This topic surfaces in almost every church consultation or interview we do. People in smaller churches believe that megachurches have taken—or “stolen” as they often say—their families. The matriarch in one interview certainly thought so. She named almost a dozen families that had left her church to attend the megachurch in their area. Some truth exists in these fears. A significant percentage of growth in large churches occurs because of transfer growth. With low birth rates now the norm in the United States, most churches are not growing through larger families. Sadly, conversion growth in churches is rare, as few believers are actively engaged in the ministry of evangelism. Thus, a lot of so-called growth is merely the result of people transferring from one church to another.
Megachurches receive more media attention than smaller churches. Their physical campuses can dominate their surrounding community. Megachurch pastors tend to have charisma, and their churches can offer a wide variety of programs appealing to a broad base of people. Megachurches also have a large gravitational pull. More people tend to drift toward these churches than to smaller congregations. Once a church reaches two thousand in weekly attendance, its sheer size becomes a self-generating attraction. Massive facilities, a sprawling campus, and numerous attendees give these large congregations more prominence than other churches. One can understand why a smaller church would feel threatened by the megachurch down the road. But this threat is more perception than reality.
The New Reality for Megachurches
The megachurch movement is beginning to wane. Though the number of megachurches increased exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, this exponential growth stalled sometime around 2010, when the movement reached an inflection point, with about 1,600 megachurches in the United States. Over the next ten years, the number of megachurches dropped to about 1,200. New worship spaces during this time were also significantly smaller—about 20 percent on average. Then the 2020 pandemic caused many megachurches to drop below 2,000 in average weekly attendance. In 2022, Christianity Today reported that a prominent megachurch had cut millions out of their personnel budget and laid off 30 percent of their staff due to a 57 percent decline in attendance, and an informal network of large churches reported that most megachurches were operating at below 60 percent of their pre-Covid levels. If this anecdotal evidence holds true, the number of megachurches in the United States may be half of what it was before the pandemic.
Though it is difficult to estimate precisely how many megachurches remain in the United States, it’s safe to assume that the large growth curves of the 1980s and 1990s are a thing of the past. The movement was essentially a product of the Baby Boomer generation coming of age. As the Boomers begin aging out, the megachurches are fading along with them. Will megachurches disappear? I believe there will always be healthy megachurches across the nation. Still, the phenomenon of megachurch growth is no longer in ascendency, and some other model must now take the lead.
In the not-so-distant past, growing churches often relocated away from their neighborhoods and built large campuses at major intersections. The thought was that the drive would be worth the distance. This strategy seemed to work when these large churches were master planning their sprawling campuses in the 1970s through the early 2000s. They were championed and celebrated. Many large churches grew at tremendous rates, and many of them did—and continue to do—an incredible amount of good for the Kingdom of God. But starting around the turn of the twenty-first century, the growth of many of the largest churches shifted to multisite campuses and multiple venues. The massive, single-site church was no longer the focus of their planning.
At the same time, the stigma of small is fading. People want to connect locally and within their neighborhoods. Churches with worship space for 200 to 600 are now ideal. Filling the giant rooms of megachurches is getting harder and harder. Neighborhood churches have a large-scale opportunity in front of them. But neighbors won’t flock to a church just because it’s smaller. If megachurches are declining, it doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller churches will benefit from their losses. Besides, we should never place our hopes on the decline of another church. Because few churches are doing the work of evangelism, those that do are likely to experience increasing fruit. God is saving people and will continue to save people. He will use the churches that are obedient, whatever their size.
The Growing Potential for Neighborhood Churches
There are neighborhood churches in every city and small town across the United States. Though it’s difficult to get an exact count, they are perhaps the largest single category of churches. It’s time to leverage those numbers into a movement of revitalization and renewed health.
But here’s the problem. The typical neighborhood church isn’t prepared for an influx of new people. They aren’t primed for growth. Though they are in their neighborhoods geographically, they are not fully present culturally or missiologically. Most American churches are small—with fewer than one hundred people. Most American churches have been in existence for decades. Though there are far more small and midsize churches than megachurches, the trend toward larger churches has been in place for many years. The largest one percent of Protestant churches, for example, comprise approximately fifteen percent of all the people, money, and staff. Small neighborhood churches are used to being small and do not often think about growth beyond their current size.
As the megachurch movement continues to wane, it presents an opportunity for established smaller and midsize churches. The problem is that people won’t flock back into neighborhood churches from larger churches simply because it’s a shorter drive from home. Most churches—of all sizes—are smaller than they were a few years ago, due to the pandemic. The revitalization of neighborhood churches is not a foregone conclusion. It will take a lot of work, but I believe it can happen. Many neighborhood churches are right around the corner but off the radar. Your neighborhood church can regain the attention of the neighbors. The potential for this movement is enormous. I believe you can be a part of it.
This article is adapted from an excerpt of The Surprising Return of the Neighborhood Church:
Discover How Your Church Is Primed to Reach Your Neighbors, by Sam Rainer Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
Sam Rainer serves as president of Church Answers and is a cofounder of Rainer Publishing. He is also lead pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Bradenton, Florida. He writes, teaches, speaks, and consults on a variety of church health issues. Sam cohosts the popular podcasts Rainer on Leadership and EST.church.