Hartford Institute

Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Religion writers are well aware that notably large Protestant “megachurches” have mushroomed across the United States this past generation. But they’re still expanding and it might be time for yet another look at the phenomenon.

 If so, the megachurch database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is an essential resource.  The listing is searchable so, for instance, reporters can easily locate such citadels in their regions through the “sort by state” feature.

Hartford defines a megachurch as having consistent weekly attendance of at least 2,000.

There’s a big caveat here: The statistics on attendance, necessarily, are what’s reported by the churches themselves. Such congregations numbered 350 as recently as 1990 but Hartford has by now located 1,667 and there are doubtless others, so untold millions of people are involved.

Overwhelmingly, these big congregations are Bible-believing, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal -- with only half of one percent labeling themselves “liberal” in doctrine.  

Hartford’s data will be a mere launching pad to get experts’ analysis of these newfangled Protestant emporiums and how they are changing the style and substance of American churchgoing. A starting point for that would be this 2015 overview (click for .pdf) from Hartford’s Scott Thuma and Warren Bird of the Leadership network.

They report, for instance, that “the megachurch phenomenon hasn’t waned” and “newer and younger churches are regularly growing to megachurch size.” More and more of them are spreading to multiple sites. An increasing population of adherents participates with church online rather than in person.

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'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

How many stories have been written on the important demographic slide across the decades among America’s moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline?

Such pieces typically report the latest membership totals and such. But newswriters should always seek new ways to freshen up old themes, and colleague David Briggs provides an example of just how to do that.

In case anyone doesn’t know the name, Briggs was the Religion Guy’s predecessor as an Associated Press religion writer, also covered the beat for the Buffalo News and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and has been president of the Religion Newswriters Association. He now edits the “Ahead of the Trend” blog for the Association of Religion Data Archives, an organization housed at Penn State that religion journalists are --  or should be -- well aware of.

By the way, the ARDA boasts that Briggs is considered “among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America,” which sounds right. Who’d be on your own list? Leave me some notes in the comments pages.

Here’s the old-school Briggs formula: Pull together telling data that haven’t gotten much coverage, interview some of the usual suspects on the implications and then propose a strong conclusion about mainline woe: “Not only is there no end in sight, but there are few signs of hope for revival in rapidly aging, shrinking groups.”

These churches won’t disappear, we’re told, but their decline will not bottom out, much less turn around.

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