Supersized Christianity: Protestant Megachurches in America


A review of Supersized Christianity: The Origins and Consequences of Protestant Megachurches in America, by David Edwin Eagle.

Megachurches are one of the most visible and significant developments in American Christianity over recent decades.  According to convention, megachurch status is conveyed on Protestant churches averaging at least 2,000 persons per weekend across all services and campuses.  These large congregations—which include The Purpose Driven Life-author Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, and televangelist Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas—have proliferated to about 1,600 within nearly all U.S. states (and many more worldwide; Hartford Seminary’s “Database of Megachurches in the U.S.”).  While direct literature on megachurches is growing, it is currently limited to several handfuls of prominent books and articles.  David Eagle’s dissertation is a valuable contribution to this body of work—which has already generated two publications and has the potential to influence the content of many more, by him or others.

Supersized Christianity was submitted to the Department of Sociology at Duke University under the direction of the prominent sociologist of religion, Mark Chaves.  It is written in the article style (sometimes called “three papers”) rather than a traditional singular thesis.  It is thus divided into four main sections: a short introduction and then three distinct-but-related research projects.  The first paper explores the historical development of megachurches from the vantage point of social history, arguing that they are a much older phenomenon than commonly accepted.  Because the introduction is short (less than three pages), this initial study doubles as a primer on the broader topic for readers.  The second and third projects then turn to facets of megachurches, investigated quantitatively from large secondary datasets.  The second article, viewing megachurches as voluntary associations, investigates a connection between congregational size and members’ frequency (or infrequency) of participation.  Finally, the third study assesses how aspects of the socio-economic status (SES) composition of megachurches might relate to church size.  These studies, taken together, find that megachurch attendees are typically more affluent but participate less frequently than worshippers at smaller congregations (with some nuance, of course, regarding the different Christian traditions).  The analysis, nonetheless, is very insightful and goes well beyond these cursory conclusions.

In an oft-cited contribution to megachurch scholarship, Mark Chaves (“All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context,” Review of Religious Research, 47 (4): 329-346, 2006) identified an important development in American religion—that American parishioners across a variety of denominations have become concentrated in the largest churches during the past few decades.  After posing a litany of interesting questions specifically about megachurches, Chaves states, “I’m not going to address any of them…” (Chaves, 329).  Instead, he explores the size distribution of all churches and uncovers the aforementioned trend.  While the average church is still quite small, “people and resources are heavily concentrated in the biggest churches” for all Protestant denominations for which Chaves acquired data (Chaves, 333).  (As an aside, the average megachurch is 4,000 people, with over two-thirds below that.  Only 5% achieve the highly-visible “gigachurch” status of over 10,000-person flocks enjoyed by Warren and Osteen.  Hartford “Database”.)  Chaves reasons that increasing economic costs have driven people into larger churches that benefit from economies of scale.  Chaves’s work before and after this article, based on his 2005 H. Paul Douglas Lecture for the Religious Research Association, has focused on the whole universe of congregations, not just big ones, mostly through his pioneering work on the National Congregations Study (NCS).

Building off of this research, Eagle sets out to shed further light onto the megachurch movement and its implications by studying all churches.  Like Chaves before him, he poses some early questions but then decides to focus elsewhere: “Unfortunately, data are not available to get at the underlying reason for this trend [of growth in megachurches]” (p. 2).  Instead of testing Chaves’ assertions about rising costs, or proposing his own alternative raison d’etre of megachurches, he decides to first challenge an implicit idea at the heart of Chaves’ lecture and other popular claims: that megachurches are a fresh phenomenon.  Eagle acknowledges that the trend of increased concentration is new, BUT the central ideas motivating the megachurch are very old—both New Testament-old (e.g., Acts 2:41) and Reformation-old.  Eagle focuses his “historization” of the megachurch on early Protestant sources including reformer Martin Bucer and the Huguenot architect Jacques Perret (see Figure 2.1 for Perret’s “idealized Protestant temple” that would have held gigachurch-size attendance).

Eagle traces the development of the megachurch idea through the history of church architecture, which since the Reformation has prioritized preaching to large crowds, up to the moral reform and urban outreach strategies of later American revivalists.  In doing so, he adds another prong to the definition of megachurches: not only are they consistently large, but they are multipurpose.  They offer a range of services to attendees and neighboring communities, both as tools for evangelism and social ministry.  Megachurch campuses reflect this by including various amenities for members and communities—including cafés, libraries, sports facilities, and settings to provide social services.  I especially appreciate Eagle’s discussion of church marketing techniques that have “sold” the elaborate array of services offered by large churches since at least the 1800s.  This historical overview, organized around a clear argument, replaces the typical lengthy literature review in most dissertations.  It ends with a concise summary:

“[Megachurches] represent an enduring model of ecclesial organization in Protestantism, stretching back to the early seventeenth century.  Situating megachurches in their proper historical context should help us avoid both starry-eyed wonder at these spectacular congregations and curmudgeonly critiques of them as flash-in-the-pan organizations with little staying power” (p. 30).

The second paper is the first of two quantitative studies using the linked NCS and General Social Survey (GSS) datasets.  (The NCS sample is generated by asking GSS respondents about their houses of worship—which becomes a random sample of U.S. congregations.  The NCS researchers then ask additional questions of a key informant in each of these religious organizations.  Thus, models drawn from these data can analyze the individual or congregational levels.)  Both chapters use descriptive statistics and multivariate regression techniques.  The methods are well executed—Eagle clearly understands the strengths and weaknesses of his modeling approaches and applies corrective techniques when necessary.  While the numbers could be daunting for the non-quantitative, such as qualitative scholars or practitioners (including the pastors and lay leaders of megachurches), Eagle’s chapter introductions, results, and implications sections of the latter two studies sufficiently break out the key takeaways.  Most of the methods sections will be mostly understandable to those with a basic statistics course (even if some of the techniques are beyond one’s training).

This second study theorizes that “smaller groups have an easier time promoting group cohesion and participation due to the greater density of social relationships contained within smaller organizations” (p. 55).  The quantitative results confirm that there is a negative correlation between size and the probability of attendance, although there are some differences in the degree or shape of this relationship across Christian traditions.  Ultimately, there is no one theory to explain why this is so for churches—Eagle speculates that it may be due to the anonymity offered in large settings, fewer personal attachments, or even the draw of alternative programming (such as small group Bible studies that may serve as a Sunday substitute for some).

The third article finds a positive correlation between congregants’ SES and size, which Eagle links to Chaves’s speculations about large churches exerting more political influence.  As Eagle summarizes in the dissertation’s abstract, “Larger congregations contain a larger proportion of regular adult participants living in high income households and possessing college degrees, and a smaller proportion of people living in low income households” (p. iv).  He attempts to explain this relationship with geography.  In other words, is the effect of SES on size moderated by neighborhood poverty, location in the urban-rural continuum, or region of the country?  The most notable finding is that the high SES-size linkage “is not due to the fact that large churches are found in more advantaged locations.  The relationship between high income and size holds in census tracts with relatively high levels of poverty.  Size and SES-composition derive from factors external to the suburban milieu” (p. 90).  Again, these factors are hard to pin down.  Eagle proposes two explanations: “time-squeeze” (that higher SES individuals choose churches that will put less pressure on them for time commitments) and/or modern marketing techniques (which, intentionally or not, reach more affluent populations).

Ultimately, Chaves’s exploration of why megachurches have proliferated—which Eagle states early that he is bypassing—is of course an interesting question that I believe is nonetheless addressed here.  While costs per participant may indeed be lower for large churches, people are drawn to them for reasons that Eagle speculates in this dissertation—they offer: more anonymity in large services, community (when people are ready for it) in small groups, and engagement in an environment with similar (i.e., affluent) people, for examples.  And these churches work hard to grow and stay large, of course; economic structures alone cannot explain their success—there is a lot of room for human and organizational agency here (and a lot of potential topics for study by the growing subfield of the economics of religion!).

This dissertation has already (at the time of its acceptance) produced two publications and is poised to hopefully generate a third (see: “Mega, Medium, and Mini: Size and the Socioeconomic Status Composition of American Protestant Churches,” Research in the Sociology of Work 23: 281–307, 2012; and “Historicizing the Megachurch,” Journal of Social History 48 (3): 589-604, 2015).  While these initial publications are not in outlets typically perused by sociologists of religion and other scholars of congregational studies, they have what it takes to become part of the megachurch research canon: they both shed light on aspects of a religious organizational innovation with no end in sight (or “sites”—these large churches continue to expand their reach by establishing satellite campuses, an aspect of megachurches not studied in depth here).  For interested observers who cannot access the publications beyond a paywall, this dissertation provides the same (or very similar) details.  It is relatively short for a dissertation—and digestible, despite the advanced statistics.  The bibliography alone is a treasure trove of valuable references on church history, megachurches, and methodology—many of which I am looking up for use in my own work.  I recommend this dissertation to anyone interested in megachurches, their causes and consequences, or even religion in general.  If you have not been interested in them, or this is the first time you are reading about them, then this dissertation could be a good starting point for you.

Joshua D. Ambrosius
Department of Political Science and Master of Public Administration Program
University of Dayton
(This dissertation review benefited from the research assistance of graduate student Rachel Yoho.)

Primary Sources
National Congregations Study
U.S. General Social Survey

Dissertation Information
Duke University. 2015. 103pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Chaves.

Image: NorthRidge megachurch Plymouth, Michigan. Wikimedia Commons.

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