November 5th, 2010
11:10 AM ET
I was attending a lecture several years ago when I heard a startling prediction: megachurches are doomed.
A religion professor predicted that megachurches would one day resemble abandoned retail stories “on the edge of town” because they were so expensive to maintain, and a younger generation wanted a more intimate worship experiences.
I thought about that prediction after learning that the Crystal Cathedral megachurch in California filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after its leaders disclosed the church is close to $50 million in debt.
The bankruptcy revelation, along with recent scandals surrounding several megachurch pastors, caused me to wonder if megachurches will fall out of fashion in these lean economic times. Will Americans cut back on the size of their churches while cutting back on everything else?
Scott Thumma, an authority on megachurches, says mammoth churches aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
He says most megachurches are holding their own financially amid this “great recession.” He defines a megachurch as a congregation with 2,000 members and above.
“Megachurches, in part, grew because they were adaptive, innovative and resourceful. They, and their leadership, have a great ability to evolve,” says Thumma, co-author of "Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches."
Thumma says much of the criticism directed at megachurches comes from envy. People like to beat up on the big guys, says Thumma, a religion professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.
Megachurch critics often say that their ministers preach bland messages designed for mass appeal; they have no internal checks and balances to check autocratic pastors; they’re too big to foster a genuine sense of church community.
One of the biggest complaints, though, is that there is something inherent in the megachurch culture that breeds preacher scandals.
Thumma says the percentage of megachurch pastors that run into ethical difficulties, though, is “no greater and is perhaps less frequent” than the clergy of smaller churches.
Megachurch pastors get the headlines because they are so well-known, he says.
“What is different is that megachurch clergy can't hide in anonymity,” Thumma says. “There is no rug large enough to sweep their indiscretions under.’’
Another possible threat to megachurches is the “emerging church.” It’s a broad term, but it includes churches that are smaller, more intimate and shun being built on the popularity of a charismatic pastor.
Thumma says megachurches can still grab the emerging church crowd because they also know how to go small when necessary.
“The increasing emphasis on multiple smaller worship venues and satellite campuses directly address these perceived challenges,” he says. “Mega worship can be simultaneously mass gathering and intimate. It can have its mall and boutique all under the same brand.”
Maybe that college professor was wrong. Even in a time of frugality, we still like our big churches, Thumma says.
What do you think?
Will megachurches retain their popularity in the future or is something other kind of church ready to be born?
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.