Decline in the Megachurches and Rise in Microchurches

Reports are coming in that the era of mega churches may be coming to an end. Just as synagogues have learned to create multi-purpose social environments that are driven by managerial rabbis, the trend has peaked in the Protestant world. Part of the reason is that people have had enough with entertainment and social services and want repentance and redemption. They wont disappear but their number will be reduced and new congregations will be formed. The megachurches of Rev Rick Warren and Rev Joel Hunter will continue to thrive, but others will not. So which successful synagogues will continue to operate as mega-churches and which may need to retool as offering Torah, redemption, and teshuvah? How long will it take Rabbinic training to once-again shift? Will CjF change? Which denominations will lead the return to repentance? (I am still unsure of how this relates to spirituality. Are people turning to repentance to replace spirituality or will it be a more traditionally grounded spirituality of repentance?)

On the other hand, this year has seen a rise of micro-churches, small groups that meet in a living room or small congregation that are run by lay leadership, or a clergy that has a full time job. No more driving to a distant church, gather a few like minded believers from the neighborhood and create an intimate setting. (Google “micro-church” for some of the variety). Be prepared for Reform Shtiblach. If these two trends keep up, then the Federation in two years could likely fund “Reform mussar stiblach.” The question is whether Centrist Orthodoxy can give up its characteristic and winning trait of gregariousness and turn toward repentance or will people start break-off microshuls, each brewed to a specific taste?

Decline in the Megachurches and Rise in Microchurches — Martin E. Marty

Schadenfreude, or rejoicing in others’ misfortunes, is abundantly evident in responses, blogged and otherwise, to the bad/sad news about the decline of the famed Crystal Cathedral, a megachurch founded in the mid-1950s in California. Publicity has been constant, for over a year, concerning the church’s 55-million-dollar debt, sellings-off of property, non-payment of bills, et cetera. Other megachurches have closed when the nearby malls on whose traffic they half-depended went broke.

First, why Schadenfreude? One has to see a turnabout-is-fair-play attitude in some of the uncharitable responses. The megachurch networks build constituencies in part by attacking denominations, even as these networks then become more-than-virtual, indeed, parallel and competitive “denominations” themselves. Worshippers who gather in town-and-country, inner-city, and left-behind neighborhoods, where neither congregations nor anything else can grow, chafe when the mega-success folk deride them, publishing books and releasing releases which suggest that smaller, declining, or holding-their-own churches and synagogues are simply doing wrong, or at least not doing right.

What is going on with the decline of the megachurches? I’ve read some sociological analyses, works in progress on which we’ll report after they are published, which have some big clues. Most come down to the fact that so many of these churches replace or eclipse classic concerns such as “repentance” and “redemption” and have converted, in their terms and substance and energies, to market models.

No, the megachurches are not going to disappear. But as they transition from the world of inevitable success to re-participation in a world of partial success, setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations, now is a good time to see what about them can be appropriate in the lives of so many other kinds of churches and synagogues, which have much to learn, and only sometimes are themselves eager to change.

4 responses to “Decline in the Megachurches and Rise in Microchurches

  1. have you read Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry? apart from being an excellent book, it also gives a glimpse into the formation of the first Mega-churches in the ’20s.

  2. Would you not consider the post-2000 wave of independent minyanim and havurot to be just such “Reform Shtiblach”?

  3. Howard Sragow

    This trend was noted in Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort” (2008). There has been a rise in megachurches because they played to the stratified, homogenized communities (virtual and otherwise) that rose naturally since the post-World War II explosion of mobility.

    I believe that growth has stopped because of over-expansion, not because the market need for a homogenized service has gone away. There are still lots of people who want it — just not as many as were built for.

    And the people interested in older notions of redemption and repentance, being underserved, started building their own institutions. Bishop writes about one that started in the mid-2000’s in Chicago. The same is likely to occur in Jewish environments (and given ADDeRabbi’s comment, perhaps began at the same time).

  4. ADDeRabbi
    indie minyanim and havurot are different in ethos.
    I was not at the Hadar conference last month and will not be at the Federation one on new spaces next week, so I have less first hand details.
    But Elie Kaunfer’s new book on indie minyan’s has been described by a reviewer as geared for the MBA and consultant crowd, little havurah ethos. The model is a corporate managerial feel where the lower rungs int he pyramid are trained in synagogue skills.
    I may discuss the book at some point.

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