Friday, May 7, 2021

Why Study Megachurches?


By Warren Bird, Ph.D.


Worldwide, the practice of forming very large-attendance churches goes back many centuries. The New Testament refers to certain banner-attendance assemblies, such as Pentecost when “about 3,000” were converted (Acts 2:41). The overall church continued to grow to 5,000 (Acts 4:4) and beyond (Acts 21:20). But the weekly meetings were not akin to today’s megachurch because the earliest Christian communities generally met as smaller groups in homes, according to New Testament record. The first known church building was not built until 201 A.D., and many churches continued to convene in homes even after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in, 313 A.D. 


Yet over the centuries occasional large-attendance churches developed including the great Abbey of Cluny, the great cathedrals of Constantinople and Europe, and also the tabernacles build around the ministries of such evangelists and teachers as Charles Spurgeon in England. As a case in point, Spurgeon preached regularly—often 10 times in a week—to audiences of 6,000 and more. He once addressed an audience of 23,654 (without aid of amplification). He grew the congregation of New Park Street Church, later named the Metropolitan Tabernacle, from an attendance of 232 in 1854 to 5,311 in 1892, making it the largest independent congregation in the world for a time. Prime Ministers, presidents, and other notables flocked to hear him. However, attendance there today has been considerably less than 2,000 for several decades.

These were not Europe’s first megachurches either. The last ten years of John Calvin’s life in Geneva (1555-1564) were preoccupied with missions in France, such as in Bergerac: “From day to day, we are growing, and God has caused His Word to bear such fruit that at sermons on Sundays, there are about four- to five-thousand people,” he wrote. Another letter from Montpelier rejoiced, “Our church, thanks to the Lord, has so grown and so continues to grow every day that we are obliged to preach three sermons on Sundays to a total of five- to six-thousand people.” A pastor in Toulouse wrote: “Our church has grown to the astonishing number of about eight- to nine-thousand souls.” (For additional examples, see this scholarly article by David Eagle.)


Today the world’s largest-attendance churches are in Korea, Africa, and South America—symbolic of the geographical shift in Christianity noted by historian Philip Jenkins in The New Faces of Christianity


Most of the world’s biggest churches were started in the last century, many in the last decades. It is still unknown which church globally was the earliest both to exceed 2,000 in attendance and to continue at that size to this day (see list of global megachurches at


Four Reasons to Study Megachurches


All that to ask, “Why study these big churches, given that 99% of churches out there are not megachurches?” Here are a few reasons:


1. Churches with large attendances tend to be growing churches. Much can be learned—for better or worse—about why they grow and how they grow.


2. For better or worse, large churches tend to be influencers, pacesetters who spark methods and practices that often scale to churches of ALL sizes.


3. Large churches tend to be innovators and entrepreneurs. This ranges from how they use technology to how they impact their communities for Christ. They have more capacity to experiment as well as openness to change, and so they tackle problems that frequently stump other churches—again, for better or for worse.


4. Large churches shape the general public’s perception of church. This is again for better or worse, but it’s helpful to understand the messages these churches are conveying to my neighbors and yours.


Where Did the Word Megachurch Come From?


The word church has been with us for centuries, but the prefix mega first emerged in the 19th century. Most uses were specialized such as megalith (stone of great size), megalopolis (very large city), megaphone (device that makes the voice sound much bigger) and megahertz (a million cycles per second). In the 1940s, it became part of common speech with the terms megaton and megabuck. In the 1970s, institutional uses arose such as megacorporations and megamall, both of which described new developments associated with controversy. The word megachurch was used by scholars and researchers in the 1970s, likely coined by them.


The term megachurch first appeared in a newspaper the week of Easter 1983 in the Miami Herald describing the 12,000 people anticipated to attend the 3,400-seat Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where D. James Kennedy was pastor at the time. 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 centuries in metropolitan areas, with fewer than 100 in the United States by 1983, but there was no unique term to describe them other than perhaps super church, a term used only occasionally. (And currently Coral Ridge is no longer a megachurch in attendance.)


Megachurch Researchers


Here’s a bit of history of U.S. megachurch research, naming a few firsts:


• First to identify and track the world’s and nation’s largest attendance churches: Elmer Towns, first in magazine articles, and then in books like The Ten Largest Sunday Schools and What Makes Them Grow (1972), The World’s Largest Sunday School (1974), and The Complete Book of Church Growth(1979).


• First to use the word megachurch in a book: Francis Dubois, How Churches Grow in an Urban World, 1978.


• First book with specific chapters on megachurches: Prepare Your Church for the Future, Carl George with Warren Bird, 1991.


• First book to use the word megachurch in a book title: John N. Vaughan, Megachurches and American Cities: How Churches Grow, 1993.



Finding the Latest Megachurch Research

ECFA’s “The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches” report runs 22 pages and is the largest national study EVER of trends in U.S. megachurches. If you want other ministry friends to download it (hint, hint), it’s free at And certainly if you want to join the number of churches of ALL sizes that are ECFA members, please see

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

What Church Was America’s First Megachurch?

By Warren Bird, Ph.D.

If megachurches are Protestant congregations that draw 2,000 or more adults and children in worship on a typical weekend, what was America's first megachurch?

Journalists often identify the first megachurch in the United States as the 2,890-seat Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, founded by Robert H. Schuller.  But these “first megachurch” claims are wrong, because the Crystal Cathedral was founded in 1955 and didn’t cross the 2,000 attendance mark until the 1970s, peaking in the 1980s. More recently, the Crystal Cathedral declared bankruptcy in 2010, leading to a sale of the facility which was then reconfigured to become a Catholic church.


Not in California or Ohio

Others look for the site of America's first megachurch in Akron, Ohio, where three of the nation’s largest-attendance churches were based in the 1960s. One was Rex Humbard’s 5,400-seat Cathedral of Tomorrow, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, built in 1958 and filled on a regular basis. After lawsuits and a severe attendance decline in the early 1980s, Humbard sold the facility and accompanying television studio to fellow televangelist, Ernest Angley in 1994. The church is now known as Grace Cathedral in Akron, but is no longer a megachurch, in attendance.


Even earlier, was Akron Baptist Temple, started in 1934, by Dallas Billington as a Sunday school. Most churches until the 1960s drew more people in Sunday school attendance, than in worship. By the 1950s, the worship attendance regularly exceeded 4,000. It currently is no longer a megachurch in attendance. In fact, in 2018 it sold its 4,000-seat sanctuary and 29-acre campus to another church and relocated 10 miles away, downsizing to a 150-seat facility on 6 acres.


Not in Texas or Indiana Either


First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, reported a Sunday school attendance of 5,200 in 1928, at least 2,000 of which attended worship. Today it has relocated and downsized and is no longer a megachurch.


During the 1950s and beyond in downtown Dallas, Texas, several churches—First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First Methodist and First Christian—were among the largest churches in their denominations, typically drawing 2,000 or more attendance at worship.


Notable churches subsequently grew in many cities across the United States, such as First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana, which during the 1970s was the nation’s largest attendance church, and remains a megachurch to this day.


Not Just Predominantly White Churches


Among predominantly African-American congregations, one of nation’s largest in the early 1900s was what’s known today as Philadelphia’s Tinley Temple, a Methodist church. At one point, it drew several thousand congregants, in large part because of the Reverend Charles Tindley, a charismatic pastor whose gospel hymns include, “We Shall Overcome.” (Tindley Temple today is no longer a megachurch.)

Some churches that draw more than 2,000 in weekly attendance today (or in recent years) were founded in the 1700s and 1800s, but their worship attendance did not regularly exceed 2,000 until more recent decades. These include: The Falls Church, Falls Church, VA, an Episcopal congregation founded in 1734 (but it has relocated due to a doctrinal and property dispute); Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baltimore, MD, founded in 1784; First Baptist Church, Sevierville, TN, founded 1789;  Mud Creek Baptist Church, Hendersonville, NC, founded in 1803; Park Street Church, Boston, MA, founded in 1807; and Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City, founded in 1809.


Early American Megachurches


Other churches had 2,000-plus attendances in their early days but have not been that size in the last 100-plus years. These include Sansom Street Church, Philadelphia, built in 1812 and seating 4,000; First Baptist Church, Baltimore, built in 1818 and seating 4,000; Chatham Street Chapel, Philadelphia, built in 1832 and seating 2,500; Broadway Tabernacle, in the Bowery section of lower Manhattan, built in 1836 and seating 2,400 but accommodating 4,000; First Free Baptist Church, Boston, an African-American congregation built in the 1840s and seating 2,000; Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, built in 1850 and seating 2,000; Central Presbyterian Church built in 1891 and seating 7,000; and Bethany Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, built in 1866 and seating 3,000. (For additional examples, see this scholarly article by David Eagle.)


Many churches had temporary surges past the 2,000 attendance marks, even ones in small communities like Nantucket, MA, during late 1700s where the Quaker Meeting House “sometimes attracted as many as 2,000 people—more than a quarter of the island’s population” according to Smithsonian magazine. In the mid-1800s, as many as 2,000 people per week attended church in the Capitol building in Washington DC as a congregation raised money for building a new sanctuary it could call its own. For example, on December 13, 1857, the Rev. Dr. George Cummins preached before a crowd of 2,000 worshipers in the first public use of the House chamber, according to William C. Allen, Architectural Historian of the Capitol, in A History of the United States Capitol, A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 2001), p. 271.


America’s Longest-Standing Megachurch


The Moody Church of Chicago bears the distinction of being the oldest to both break the 2,000 threshold in attendance and to also be over 2,000 in the current era. The church facility, built in 1876 and known as Chicago Avenue Church, could hold 10,000 people. It was founded and led by the famous evangelist D.L. Moody. The church was filled to overflowing many times before Moody’s death in 1899. The church today, now known as Moody Church and moved in 1915 to a nearby location, has an auditorium seating capacity of 4,000, and its current facility draws almost 2,500 people in weekly attendance, though over the years it sometimes dipped below 2,000 in attendance.


A runner-up might be Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, founded in 1892. In 1937, its attendance crossed the 2,000 mark and it moved into a 5,000-seat sanctuary, which was regularly filled to capacity under revivalist J. Frank Norris (who had also led First Baptist, Fort Worth, mentioned above, and who had become the pastor also at Temple in 1935). With 5,000 in attendance at Sunday school in 1954, the church was featured in Time magazine as having the largest Sunday school program in America. Its peak attendance was 1956. The church moved to the Detroit suburb of Plymouth in 1968, building a 4,500-seat sanctuary under their next pastor, George Beauchamp Vick. In the decades after Vick’s leadership, the church decreased in size, dropping below 2,000 attendance in 1958, and continuing to decline to the point that it merged into another church and was renamed NorthRidge Church, a megachurch today led by Brad Powell. (For a detailed case study see this scholarly article.)

Learn More


Why does ECFA take such a strong interest in larger-attendance churches, such as by publishing “The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches”?  Answer: to serve these larger churches, since so many are ECFA members. ECFA membership starts with a church wanting to live by ECFA’s seven integrity standards. To learn more, see

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

9 Fascinating Facts About People Who Attend Megachurches

By Warren Bird, Ph.D.

The number of very large churches has increased dramatically over the last 50 years, as the graphic powerfully illustrates. As stated in the recent ECFA co-sponsored report, “The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches,” megachurches are pacesetters. We see this unfolding as megachurches continue including multiracial worship, developing special needs programs, and developing a lay leadership infrastructure. In the past, I’ve written about other megachurch unique qualities from: sanctuary sizes (very few new ones over 5,000) to the first megachurch (start with Pentecost when “about 3,000” were converted, per Acts 2:41) to global megachurches (Nigeria and Korea are currently leading).


But what about the people who attend really big churches? Fellow researcher Scott Thumma and I surveyed some 25,000 of them, with some fascinating discoveries:

1.     Nearly two-thirds of megachurch attenders have been at these churches 5 years or less.

2.     Many attenders come from other churches, but nearly a quarter haven’t been in any church for a long time, before coming to a megachurch.

3.     New people almost always come to the megachurch because family, friends or coworkers invited them.

4.     Fifty-five percent of megachurch attenders volunteer at the church, in some way (a higher percentage than in smaller churches).

5.     What first attracted attenders were: the worship style, the senior pastor, and the church’s reputation, in that order.

6.     These same factors also influenced long-term attendance, as did the music/arts, social and community outreach, and adult-oriented programs.

7.     Attenders report a considerable increase in their involvement in church, in their spiritual growth, and in their needs being met.

8.     Attenders can craft unique, customized spiritual experiences through the multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement that megachurches offer.

9.     In many ways, large churches today are making good progress in reaching people and moving them from spectators to active participants to growing disciples of Jesus Christ.


Why does ECFA take such a strong interest in larger-attendance churches, such as by publishing The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches”?  Answer: to serve these larger churches, since so many are ECFA members. ECFA membership starts with a church wanting to live by ECFA’s seven integrity standards. To learn more, see

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Just How Multiracial Are America’s Largest Churches?


By Warren Bird, Ph.D.

What has been called "the most segregated hour of the week" isn’t as segregated as it used to be. According to a study that ECFA co-sponsored, American megachurches are now more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

Among the 24 findings in the “Megachurch 2020” report (free download here), this diversity finding more than any others was widely headlined. The story was picked up in publications ranging from, Christianity Today to Ecumenical News, from denominational publications to more hipster publications like Relevant magazine and Religion Unplugged.

The massive survey of megachurches, conducted every 5 years, explores the racial makeup of those who attend such churches. The percentage of multiracial congregations has grown from 21% in 2000 to 58% in 2020 (with the 2020 research conducted just before the global pandemic prevented churches from meeting in person).


The survey defined multiracial churches as having 20% or more minority presence in their congregation. Historically, megachurches have led other sizes of churches in becoming more multiracial.

What helps churches become more multiracial? Size is a significant reason for this diversity, but such diversity is also augmented by an intentional desire for diversity and the leadership willing to change various church dynamics necessary to bring this to reality. When asked, “Is [the congregation] striving to be diverse (e.g. racially, ethnically, socio-economically)?” a whopping 78% agreed or strongly agreed. In short, the research found a powerful statistical relationship between those churches who were striving to be diverse and actually have a more multiracial congregational makeup.


This increased racial diversity also goes hand in hand with a number of other characteristics that all describe a church that has created a culture of welcome and inclusion. These characteristics include being better at incorporating new people into the life of the church, having a larger percentage of recent immigrants in the church, being more open to persons with special needs (by being very intentional about such ministry or offering certain accommodations), and having higher rates of new people in the previous 5 years.

Racial diversity also comes with a considerable mix of economic groups and educational levels, with roughly 50% being college graduates, significant representation from all age groups (a greater mix of ages than the vast majority of smaller churches), and diversity of political persuasions and income levels.

If the trend continues, statements about “America’s most segregated hour” will continue to become less true of large churches with each passing year.

Likewise, ECFA’s membership becomes more diverse with each passing year. Our member organizations not only serve a broad array of races and ethnicities, but their leadership is likewise increasingly diverse. According to preliminary findings from a survey we’re fielding this month, 11% of CEO’s (or equivalent top leader) of ECFA’s nonprofit ministry members are non-white. To learn more about becoming an ECFA member (both churches and nonprofit ministries), click here.

Monday, December 21, 2020

What’s a Healthy Way to Dramatically Increase a Church’s Financial Giving?


By Warren Bird, Ph.D.


Did you know that the more your church involves its people in small groups, the more its financial giving will increase?

This finding comes from research ECFA helped conduct on megachurches—the largest study ever conducted on large churches across the U.S. (See below for details on how to download our entire research report.)

The use of small groups has long been a hallmark of megachurches—the idea of distinct units within the greater church where people know each other personally and participate in various kinds of spiritual ministries. Their purpose can include fellowship, spiritual nurture, ministry, and/or religious education. They might be called names like: Sunday school classes, Bible studies, missional teams, home groups, community groups, discipleship groups, or any number of other terms.

ECFA’s landmark survey found that small-group practice continues to increase dramatically, but also that the impact on spiritual health through the use of small groups is profound. When asked if small groups are central to their strategy of Christian nurture and spiritual formation, an astounding 90% of megachurches said “Yes” (see the first graphic.)

This percentage has steadily grown over the years. For example, back in 2000, only 50% of megachurches said yes to the same question.

When asked what percentage of the church’s adult participants are typically involved in a small group, the response in 2020 was a median of 45%. In 2015, the median was 40%. This increased priority given to small groups, is evident in the growing percentage of adults who are involved in small groups within their congregations. Small group participation is directly related to a number of positive trends for the congregation. As the second graphic illustrates, the more adults in small groups, the greater the church’s growth rate.

The churches with the highest percentage of their congregation active in their small groups were also more likely to say they had larger percentages of their members volunteering regularly at church, recruiting new people, sharing their faith with those not a part of the congregation, being new to the congregation in the last 5 years—and, as introduced above, giving financially to the church. These are noteworthy findings!

Just how much more do small group members give to their church? On average 9%. That percentage would be a meaningful boost to any church's budget.

Read the Entire “The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches” Report

ECFA’s “The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches” report runs 22 pages and is the largest national study EVER of trends in U.S. megachurches. If you want other ministry friends to download it (hint, hint), it’s free at


Friday, October 30, 2020

Did You Know That Per-Capita Giving is HIGHER in Churches with Annual Audits and Independent Boards?

 By Warren Bird, Ph.D.


Do your church's governance and financial management models help or hurt per capita giving?

ECFA just released news that I believe will be extremely relevant to large churches. My "Did you know" headline is part of that news. 

To explain it further: if a large church has an annual audit performed, per capita giving goes up. Likewise, if the majority of its governance board is independent (i.e., a majority of the board is both non-family and non-staff), per capita giving goes up.

As the graphic below illustrates: if a large church is building member commitment through an emphasis on personal practices of spiritual growth, through involvement in the life of the congregation through attendance and small group, and through reinforcing the commitment to of fiscal integrity and trust, the per capital giving is likely to increase. 


This is only one of our findings: ECFA's “Megachurch 2020” report runs 22 pages and is the largest national study EVER of trends in U.S. megachurchesIt highlights 24 specific research findings that include answers to these questions:

     • What works best in megachurches to increase spiritual vitality?

• What have megachurches done to become so multiracial?

• How does small group involvement increase spiritual formation and church growth in megachurches?

• What decreases per capita giving in megachurches? What specifically increases it?

• Does your governance and financial management model help or hurt per capita giving?

• Are megachurches growing more by multiple services, multiple campuses, church planting, or church mergers?

• What year in megachurches is the peak growth era under the same senior pastor?

• What happens in a megachurch after the pastor who led during the church’s greatest growth era retires?

Part of the fun of this blog is the participation of our readers!  Truly, I welcome your comments and questions about this blog and about the entire report.

Download the entire report (free) at Please alert ministry friends as well.

Friday, July 31, 2020

What’s New in Megachurches 2020? (Part 1)

By Warren Bird, Ph.D.

 Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ECFA co-sponsored a survey of large churches. We received a delightful amount of responses, with insights from more than 1 in 4 of the country’s megachurches. It’s a survey conducted every 5 years (2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, and now 2020), asking many of the same core questions in order to get a sense of change over time.

Next month this blog will begin to unveil the findings from the survey itself. Forecast: The fascinating trends uncovered include dramatic growth in the number of multiracial megachurches and in the role of small groups. Church mergers and multisite expansion are likewise experiencing a dramatic increase among megachurches. We also asked questions about megachurch financial accountability and boards, issues of particular concern to ECFA. Much news to come!

For now, let me put the idea of megachurches in context, drawing from research I did during my days at Leadership Network (see the collection of articles at

What is a megachurch? The widely accepted definition is a Protestant church with a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more adults and children.

How many megachurches are there? The United States has roughly 1,750 megachurches. That’s only 0.5% of the total number of Protestant churches, and yet among Protestants who physically attended church prior to the pandemic, almost 1 in 10 went to a megachurch.

Are megachurches like other Protestant churches, where 4 in 5 are plateaued or declining? No. It’s just the opposite. The vast majority of megachurches are growing, many at a very fast clip.

Are megachurches fading away as a Baby Boomer phenomenon? No. Not only do megachurch pastors span several generations (currently from ages 33 to 88), but the numbers of younger attenders and single adults are quite impressive. The larger the church, the greater the percentage of young adults who go there on average.

How new is the idea of a megachurch? History has known of many churches that drew thousands, such as the congregations led by Charles Spurgeon in London or D.L. Moody in Chicago. What’s new in the last few decades is the reality that they are now widespread and far more common, found in most large cities and in many suburbs.

Are megachurches unique to the United States? Definitely not. The megachurch movement first took off in Korea. The world’s largest megachurch sanctuary is in Nigeria, seating 50,000. Dozens of countries have megachurches, many with megachurches far larger than the largest U.S. megachurches.

Why do people study megachurches? Larger churches are often innovation leaders and they also tend to be disproportionately influential over churches of other sizes. They also tend to be the churches that the public media highlights—for good or for bad!

Are megachurches members of ECFA? Yes. Around half of the 100-largest U.S. churches have been ECFA accredited, which means the church has agreed to follow ECFA’s integrity standards for churches, known as ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship™. (Other-size churches are also among ECFA’s more than 2,400 members.)

Is a list of megachurches available? Yes. I’ve compiled a list of global megachurches at It contains a link to a list of US megachurches that I also helped compile. To learn if a specific church (megachurch or otherwise) is an ECFA member, see

Stay tuned … and look for “Part 2” of this blog, with specific findings from the research, slated to be posted by the end of August 2020.