Popularity of megachurches leaves some smaller churches struggling
Posted May 3, 2015
Kim Dobbins, who worshiped and attended school at Calvary Baptist Church for four years, said her church is like many other megachurches in the state. The atmosphere is comfortable and modern, with many worshipers wearing jeans or other casual clothing. Christian rock bands frequent the spacious building, and services are held almost all day on Sunday, from 8 am to 5:30 pm, for convenience.
When megachurches rose to popularity about 30 years ago, the faithful swarmed to the new spaces of worship that offered charismatic leadership and a appealing, convenient way of attending church. But this presented other, smaller and more traditional churches with the challenge of keeping up membership.
“Unknowingly, they certainly tapped into the interest and desires of the contemporary person to have choice and different ways they could connect with people,” said Scott Thumma, one of the countries leading experts on megachurches.
The defining aspect Calvary shares with other megachurches, like Elevation based in Charlotte or Mid-Way Baptist in Raleigh, is its size. Calvary’s flock is about 5,000 people, according to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. Since the 1970s and '80s, megachurches have enjoyed a heyday in the religious landscape of the country, especially in the South.
And North Carolina follows the trend. Charlotte’s evangelical church Elevation plans to open a new campus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, costing about $5 million.
Thumma said megachurches’ quality and professionalism set them apart.
“They offer an international plan and professional worship experience,” he said.
When megachurches first started, they were some of the first to use big screens, technology and small groups to connect people. They offered multiple services at different times of the day, and contemporary music and a laid-back atmosphere, he said.
“It was something different in the religious landscape,” he said.
That presents a host of challenges for other congregations in the area, and smaller churches often found themselves unable to compete.
“They can forget about serving God and try to appeal to the market, or they can say we aren’t going to do anything, and hide our head in the sand and die a slow death,” Thumma said.
Small churches still make up an important part of religious life.
Now Dobbins attends Bethania Moravian in nearby Pfafftown, which holds only a couple hundred people.
“It’s way more personal and the pastor knows you by your name,” she said.
And the rise of megachurches meant smaller churches like Bethania Moravian faced tough challenges.
David Merritt, the pastor at Bethania Moravian, said megachurches can offer a “weight watchers” approach to faith.
“They want a checklist,” he said. “If you believe this, then this will happen. In some ways, they wanted the bells and whistles.”
Dobbins said she left Calvary because the church felt impersonal and didn’t align with her beliefs.
“It was just a lot of fire and brimstone,” she said. “The Moravian church was more accepting of others.”
Merritt said he has seen some people come back to smaller, mom-and-pop type churches because they want a more personal experience.
“I think sometimes when people have been part of a larger church and they felt like they have gotten less than stellar pastoral care, then there is a transition because smaller churches can be pastoral care friendly,” Merritt said.
Thumma said megachurches forced smaller churches to confront the kind of place they are going to be, forcing them to decide if they would stay in the past or if they will change for the future.
“At least megachurches have brought with them the reality of the worship experience into the 21st century,” he said. “Without the megachurch, I don’t think churches would have had the challenge to even come close and catch up with where society is now.”