The size of the church attended by a typical Protestant in America has increased over the past few decades. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the number of megachurches (churches with more than 2,000 people in attendance at weekly worship) increased from fewer than 100 in 1970 to nearly 1,800 today. And according to the National Congregations Study, about 15 percent of Protestants in this country attend a megachurch—twice as many as did in 1998.
Megachurches are hardly a new phenomenon. The landscape of Protestantism has been dotted since the mid-19th century with very large churches—like Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, Temple Baptist in Philadelphia, Moody Church in Chicago, Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, and Second Baptist in Houston. All of these large congregations rose to prominence before 1930. The increase in popularity and prominence of megachurches is new, however. The reasons for the rise remain murky, but some guesses can be made.
One guess concerns one of the most important social trends of post–World War II America: the increased participation of women in the paid workforce. According to the Census Bureau, 57 percent of working-aged women participated in some form of paid work in 2013—up from about 35 percent in 1950. Among women who work, far more work full time than in the past. Meanwhile, most men are employed, and if employed they usually work full time. This means that in more and more marriages, both partners are spending more time at work than they did in previous decades.
What does this have to do with churches? A good deal. Churches are volunteer-driven organizations and need a plentiful supply of volunteer labor to function. The bulk of church volunteers come from the ranks of the married. If married people have less discretionary time at their disposal, then churches will feel a corresponding time crunch with volunteers. Think of it this way: a congregation with 100 married couples today has 1,000 hours fewer hours of potential volunteer labor to tap than it did in 1970.
Imagine that you are part of a busy couple, both working as accountants, and you are looking for a church to attend. If you enter a church of a hundred people, it is likely that in a short time you will be asked to put your professional skills to work for the church. But if you were to walk into a church of 2,000, it is likely that the church already pays a bookkeeper to manage its finances, and you would face a lot less pressure to get involved. At the very least, you could more easily pick and choose your level of involvement.
Churches that survive and thrive in today’s environment allow for the flexible participation of volunteers. The advantage of size lies in the ability to pay staff to do the things that require sustained commitment—things like bookkeeping, coordinating programs for children and youth, and planning and organizing services. Megachurches create a more hospitable environment for time-stressed people.
Some additional evidence suggests that the success of megachurches has to do with their ability to attract dual-earner couples. It should come as no surprise that dual-income households outearn their single-earner counterparts. If you double the number of hours available for paid employment, on average, household income will rise. Researchers with the National Congregations Study asked a representative sample of pastors to estimate the proportion of their congregation that earns more than $100,000 per year (pastors tend to be very accurate in making such estimates). In congregations with 100 attenders, about 5 percent of the congregation fits in this category; in congregations with more than 3,000 attenders, 30 percent have high incomes.
One might object that this relationship derives merely from the fact that megachurches disproportionately exist in suburbs dominated by high-income families. But when comparisons are made between congregations across urban and suburban areas, this relationship continues to hold.
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