Academic Programs 

Megachurches* (RS-686)
Summer 2009

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 forty years have seen a proliferation of these massive congregations throughout the nation. There are over 1300 of these congregations in the U.S., and while they are 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 and what kind of person goes to them. We will uncover 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 8 – Friday, June 12, 9 a.m. – 4 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 20 percent
  2. Attendance and class discussion – active participation 35 percent
  3. Reading summary 10 percent
  4. 15-page paper exploring a theme 35 percent from the course - due after the course,
    topic and date to be determined.

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, even for a few hours. 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 over 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 may 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.

Reading summary – Bring to the first class, a 2-4 page comparison and review of 2 articles you choose from those listed as required reading. Briefly summarize each of the two articles, evaluate their arguments and content, and then compare the findings and ideas within the two articles.

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 end of the third day of class and a preliminary idea of your final paper by the end of the course.

Schedule of Topics and Readings

the REQUIRED readings for this course MUST BE read before the first meeting date. Please come to our first class prepared to discuss the readings.



Thumma, Scott and Travis, Dave
2007. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches. J-B Leadership Network Series.

Miller, Donald E.
1997. Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sargent, Kimon H.
2000. Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Online articles – on the web or if marked with ** then find these on the SonisWeb course site
Thumma, Scott. 2008. “Megachurches Today 2008 - Changes in American Megachurches” Available electronically

**Thumma, Scott. 2009. “Megachurch Attender Report”

**Eiesland, Nancy L. 1994 "Contending with a Giant: The Impact of a Mega-church on Exurban Religious Institutions." In Contemporary American Religion: An Ethnographic Reader. Penny Edgell Becker & Nancy L. Eiesland (eds.) AltaMira Press.

**Chaves, Mark 2006, “All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context.” Review of Religious Research, 47:329-346.

**Tucker-Worgs, Tamelyn. 2001 “Get on board, little children, There’s room for many more: The Black Megachurch Phenomenon.” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center, Vol XXIX Nos. 1&2 Fall 2001/ Spring 2002.

**Research note about megas and their demographic contexts article

Recommended: if you want more information or have a ton of time on your hands.


Schaller, Lyle E.
2000 The Very Large Church. Nashville: Abingdon.
1992 The Seven Day a Week Church. Nashville: Abingdon.

Marti, Geraldo.
2005. A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Ellington, Stephen.
2007. The Megachurches and the Mainline. Remaking Religious Tradition in the 21st Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pritchard, G. A.
1996 Willow Greek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of doing Church. Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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

**Finke, Roger. 1994. "The Quiet Transformation: Changes in Size and Leadership of Southern Baptist Churches." Review of Religious Research 36:3-22.

**Pinto, Leonard J. and Kenneth E. Crow. 1982. "The Effects of Size on Other Structural Attributes of Congregations within the Same Denomination." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21:304-316

**Stonebraker, Robert J. 1993. “Optimal Church Size: The Bigger the Better.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32:231-241.

**Wilken, Paul H. 1971. “Size of Organizations and Member Participation in Church Congregations.” Administrative Science Quarterly 16:173-179.

**Zaleski, Peter and Charles Zech. 1992. “Determinants of Contributions to Religious Organizations.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 51:459-472.

**Hougland, James G., Jr., and James R. Wood. 1980. "Control in Organizations and the Commitment of Members." Social Forces 59:85-105.

**Stark, Rodney chapter on megachurch attenders

**Martin, Nancy Small groups in big churches

Class Schedule
NOTE: This topical schedule is very tentative at this point. It will change prior to, and probably during, the summer class. Additionally, I’ve been asked to try something different with this course. Within our five-day course, there will be a self-contained two-day continuing education program. Monday - Tuesday, June 8 and June 9 – 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both days will include extensive small group reflection and discussion on the application of practical strategies derived from these successful churches.

This program should be valuable to religious and lay leaders as they envision new ideas to enhance the vitality of their own faith communities no matter what the size. I will try my best to not allow this format to disrupt our class process as we continue the three additional days.

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

The first day provides an overview of the megachurch phenomenon: The number and location of megachurches across the United States, common characteristics, and how they function. Based on the 2008, 2005 and 2000 national studies as well as my other work.

How They Grow and Succeed
Image is everything?
What can their success teach us?

Day two
Megachurch Attenders – who are all these people?

The second day will focus on the latest research on who attends these congregations and the quality and depth of their spiritual lives.

Where do they come from?
What attracts them?
Why do they stay – or go?
Integration of members
Commitment and Participation in the Megachurch

Day three
What megachurches do, and how they do it.

Day four
Megachurch Leadership

Day five
Challenges, New Trends & Implications
Denominational affiliations
New Forms and Functions
Community Interactions


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