Megachurches have been seen as a pocket of vitality in an otherwise sluggish religious environment, but even these congregations — both in the U.S. and abroad — are facing challenges and in some cases decline, according to several reports.
In the American Scholar (December), Jim Hinch, religion correspondent for the Orange County Register, portrays the fall of the Crystal Cathedral as the first rumblings of decline facing the whole megachurch phenomenon. The Garden Grove, Calif. based church collapsed financially in recent years and by 2013 was sold to Orange County’s Catholic diocese to be remade into Christ Cathedral.
Founded by Robert Schuller, the church grew explosively along with its suburban surroundings in the 1950s, creating its famed 60,000 foot glass cathedral in 1980. Hinch traces the cathedral’s demise to its failure to keep pace with demographic changes in the county, which is now mainly non-white and immigrant, and he argues that it reflects the situation of suburban megachurches in general that are failing to reach young adults with their popularized and consumer-based offerings.
Hinch looks briefly at other well-known megachurches in Orange Country, including Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, Mariners Church, and the First Evangelical Free Church, and finds that none of them are growing rapidly anymore. Instead, it is the Catholic parishes, storefront Pentecostal churches, mosques and Buddhist temples that are the fastest growing. Churches set up as alternatives to megachurches are showing some success; he cites Newsong Church, once a largely Asian megachurch that revamped its ministry to focus on low-income neighborhoods as well as providing a haven for artists.
Christianity Today (December) reports on how another megachurch, Colorado Spring’s New Life Church, remade itself after its founding pastor Ted Haggard resigned in 2006 after a sexual scandal. While retaining most of its Pentecostal practices, New Life has taken a liturgical turn. Communion is held every Sunday and the Nicene Creed is now recited along with the usual praise songs; one of its pastors is exploring Anglican ordination. The church has established a stronger social presence in low-income neighborhoods. Instead of the senior pastor determining the church’s ideology, New Life’s pastors now enroll Fuller Seminary, where courses draw on the theologies of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson.
Australia has also seen the growth of megachurches in the last two decades but there are signs that their expansion has peaked. Megachurces in Australia share several characteristics with their counterparts in the U.S. — they tend to have grown under the influence of a charismatic preacher and are “neo-Pentecostal” in orientation.
A recent study of the phenomenon, reported in Pointers (December), the newsletter of the Australian-based Christian Research Association, finds that Australian megachurches have spawned new denominations, including the Christian Outreach Centre, the Christian Life Centre, the Full Gospel Churches, and the Christian City Church. While there are only 21 Australian churches that qualify as megachurches (having more than 2,000 attenders on a Sunday), they account for five percent of all people going to church in Australia, according to the study’s author Sam Hey.
He also found that in these churches there has been a move away from emotional worship to more orderly practices and a declining emphasis on healings, speaking in tongues and end-times teachings. These changes have contributed to a plateauing of growth in these churches. In response to this problem, some of the megachurches have diversified, running schools, media organizations and social welfare initiatives.
(American Scholar, http://goo.gl/hfoYvt; Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188; Pointers, 13A Market Street, Nunawading, VIC 3131 Australia).