I've been doing some thinking lately about the American church (unusual for me, I know) and wondering whether or not it has been good for American Christianity. Now please understand, I am trying to be as objective as possible here, since I am not a mega-church pastor and most likely never will be, so I am concerned that people not hear my words as proceeding out of envy and jealousy. But since we tend to assume that large church = good church, I want to offer some research that may support my conclusion that we aren't necessarily benefiting as the Body of Christ from the rise of the megachurch.
The overall growth of the American church has flatlined during precisely the same period as more and more megachurches get planted and the existing ones grow ever larger. At a very minimum, this is an interesting correlation. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey of 50,000 adults, the number of people who self-identify as Christians has dropped 10 points (from 86% to 76%) between 1990 and 2008, while the number who identify with the category "No Religious Affiliation" has nearly doubled (to 15% from 8%) over the same period. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who identify as Born-Again/Evangelical has remained constant at roughly 34% (of a much larger population). Which means that there has been a fall-off among nominal Christians, but no increase in true Christians above the rate of population growth.
According to the research published in Natural Church Development (p. 46-48), the smallest churches won the most converts (percentage-wise) and evangelistic effectives declines precipitously in direct correlation to an increase in attendance. For example, over a five year period, the average church with less than 100 worshippers (i.e., average 51 people in attendance) won 32 people to Christ. By contrast, the average church of 100-200 people also won 32 people, churches with between 200-300 won 39 people, and churches with 300-400 won an average of 25. Capping this off, megachurches (avg. attendance 2856) won just 112 people in the last five years. This means that, while in raw numbers, a single megachurch won 2x the number of people as a single "mini-church," they did so while being an average of 56x larger. So, the mini-church is 16x more effective at reaching people than the megachurch. To really break it down, if we broke up the average megachurch of 2,856 people into 56 "mini-churches" of 51 people, then over a five year period, 1,792 people would be reached vs. 112 for them if they remain assembled as one megachurch.
All of these stats and figures seem to say this: Perhaps our American assumption that bigger = better is wrong. Perhaps by growing larger, what we have accomplished is simply an increase in the number of people who can be passive Christians who don't reach their neighbors and friends with the Gospel. Perhaps we are due for a reconsideration of our basic assumption that the best way to reach lost people is by aggregating as many of them into a room to hear an evangelistic message as we can. I know these things cut cross-grain with our evangelical heritage and American culture, but maybe those things are inhibiting, rather than contributing to, the expansion of God's kingdom in America. Maybe we need to have the vision to think small if we want God's kingdom to be large?