Over the past three decades, the American Christian community has seen a tectonic shift in the direction of mainline church attendance. While all traditional major denominations have seen a decline in membership and attendance, a phenomenon of the non-denominational megachurch has reshaped the landscape for what many expect to find in their churchgoing experience. The trend actually started in the ‘60s as the first of the baby boom generation entered college and then started their families. Looking for alternatives to the structured environments of their childhood, many turned to a nontraditional approach to worship.
Many of these early congregations called themselves Bible Churches. This simple term was meant to imply two concrete concepts. The first goal was to separate themselves from any perception of the traditional church controlled by denominational rules and doctrines. These churches relished their independence and eschewed any sense of formal structure or umbrella organization. The second concept was a focus on the teachings of the Bible. This tenet was and is an overt effort to place the perceived teachings of the Scriptures over the rules of man.
As these Bible churches became a major source of growth for new congregations, they attracted primarily young families and those who seeking what they called a more genuine worship experience. The movement spawned an entire new field of church worship music, membership practices, and concepts, such cell groups and home mini-churches. The entire movement, while maintaining their independence, became a quasi-denomination of similar approaches and doctrines.
For example, the vast majority of these new churches came to eliminate the concept of the altar call, seeking to have individuals make a confession of faith or asking for church membership at the end of a service. Likewise, these church bodies took the lead in introducing women into various church positions, up to and including pastoring in the more liberal congregations.
As this movement matured, power centers began to emerge with what are now called megachurches becoming a norm for major population centers. These are congregations that have as many as 10,000 to 20,000 members and some even more. Personalities such as Rick Warren and Pastor Ed Young Jr have emerged as leaders of these churches and spokesmen for their church movement.
Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church in California, is an internationally-recognized best-selling author with his book titled, The Purpose Driven Life. Willow Creek Church in Chicago is led by Bill Hybels and is the subject of a Harvard Business School case study. Each of the leading pastors have radio programs that broadcast their sermons on a worldwide basis, and a number of the pastors also have at least weekly television programs on commercial and cable stations.
The megachurch movement has matured and is now in turn seeing various alternative forms of worship while evolving to meet the needs and expectations of another new generation. Numerous conferences,studies and meetings have been held to evaluate the effectiveness of the current megachurches and what directions they may take. Some findings have been controversial, raising questions about the effectiveness of these churches in accomplishing the demands of the Great Commission. On the other hand, they have proven to be an important rallying point for an entire generation that may otherwise have simply stopped attending traditional churches. The next decade will undoubtedly prove to be an interesting and challenging time for the leadership of these large congregations as they continue to be positive factors in their communities.