Defined not only by their large membership but also by a wide variety of social and organizational characteristics, megachurches are a twentieth- and twenty-first-century religious phenomenon marked by the use of contemporary American culture in both ministerial and evangelical work. Though megachurches represent only a relatively small portion of total congregations in the United States—only 1 percent of American churchgoers in 2004 attended megachurches—they have become important on the religious landscape of the nation and of Georgia in particular.
What Makes a Church a Megachurch?
Besides their large size, megachurches share other characteristics. Nearly all are Protestant and evangelical. Some retain ties to Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, or Presbyterian denominations, but many consider themselves nondenominational. The demography of megachurch congregations likewise varies, but since their first emergence in the 1950s, they have tended to attract people who are young or middle-aged, white, suburban, well educated, middle-class, conservative, and family oriented. Since the 1980s, however, increasing numbers of megachurches also have drawn attendants from working-class and minority populations.
The founder of the church—who typically doubles as a dynamic preacher—often directs institutional affairs. Most megachurch pastors envision a "strategic vision of growth" for the church and depend on a combination of associate pastors, directors, deacons, or staff members to implement that vision. Additional growth usually results from the church's ability to offer a wide selection of attractive programs, including worship services, day care, youth programs, recreational activities, Sunday school classes, and small group Bible studies. Enormous budgets, some reaching tens of millions of dollars, keep such programs fully staffed, funded, and running year round.
Megachurches and Contemporary American Culture
Megachurches in Georgia
As of 2006, Georgia had eighty megachurches, the fourth highest number in the United States. With several notable exceptions, most of these churches are located in the Atlanta metropolitan area. As with most megachurches nationwide, those in Georgia vary greatly in size, demography, denominational affiliation, and theological preference. Some, such as First Baptist, New Hope Baptist, Mount Pisgah United Methodist, Peachtree Presbyterian, and Roswell Street Baptist, are large churches with long histories in the area and clear ties to national or regional denominations.
Regardless of their particular features, megachurches in Georgia emulate the characteristics of other such congregations scattered across the country. They are large, modern, highly organized, and increasingly popular religious communities committed to future growth. How well they succeed in their vision remains to be seen, but the presence of megachurches on the religious landscape of the state and nation appears secure.
Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
Scott Lee Thumma, "Megachurches of Atlanta," in Religions of Atlanta: Religious Diversity in the Centennial Olympic City, ed. Gary Laderman (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).
James B. Twitchell, Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College, Inc., and Museumworld (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
Robert Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002).
Darren Grem, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.