This article examines the emergence of megachurches as a global phenomenon and their implications as new ecclesial communities for mission. Megachurches are extraordinarily or abnormally large congregations, mainly belonging to the conservative evangelical or Pentecostal/charismatic streams of Christianity. Historically associated with North America, there are now megachurches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The new megachurch communities are led by charismatic preachers whose ministries by extension also touch hundreds of thousands, even millions, through an array of media programs and resources like books and recorded tapes.
Genuinely mega-sized congregations consistently assemble extraordinarily high numbers as single worship communities on ordinary or normal service days:
- Consistency is important because some churches attract high numbers only during revivals with popular guest preachers.
- Real megachurches attract numbers depending on influence of leaders, charisma, dynamism in worship, and the extent to which the religious needs of patrons are met.
- The testimonies of existing members help to increase the fold.
Signs of success
Those belonging to these streams of Christianity look on megachurches as symbolic illustrations of successful ministry and expansions of God’s kingdom. North American megachurch leaders like Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, and TD Jakes have inspired many such ministries on other continents. Christians disenchanted with denominationalism and theological liberalism and looking for contemporary and more exciting and spiritually stimulating forms of worship find megachurches attractive options.
These churches often showcase their impressive auditoriums and sophisticated technology-aided forms of worship during religious broadcasts as signs of growth, success, and prosperity. They covet numerical growth and proudly cite their numbers as testimonies to spiritual relevance and success in evangelism, and advertise worship styles that cater to contemporary expectations and needs. Many of such churches therefore tend to be non-denominational in character, a situation that helps to attract denominationally uprooted, upwardly mobile young people and professionals into their folds.
Mega-size churches can be denominationally affiliated or independent of existing denominations. Thus, although David Yonggi Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, is part of the Assemblies of God denomination, it is considered a mega-sized church on account of the numbers it normally attracts to its services. Its total congregation of 700,000 worshippers spread over multiple Sunday services makes the Yoido Full Gospel Church one of the largest in the world.
There are cases in which large denominations refuse as a matter of discipleship policy to build mega-size churches:
- Ghana’s Church of Pentecost (CoP) is a large classical Pentecostal denomination with many local and international assemblies.
- In spite of its being a large flourishing denomination, the CoP has opted for a community-based church planting approach.
- The local assemblies are not allowed by policy to go beyond specified members.
- Thus CoP can often have multiple assemblies of no more than 500 members within 300 meters of each other in any specific community.
Mega-sized congregations can develop because of the spiritual gifts of a current leader. In Africa, healing, deliverance, and prophetic gifts tend to be very appealing in this regard. In the modern West with its public affirmation of moral relativism and privatization of religion, evangelicals gravitate towards such communities because of an emphasis on the fundamentals of Scripture. The megachurch idea is therefore inspired by particular understandings of discipleship and interpretations of what it means to be a community of God.
The contemporary type of Pentecostal Christianity that promotes the megachurch idea is inherently evangelistic because of the relationship between the promise of the Holy Spirit and empowerment for witness on one side and church growth on the other. Those who argue against it refer to the fact that large congregations make it difficult to operate the four pillars that kept the early church as a dynamic fellowship of believers: study of the Word, fellowship, prayer, and breaking of bread (Acts 2:42-47). Some megachurches get around the problem with home-cell groups, and now, telephone prayer conferences and connecting through social media.
In Above all Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, David F Wells places the rise of American megachurches within the context of the culture of postmodernity. Christian communities functioning as seeker churches, according to Wells, recognize that in the postmodern context, they function within a ‘marketplace’ of choice even in religion, and what we find in this world ‘is increasingly a buyer’s, not a seller’s market’.1
The rise of megachurches within the postmodern context of the Global South is illustrative of three main developments within world Christianity:
- The coincidence of the recession of Christian presence in the north with the accession of the faith in non-Western contexts.
- The erosion of denominational loyalties in religious life in favour of revivalist Christian spirituality.
- The popularity of the prosperity gospel2 within contemporary Pentecostalism on account of the importance of ‘size’ as a mark of success.
Frustrations and failures
In Ghana, the Lighthouse Chapel International (LCI) not only advertises itself as a ‘megachurch’, but also its television program, available through digital satellite television, is known as Mega Word. In the publication The Mega Church: How to Make Your Church Grow, Bishop Dag Heward-Mills of LCI outlines 25 reasons why one must have a megachurch. According to him, pastors must desire to have megachurches because ‘that is the most appropriate vision and goal for a pastor’ and ‘the desire for a megachurch leads you on a journey of church growth’.3
There must obviously be advantages in having a megachurch. However, it is evident from the 25 reasons given by Bishop Heward-Mills, that in addition to the Pentecostal desire to win souls in numbers, many of the reasons simply relate to practical, financial, and other material advantages. This includes being ‘properly connected’ and raising more financial resources. The impression is created in the list that building a megachurch, once coveted, is bound to happen. It is a teaching that has led to much frustration among sections of the leadership of independent churches who see lack of growth in numbers as a sign of failure in mission.
The desire by contemporary Pentecostals to build mega-size congregations, we have noted, is not unrelated to their hermeneutics of enlargement and prosperity. In the dominion theology of these churches, pretty much anything that the Christian touches must blossom. The expansion of territory is an important aspect of such hermeneutics. Thus the prayer of Jabez in which he calls on God to ‘enlarge’ his coast is used extensively to underscore the fact that God provides increase for his children including granting them numbers under their pastoral leadership (1 Chron 4:9-10).
There are living testimonies of God using megachurches and their leaders in doing great things in mission. In equal measure though are stories of failure and shame due to the pursuits of religious empire mindsets. The story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is fairly well known:
- They set out to build the largest church, and the ambition led into all kinds of difficulties including moral failures, divorce, and eventually imprisonment.
- Jim Bakker recalls part of his impossible dream for God that eventually led to his downfall as follows: ‘The Crystal Palace Ministry Center was to be the largest building in the world. Once completed, the auditorium was designed to seat as many as 30,000 people, with electronic, moveable dividers that could be configured for a wide variety of smaller crowds.’4
Similar and more grandiose projects have succeeded elsewhere including in Africa and Latin America where we now have contemporary Pentecostal churches seating more than 50,000 people. Two of these are the Redeemed Christian Church of God and the Living Faith Church Worldwide, or Winners’ Chapel, both in Nigeria.
The implications of the megachurch idea for Christian communities around the world are profound:
- The size of the organizations has often made administration and accountability difficult.
- A number of leaders of mega-size churches have been victims of their own success with some falling into difficult emotional and moral problems.
In Brazil, which now has some of the largest Pentecostal churches in the world, Paul Freston reports that the rapid numerical growth has brought in its wake scandals, authoritarian leadership, and political favour leading to loss of political neutrality that have affected their image.5 There are megachurches that have led to the creation of cult heroes in ministry simply because they have bigger churches than others.
Examples of successful mega-sized churches abound and there is no reason to believe that every megachurch has been improperly managed. The growth of megachurches could be a genuine sign of God’s activity in various parts of the world. That many of these churches may be found in the modern West in the midst of Christian recession offers real reasons for hope in the influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, care must be taken not to build a new mega-size church theology that suggests that such endeavours are necessarily signs of success in mission. The management of the organization for maximum influence is what must count.
Our response must be to thank God when a mega-size church is using its resources to spread the gospel but also to be sensitive to the fact that, in certain contexts, smaller community-based churches may be the ideal.
The biblical example of growth in the Acts of the Apostles is that it is the Lord who provides the increase. What is important, whether a congregation is big or small, is to avoid the spirit of competition in mission and provide the appropriate nurture that leads to Christian maturity in incarnational self-giving (Phil 2:1-11).
1 David F Wells, Above All Earthy Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 2005), 270.
2 Editor’s Note: See ‘The Prosperity Gospel and Its Challenge to Mission in Our Time’ by J Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu in the July 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis at https://lausanne.org/en/documents/global-analysis/july-2014.html.
3 Dag Heward-Mills, The Mega Church: How to Make Your Church Grow (Accra: Parchment House Publishers, 2011), 1-19.
4 For the full story see: Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong: The Untold Story of the Shocking Journey from PTL Power to Prison and Beyond (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996). The quotation is from page 37.
5 Paul Freston, ‘The Future of Pentecostalism in Brazil: The Limits of Growth’, in Global Pentecostalism in the 21st Century, ed. Robert W Hefner (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), 64.
References and further reading
Anderson, Allan H. To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Asamoah-Gyadu, J Kwabena. Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretations from an African Context. Oxford: Regnum Oxford International, 2013.
Bakker, Jimmy, with Ken Abraham. I was Wrong: The Untold Story of the Shocking Journey from PTL Power to Prison and Beyond. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
Freston, Paul. ‘The Future of Pentecostalism in Brazil: The Limits of Growth’. In Global Pentecostalism in the 21st Century, edited by Robert W Hefner.Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Gifford, Paul. African Christianity: Its Public Role. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Gifford, Paul. Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Heward-Mills, Dag. The Mega Church: How to Make Your Church Grow, 2nd ed. Accra: Parchment House Publishers, 2011.
Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Miller, Donald E. Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Poewe, Karla. Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Shaw, Mark. Global Awakening: How 20th-Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010.
Wells, David F. Above all Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 2005.