly left.
The 2016 election created a political divide that crept into churches.
In 2018, Bill Hybels stepped down as pastor of Willow Creek Church amid allegations. Hybels had been the pioneer of modern evangelicalism and led a church leadership network of thousands.
And it all culminated into a tumultuous 2020 with lockdowns, protests, riots, and elections. This was a challenging time for church leaders and very few escaped unscathed.
4 Reasons Why Megachurch Peaked
There are a myriad of overlapping factors that have lead to the peaking of megachurches in America. I will share a few of them.
- Social Dynamics. A group of 20,000 with a few leaders is not going to be as resilient as smaller groups of 150 (Dunbar’s Number). Megachurches are most vulnerable due to this lack of group cohesion.
- Digital Access. Megachurches tend to offer a premium production experience, but much of that is now accessible online without having to wait in line or stress about parking.
- Strong Man Resistance. According to Google Trends, searches for “narcissism” and “toxic masculinity” are at all time levels. These were not common terms 10 years ago, but now rising awareness has created a strong resistance to any form of unhealthy leadership. Chuck DeGroat wrote a book on this topic for the church.
- Back to Basics. One positive result of the pandemic was an awakening towards what’s really important. People are spending more time with family, more time outdoors, etc. Within Christianity, we have seen a move towards the basics of faith without the bells and whistles.
These 2 Pastors Are Bucking The Trend
While most megachurches have not climbed back to their pre-pandemic levels, there are some. I want to highlight two of these churches and what they are doing that seems to be working.
- Craig Groeschel (Life.Church, Edmonds, OK)
This is the largest church in America with over 70,000 people. What’s the secret to their success? They have over 40 locations! This puts the average location size under 2,000 which plays well with the social dynamics mentioned above. Additionally, Craig Groeschel invests heavily in leadership development with campus pastors and digital outreach strategies.
- J.D. Greear (Summit Church, Raleigh, NC)
This church has remarkably planted 500 churches in the past 12 years. On a recent podcast, J.D. Greear discusses the importance of “giving away your best” and keeping the mission of God higher priority than building your base and this seems to be working well.
Rather than being critical and withdrawn, I think we can learn from the past and press on towards the future.
If the megachurch model of ministry is behind us, what lies ahead?
I believe we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the future of the church. A biblical church that captures the heart of our nation and the world. A church marked by the following…
- Worshiping Jesus, not a celebrity pastor
- Authentic and healthy relationships
- Welcoming attitude towards outsiders
- Digital presence that leads to real connections
- Financial simplicity that helps those in need
This is the future church we get to build.
Megachurch may no longer be the dream, but people still matter to God. There are millions out there who have given up on church, but not on God. They are waiting to be welcomed in to this Jesus community and live out their true purpose.
- How have you been impacted by the megachurch movement?
- What are your hopes for the future of the church?
- What can you do now to help make that a reality?