Academic Programs 

Megachurches (RS-686)
Summer 2006

Imagine a congregation where 10,000 people gather each week for worship, where church budgets are $15 million a year and where thousands of people volunteer for programs weekly. Welcome to the world of megachurches. The past thirty years have seen a proliferation of these massive congregations throughout the nation. There are more than 1,200 of these congregations in the U.S., and while less than half a percent of all congregations, they attract more attention than all other religious communities in the nation combined. This course will look at the phenomenon to understand the common characteristics of megachurches, how they function, why they are attractive. In doing this we will discover what lessons can be learned from them which can be used effectively by churches of all sizes and denominational traditions.


Meeting Day, Time and Dates: 
Monday, June 12 – Friday, June 16 from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Scott Thumma
Professor of Sociology of Religion

Contact Information:
(860) 509-9571



Course Syllabus


Describe the megachurch phenomenon as it appears in contemporary U.S. society.
Understand the role megachurches are playing the contemporary American religious context.

Explore the key characteristics of these churches and how they address changes that have taken place in American society in the past few decades, which congregations of all sizes also face.
Understand basic sociological concepts and theories relevant to the megachurch phenomenon.

Course Requirements:
1.  Class presentation on a megachurch or aspect of the phenomenon    25 percent
2.  Attendance and class discussion - participation                               30 percent
3.  Reading summary                                                                         15 percent
4.  15-page paper exploring a contemporary                                          30 percent
religious phenomenon due after the course, date to be set.

Further instruction on requirements will be posted as the course date approaches.  The final paper should conform to the Seminary’s “General Guidelines for a Research Paper.” 

Grading Scale (within letter grades there will be +’s and –‘s)
90-100%           A         
80-89%             B         
70-79%             C
below 70%        F

Expectations -  Given that this is a 5 meeting, one-week course, I would strongly suggest that students NOT to miss any class meetings.  One absence, with a very good reason and, ideally, prior approval, might be tolerated but anyone who misses more than one class period will lose a full letter grade or more off their final grade. 
Please come to class well prepared.  Since we only meet five times within one week, and I will be basing nearly a quarter of your grade on participation, come prepared by having done the readings and engage in the discussion.

The majority of the reading assignments for the week must be completed prior to the class meetings.  You will need to read and take good notes in order to refer to them during our week of class meetings.  During the evenings between class meetings, there will be exercises using the web or short articles to read for the following day.

*** NOTE:  I welcome auditors in the class but I expect any auditor to do the vast majority of the reading and participate in the class discussion as well as encourage auditors to do a class presentation. 

If anyone has any questions, suggestions, difficulties, or comments I would love to hear them and am always available by email or during my office hours posted on my office door. 

The standard Seminary policies regarding plagiarism and writing style apply to this course.  For more information about these policies see the student handbook or the Seminary’s web site.

Research project - Each student will choose either a megachurch to research or an aspect of the phenomenon to explore across several megachurches.  The student will gather information about this aspect of the phenomenon or church for presentation to the class on the last two days of the course. The purpose of this presentation is twofold: 1) to uncover primary sources related to this phenomenon, and 2) to introduce more information about the phenomenon or congregation to the class. The primary source might include a church’s confessional statements, published materials from the organization, sermons, videos, news reports, web material and other items that furnish information about the church or phenomenon.
Students will use this material, plus other scholarly sources to write a 15 page research paper on a topic related to this phenomenon or an exploration of one megachurch, its history, growth, breadth of ministry and leadership. This paper must explore information about the phenomenon in relation to larger patterns of culture and societal changes that have taken place in America in the past decades and relevance for the future of religion in the US.  Please be prepared to sign up for a presentation topic by the second day of class and a preliminary idea of your final paper by the end of the course. 

Schedule of Topics and Readings

NOTE:  the majority of the readings must be done before the first meeting date.  Please come to our first class prepared to discuss the readings.


Schaller, Lyle E. 2000. The Very Large Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Thumma, Scott. 2005. “Megachurches Today 2005” Available electronically at

Thumma, Scott. 2000. “Megachurches Today: Summary of Data from the Faith Communities Today Project.” Available electronically at

Thumma, Scott. 1998 “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena” Available electronically at

A number of journal articles will be available during the course featuring sociological and organizational research relevant to the megachurch phenomenon.

Class Schedule

This topical schedule is very tentative at this point.  It will change prior to the summer class.

Day one
Introduction to the Megachurch, basic characteristics and how this phenomenon fits into American society.
Visit to area megachurches

Day two
How they Grow and Succeed
Possible topics:
Integration of members
Commitment and Participation in the Megachurch
Daily reading - coming soon
Guest speaker -

Day three
What they do
Possible topics:
Daily reading - coming soon
Guest speaker - Nancy Martin (University of Arizona)

Day four
How they are led
Possible topics:
Daily reading - coming soon
Guest speaker – Rick Warren

Day five
Challenges and New Trends
Possible topics:
Denominational affiliations
New Forms and Functions
Community Interactions
Daily reading - coming soon
Guest Speaker – Warren Bird
and Dave Travis (Leadership Network)


Hartford Seminary  77 Sherman Street  Hartford, CT  06105   860-509-9500