Change is coming to American megachurches — those behemoths for believers that now dot the religious landscape.
There are more participants in megachurch worship than ever.
“Last weekend 1 in 10 adults and children who went to a Protestant church went to a megachurch — about 5 million people,” said Warren Bird, director of research for Leadership Network and co-author of a megachurch study released Wednesday.
But individual attendance is down to once or twice a month — or less.
“They think ‘regular attendance’ is ‘I get there when I can,’ ” said the second co-author, sociologist Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The study examines megachurches (2,000 people in weekend attendance is the basic qualifier) in comparison with other, smaller congregations.
“We found many of these large, successful congregations still have many of the same challenges of smaller congregations. They are not immune to the cultural dynamics in society,” said Thumma.
Megachurches, many launched a quarter century ago by baby boomers, are having a hard time gaining traction among the younger generations. Participation by millennials, ages 18-34, has flattened at about 19 percent since 2010.
The fickle, fast-moving faithful have prompted other changes.
Megachurches are still being built. Indeed, the study finds those established since 1990 are growing at more than double the rate of older megachurches. But the study, funded by the Beck Group, which builds megachurches, finds the new churches are constructed very differently.
Congregations are “getting bigger by getting smaller,” said Bird. They’re building smaller main sanctuaries (median down from 1,500 seats to 1,200 seats) but holding more services on more campuses.
Five years ago, 46 percent of megachurches had multiple locations. Now it’s 62 percent. And the number of their sites bumped up, too — from an average of 2.5 sites to 3.5.
The report, based on a survey of “key informants” — senior pastors or executive staff of congregations — also found a shift in how these churches describe their religious self-image.
Every year since Thumma and Bird began studying megachurches in 2000, the percentage that describe themselves as “evangelical” has gone up. Now, it’s 71 percent, no matter what their denomination, said Bird.
About 40 percent of megachurches are nondenominational, and for those that do have ties, “It’s not really a draw. God and Rick Warren know Saddleback Church is Southern Baptist,” said Bird, but most people who worship there don’t.
Most pastors said denominational ties were unimportant or not very important to their congregation.