Interview - Beyond Megachurch Myths - Author Dr. Scott Thumma
Beyond Megachurch Myths
What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches
by Scott Thumma and Dave Travis
An Interview by Bill Dahl
Welcome to an interview with Dr. Scott Thumma, co-author with Dave Travis of a new book entitled, Beyond Megachurch Myths. (Published by Jossey-Bass in their Leadership Network series). You might have seen Dr. Thumma on CSPAN, Booknet.tv, or even Good Morning America recently (I did).
Scott has a B.A. from Southwestern University, an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology, and a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University.
Dr. Thumma is a faculty member at Hartford Seminary. His academic residence is the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. In this capacity, he teaches in the Seminary, conducts research, and advises students. He administers all the Seminary's web sites and directs their online distance learning programs. He is responsible for the school's information technology efforts.
Furthermore, Scott assists in the coordination of a Lilly Endowment project to help organizations in maximizing their web presence. In concert with this initiative, Scott is the editor of the newsletter "InSites into American Religion."
Prior to his appointment at Hartford Seminary, Scott taught at a couple of institutions in and around Atlanta, GA as an adjunct faculty person. He also owned and operated a social and religious research consulting practice for 6 years. His consulting company, Congregational Consultants, was used by a variety of church, denominational and secular organizations to study various aspects of their organizations. You can contact Scott at email@example.com.
Here’s The PDL interview with Dr. Thumma:
1. Can you characterize the nature of the reaction to your book for our readers?
I’ll tell you most of my academic writings don’t usually generate this much attention. The majority of the feedback has been very positive. Pastors and megachurch attendees have told me they are happy for a data based national picture of these churches that are so often unjustly maligned. A few bloggers who have written reviews claiming to approach the book with “an open mind,” but concluded that they were unconvinced by the research findings; others have found it to be rather academic and denser than the typical Christian book they read. However, most folks I’ve communicated with are very appreciative of the effort, even if they dislike the conclusions or it debunks their favorite stereotypes of megachurches. Perhaps the best reaction is that my father, who seldom reads nonfiction, has just about finished the book.
2. What can the “average person” hope to learn from your book?
The book is a description of the megachurch phenomenon based on two national surveys and drawing from other academic studies. In addition to providing the characteristics of megachurches, it describes how they arose, their influence in society and how they are changing the American religious landscape. It directly addresses nine of the most prominent critiques of these churches and their pastors with the national research. My co-author, Dave Travis, and I attempt to show what is fact and fiction within those stereotypes. At the end of each chapter we draw lessons and practical insights for religious leaders from our analysis. So, at the very least, an average person should pick up our book to get a different picture of megachurches – one based on research rather than observations of journalists, assumptions drawn from TV preachers or assessments of clergy grounded in certain theological positions or limited encounters with a few of the biggest megachurches.
3. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons new book, (Baker Books – Grand Rapids, MI – October 2007) is entitled UNchristian – What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity – And Why It Matters. Kinnaman has been George Barna’s protégé over the last 12 years and is President of the Barna Group. The book characterizes the research they performed over the last three years. In their book they state: “The nation’s population is increasingly resistant to Christianity…the aversion and hostility are, for the first time, crystallizing in the attitudes of millions of young Americans. A huge chunk of a new generation has concluded they want nothing to do with us. As Christians, we are widely distrusted by a skeptical generation. We are at a turning point for Christianity in America. If we do not wake up to these realities and respond in appropriate, godly ways, we risk being increasingly marginalized and losing further credibility with millions of people.” P. 39. -------- Your research debunks the myth that young people are “absent” from mainstream Christianity --- at least from participation in mega-church congregations. How do your research conclusions differ from the Barna Group’s? Can you explain this to our readers?
I have to confess that I haven’t read their book but I basically agree with the quote. At the same time, I don’t think their findings dismiss the reality we find in megachurches, nor do ours contradict their predictions. Most Barna Group observations are based on poll research of individuals; ours is drawn from studies of congregations as organizations. Based on our research, it is abundantly clear that persons aged 18-35 are not absent from megachurches (nearly 50% of megas report 40% or more of their attendees are under 35 years old –compared to 25% of churches of all sizes in a national study who report this level of young adults in their congregation). This would mean that nationally about 2.25 million young Americans attend megachurches weekly, but that still leaves well over 130 million American under 35 many of whom might have become hostile to Christianity.
4. Is it possible that young people may be more attracted to a mega-church environment vs. a smaller group gathering or smaller denomination?
I don’t think it is the mega versus small size factor that is attracting younger Americans. Rather young adult participants are attracted to newer congregations, with youthful clergy and contemporary worship styles, growing congregations with strong visions and a sense of purpose, as well as those with relevant preaching and active ministry programs where they can feel empowered and as if they are contributing to the spread of the Gospel and the betterment of society. Such things are happening in all sizes of churches – unfortunately just not in enough American churches.
I have written elsewhere that in sociological terms both megachurches (representing a mall-approach) and very small emergent, house church religious gatherings (as a niche, boutique-like approach) fit ideally in contemporary American individualist consumer culture. The dinosaurs in this context are the medium sized churches, which don’t do either intimacy or choice very well, and the national denominational structures that are ill equipped to handle congregational identities based on radical localism or on a pluralism of approaches.
5. Although your research debunked the myth of the “absence of younger people” (age 40 and below) as a significant percentage of attendees of mega-churches, I was struck by the paucity of older members (65+) in these mega-churches? Can you comment on this?
Indeed, you are correct in this observation, and it parallels data from research on all sizes of churches – the smaller the church the greater number of older members. Less than 10% of megachurches report over 40% of their congregations’ attendees to be 65 years or older (compared to an amazing one third of all sizes of churches having 40% or more attendees being that old).
In part, the characteristics of these churches that attract younger people – contemporary music, the use of technology, and the attitude that this “is not your parents religion” (as well as those mentioned previously) – are the same features that make it less likely that older Americans would be attracted to this style and expression of Christianity. These factors are more influential than older attendees being overwhelmed by the mega-size, although this might be a factor as well, and those long walks from the parking lots. Additionally, many megachurches are less that 40 years old, so it is unlikely that they would be full of 65 year olds who grew up in, and grew old in, these churches when compared to smaller and earlier founded churches. With that said, some megachurches are facing the fact that their boomers are aging and these churches have adapted by beginning to offer more traditionally-styled services to appeal to an aging group in their membership.
6. There are many people who have been wounded by Church. What are a few insights from your book that might help these people become a bit more open-minded about exploring the possibilities within a mega-church as a portal for re-entry into the church?
This is a tough question since a large number of people have been wounded as a result of televangelists and charismatic pastors who resemble a few of the megachurch pastors they see weekly on their local cable stations. Although it must also be stated that only roughly a third of megachurches are on TV, and the vast majority of megachurch pastors are sincere, moral and virtuous Christian leaders.
With that said, the overall approach of many megachurches distinguishes them from “traditional churches,” with fewer liturgical trappings that might be associated with the churches people were wounded by. The large-scale megachurch format also makes it considerably easier for a tentative and suspicious visitor to wander in and experience a “user-friendly” service. Once these persons are inside the door and visiting regularly, they are likely to be enticed into helping in ministries, joining an interest-based small group and then gradually being matured into a serious committed Christian.
7. Some people view the mega-church as the epitome of “religion as a business.” What would you say to them, based upon this mega-church research endeavor?
First it must be said, the megachurch is a business. Any organization with, on average, a budget of 6 million, 40 plus acres of property and buildings, over 50 staff members, and thousands of loyal “clients” has to function like a business. But, no doubt, you mean by this question, their theological approach of treating of attendees as consumers, catering to their needs and marketing to their interests or cultural styles.
My assessment is that this is indeed exactly what megachurches are doing correctly. We live in an individualistic, consumer-oriented society made up of sub-cultural groups defined by distinct lifestyles, personal interests and market-segmented norms and values. No congregation can avoid this context – it is the world in which we must live and breathe. From my perspective as a sociologist of religion, all churches have done this for decades; it just wasn’t done consciously or intentionally. The style of worship, forms of liturgy, character of the architecture and quality of music in congregations, from Pentecostal and Greek Orthodox, to African American National Baptist and Southern Baptist, to Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran, “fit” the type of people they attract and retain. All congregations have congruence between the type of worship, liturgy, theology and community life they produce and the sort of person they want to appeal to and in fact do appeal to. Many megachurches and other contemporary churches are conscious of this and embrace it with intentionality in their outreach efforts. This does not diminish the legitimacy or sincerity of the religious expression (these churches are still a collection of believers desiring to worship God and mature in the faith as they spread the Gospel message) nor does it minimize the depth of commitment of an individual who chooses this church over others to belong to and minister in.
8. Solid social research (like yours) should always spawn additional research. You mentioned you are taking a sabbatical beginning January 2008. Can you shed some light on the new research initiatives this book has birthed that you intend to address in the near future?
Much to the dismay of my family, I have an ambitious research agenda for 2008. Leadership Network and I will do another national survey of megachurches in conjunction with a national survey of churches of all sizes. We are also in the process of selecting 12 churches that roughly parallel the national profile of megachurches to study in an in-depth manner with extended observational visits, leader, staff and attender interviews, sermon analysis, and the distribution of questionnaires to all attendees.
Our primary goal with this research is to explore the dynamics of individual attender attraction and involvement in these churches – why they come, stay, commit, and decide to leave. Much is said about such dynamics but almost no research has focused on this. We hope to have initial findings from this research by the end of the year, followed by a book on the subject. Additionally, Warren Bird and I are writing a companion book to Beyond Megachurch Myths that will focus more on the practical lessons that can be learned from the approach embraced by megachurches besides those specifically related to numerical growth. I am also working on a popular retelling of my dissertation, which is the exploration of the birth, life and death of a megachurch led by a gifted charismatic, but deeply flawed, pastor.
9. Dr. Charles Handy from the London Business School once wrote, “The first step is to measure whatever can be easily counted. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that which can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that which can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.” It seems that “we get what we measure” particularly in the arena of “faith/religion related sociological research. Much of the empirical evidence is obtained by survey research instruments (Barna or Gallup), or person-to-person interviews (Wuthnow), or participant observation (Gibbs and Bolger). Do you see the need for longitudinal research endeavors like Daniel Levinson’s work in the arena of faith/religion related research endeavors?
I don’t fully agree with your portrayal of sociological research. Academic researchers are well aware that their biases have the potential to shape the results as well as the inherent limitations in each research method. “Quality” sociological research uses multiple methods, well-established and tested survey questions, diverse ways of collecting information, and the perspectives from various researchers to counter possible biases and provide a richer understanding of social or religious phenomena. The information presented in Beyond Megachurch Myths, as well as our proposed 2008 research, attempts to draw together information collected using multiple methods and a number of researches (see in particular the appendix and footnotes in the book) in order to obtain a more accurate picture of the megachurch phenomenon than previously presented.
With that said, your point about longitudinal research is very well taken. Since I begin studying megas in the late 1980’s, the phenomenon has changed. That is part of the reason Leadership Network and I have begun doing regular national surveys of them (in 2000, 2005, 2008 and proposed for 2010). We know that these congregations in particular are organizational innovators par excellence. Without longitudinal data, we will miss the rapid mutations taking place in these influential congregations and in the broader religious world as they relate to the ever-changing American context.
10. Mega-churches, as your book points out, are simply one form of religious organization – a form in the religious sphere that has been around for a thousand years. Why do you think mega-churches in the 21st century in the U.S. are receiving so much attention (both positive and negative) even though they represent some 5% of the form of forum attended by total church going attendees (in the U.S.)?
This form of large-scale worship has indeed been around for centuries, but at no previous time in human history was there such a cultural match between this form of organizational religion and the social norms and secular institutional models. Large social forms fit contemporary society. There is such congruence between the two that each decade since 1960 shows an increase in the number, concentration in the population and a greater influence of larger churches.
Presently 50 percent of American worshippers are found in the top ten percent largest churches. The 1250 megachurches (who account for just half of one percent of all U.S. congregations) are the weekly church home for 5-7% of active weekly attendees. Additionally, as much as we may bemoan the fact, the pastors of the largest of these megachurches are rapidly becoming the religious voice for the nation – over denominational leaders, seminary presidents or global evangelists. Their books are the most often read, programs most often watched, conferences most often attended, websites most often visited and they are most often called to consult with the President or entertain candidates on the campaign trail. In our present society, for good or bad, large size equals success and growth implies vitality. I research these congregations in part because they exist, and far too few of my colleagues study them systematically with rigor. I also am fascinated by what the exploration of this phenomenon tells us about society and the changing nature of religion in America. Finally, I study them because I am certain that congregations of all sizes have positive lessons to learn about contemporary ministry from the megachurches among us.
Editor's Note: Our sincere thanks to Dr. Thumma. Look for new books and articles by Scott and his colleagues in 2008 and beyond. Solid social research on different dimensions of faith, culture and organizations is priceless. We are deeply grateful for Dr. Thumma's ongoing contributions. Interview by Bill Dahl.