The term "megachurch" describes very large congregations (memberships from 2,000 to 15,000 are common) but is best applied to a set of characteristics beyond mere size. At latest count there are more than 400 such congregations in the United States, claiming 1.7 million members.
In general, the typical megachurch is a large or growing congregation that stresses outreach and growth through techniques that seem to have been borrowed from the secular world: sophisticated marketing; a "consumer" orientation toward members; a stress on the services to be provided to members; an emphasis on the attractiveness—even the "entertainment" values—of services and public events; and a downplaying of some of the more familiar characteristics of conventional congregations.
Though a number of megachurches are congregations of mainline denominations, most are evangelical. Theologically, most (but not all) are neo-evangelical: on the conservative side of the Protestant spectrum, they eschew the harsh rhetoric of fundamentalism, preferring a softer, evangelical approach that strives to be inviting and inclusive. They emerge from the same neo-evangelical tendencies that produced televangelism and Christian marketing and material culture. A minority are more charismatic in orientation.
Most structure their formal periods of worship and other rites to introduce people through various stages or types of involvement. The best-known of the megachurches, Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, begins with "seeker services" that are designed to avoid aspects of "traditional church" that prospective members consider a "turnoff." There is no offering, no sermon, no altar call. Those elements are saved for the "believers' services," which take place at another time.
Demographically, the megachurch is a phenomenon of the "baby boom" and "baby bust" generations and a response to the "seeker" or "quester" religiosity typical of those generations. Located in suburban and exurban settings in the Sun Belt and the Northeast, they are integrated into the service marketplace, satisfying market needs through provision of such things as convenient parking, good child care, and upscale food and entertainment services. The religious tastes and desires in these contexts tend toward modes of religious practice that are not typical of traditional Protestantism: rites of passage, a visual approach to aesthetics, drama, music, and direct emotional encounters of various kinds.
Two primary characteristics typify most megachurches: (1) market research (formal and informal), through which prospective members in a given catchment area are probed for insight into their needs and interests; and (2) small groups, through which those needs and interests are addressed. The range of such groups at a typical megachurch is very wide, including the whole range of contemporary therapeutic culture. These groups are the glue that holds the megachurch together. The forces of the cultural divide that have so polarized major denominations (issues such as abortion and homosexuality) are finessed in the megachurch through a careful parsing and focusing of interests into identity groups and through a stress in rites and rituals on the self as opposed to larger social issues.
The most frequent criticisms focus on the megachurch's seeming orientation to superficialities as against theological authority or purity. Leaders in the movement are also vocal in distancing themselves from denominationalism and ecumenism, though several loose confederations of megachurches have formed.
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Stewart M. Hoover