Some of you may have picked this up, but Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion came forward with some new information on American religious life. Here is an article from the Fort Worth Star Telegram about the study. In 2006 Baylor garnered national attention when they released findings concerning not only that American’s believe in God, but what characteristics God is thought to have (friendly, angry, distant, engaged, etc.). Click here for a USA Today article which reports findings from the initial study.
According to a Baylor University Press release, a finding of the new study that I found particularly interesting was that megachurch communities are more intimate than commonly supposed. Check this out:
“None of the things we all believe about the megachurch is true,” said Dr. Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor and co-director of the ISR.
Even with congregations of more than 1,000 members, the Baylor Religion Survey found that megachurches surprisingly are more intimate communities than small congregations of less than 100 members (Ch. 5, “Megachurches: Supersizing the Faith”). Megachurch growth is mostly due to their members, who tend to witness to their friends, bringing them into the group, and witness to strangers, much more often than members of small churches.
When compared to small congregations, the survey found that megachurch members display a higher level of personal commitment by attending services and a Bible study group and tithing. They also are more likely to accept that heaven “absolutely” exists and that God rewards the faithful with major successes, are more convinced of the reality of evil, are far more given to having religious and mystical experiences, are significantly younger in age and are remarkably active in volunteer work (as much or more so than tiny churches).
“We think of them as these great, huge, cold religious gatherings with a symphony orchestra and a paid choir and a lot of hoopla and a lot of good tidings but no bad tidings,” Stark said. “It’s not true that it’s all happy talk. These people are as interested in evil and sin as anybody in any of the churches. Their levels of satisfaction are high, their volunteerism in community service is very high and their outreach efforts are absolutely phenomenal.”
“I’ve heard stories when you go to some of the megachurches that you have to get tickets and parking like it’s a football game,” said Dr. Carson Mencken, professor of sociology at Baylor. “You go to a football game, you sit next to people you don’t know very well, and so I figured that’s exactly what megachurches are going to be like. The survey reveals the megachurches are not like that at all. These people do know each other, and they’re networked into the church through their friends and friends of friends.”
I’ve been on staff at large churches and have been around them now for the past six years (really beyond this). I don’t deny that a great deal of good has come about from these behemoth faith communities, but I continually question the methodology employed, the assumptions that come with “church growth,” and the degree to which such communities are effectively making disciples of Jesus Christ. I can’t help but look at multi-million dollar facilities and wonder if this was what Jesus intended. I can’t help but marvel at million dollar sound and light systems, elaborate staging, and slick presentations and wonder if this is a setting more fit for amusement than engagement, entertainment than serious contemplation. I wonder where the large church pastors are who are not that attractive, considering Jesus may have been uncomely in appearance (Isa. 53:2). I wonder if the building of our organizations do not reinforce habits of consumption more so than fuel the development of generous character. I wonder if we give more money toward facilities, staff salaries, and promotional materials than we do to the poor.
Some large churches are more careful than others. Some remember the poor, and encourage their members to do so as well. Let’s just say that some of my everyday conversations with church people have indicated that they feel well connected, affirmed, and at home in the large church, but their answers as to why they are there are more centered on social connections, buzz, attraction to a central personality (usually the pastor) than they are on the Lord and Savior of the Universe. In other words, too often I’ve found that the feeling of connection people have with a church community has little to do with discipleship.
It may be true that in megachurches “These people do know each other, and they’re networked into the church through their friends and friends of friends,” and that “Their levels of satisfaction are high, their volunteerism in community service is very high and their outreach efforts are absolutely phenomenal,” but to what end?
I can only hope that the feelings of intimacy which exist are not ends in themselves, but lead people to Christian maturity that reaches beyond participating in a church program, tithing that reaches beyond a felt obligation to sustain a building and a capital campaign, and volunteerism that reaches beyond “do-good, feel-good” mentalities that center on the self.