The popularity of megachurches has grown in recent decades.
Built for the internet, these huge and sprawling places of worship are way ahead of their perhaps more traditional counterparts — making it easier for them to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, when all churches scrambled to find ways to bring ministry to the online world. to bring space.
But the megachurch phenomenon has exposed issues that are perhaps not uncommon in a large organization with a massive following, a unique culture, and strong power dynamics.
The latest controversy involved a popular pastor at one of Canada’s largest megachurches making international headlines after he was arrested and charged with sexual assault. None of these allegations have been proven in court.
Here’s what we know about the increasingly popular megachurch.
What qualifies as a megachurch?
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the term megachurch generally refers to a Protestant Christian congregation that has a “sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 people or more in its worship services” and includes adults and children in all of its worship services.
Most megachurches are located in suburban areas of cities with rapidly growing populations, according to Hartford Institute. Many of these churches occupy large tracts of land and are often found near major thoroughfares.
Megachurches typically have parking lots of considerable capacity and seating suitable for the large congregation it attracts. An increasing number of megachurches now have multiple campuses, decreasing the average size of the primary space.
The average megachurch has a weekly attendance of 3,696 people, according to the Hartford Institute.
Megachurches can be found in countries around the world, in places such as the US, Brazil, Philippines, Nigeria, India and South Korea, which are home to the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest megachurch in the world with 480,000 members, according to a global database on megachurches.
What has led to the rising popularity of megachurches?
Of the five billion Christian churches worldwide, only a very small number continue to grow, so that their weekly attendance exceeds the 2,000 mark, said Warren Bird, one of the leading international researchers of the world’s largest church attendance.
There has been an occasional church with a very high attendance since the early 1800s, but the number of megachurches started mushrooming about 20 years ago, Bird told the Star.
“They are the quintessential modern, ecclesiastical institution, built for a society of highways, shopping malls, and high mobility,” said Peter Schuurman, a professor of sociology and religion at Redeemer University.
“It has a cinema atmosphere, it’s entertaining. It has good branding. And they do a lot of scientific management and statistics to measure things and markets. They have the well-known big box architecture. They have the dazzling electronic media. I think it has a lot to offer that the modern city dweller knows.”
Celebrities like Justin Bieber and NBA players Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have all been associated with megachurches before. The National Post reported that Doug Ford received a blessing at the Toronto megachurch prayer palace in his bid to become leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.
Contributing factors such as public acceptance of the benefits of a large church and a greater willingness to commute there have also contributed to the popularity of megachurches, Bird added.
In recent years, some megachurches have moved away from traditional sprawling stadium-like sites and branched out into smaller hubs, or “campus,” in an effort to increase visitor numbers by reaching different geographic areas and creating a sense of intimacy and familiarity. to improve.
“It’s like a franchise to a degree,” he said.
Church leaders learning how to run a multi-tiered organization have found help by looking to other large churches like the one in South Korea, which openly share their best practices for growth, Bird said.
How many megachurches are there in Canada?
There are at least 1,800 megachurches in North America, Schuurman says.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research lists a total of 35 megachurches in Canada with consistent weekly attendance of approximately 2,000 or more.
Schuurman said most North American megachurches can be found in the United States.
More than 70 percent of U.S. megachurches are located in the southern solar belt, with California, Texas, Florida and Georgia having the highest concentrations, according to the Hartford Institute. One of the largest American megachurches has an average of almost 60,000 visitors.
What is the controversy surrounding megachurches?
On May 31, police arrested and charged Hamilton Bruxy Cavey, who had spent about 25 years as an elementary school pastor at The Meeting House in Canada, with sexual assault.
A press release from the Hamilton Police Department stated that the agency believes there may be more victims.
Just days after Cavey’s arrest, the leader of the Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo, with five million followers worldwide, was sentenced to 16 years in a California prison for sexually abusing young female followers.
Last year, the founder of the million-dollar church Hillsong was accused of concealing child abuse by his father.
Hillsong Church’s most famous former pastor, Carl Lentz, who walked around with Bieber and counted a slew of celebrities and athletes as friends and followers, was fired from the church after admitting he cheated on his wife.
Hillsong was the subject of a Discovery Plus multi-part documentary series that debuted earlier this year, which explored the skyrocketing popularity of the star-studded church and the allegations of abuse and exploitation.
“There are no statistics showing that the megachurches are more violent than small churches or perhaps medium-sized churches that we know of,” Schuurman said, adding that there is no evidence that churches in general cause more abuse cases than Hollywood or corporate culture.
However, Schuurman continues, “Any place where a personality becomes the central resource for an institution’s success, there will be obligations that must be kept in check, or you are fostering an environment where abuse of power will be facilitated.”
He claims that because so much depends on the personality of the church leaders, and the teachings and theology of one person, power becomes centralized.
Schuurman wrote his dissertation on Cavey and charisma in megachurches. He attended The Meeting House’s services for nearly three years, visiting nearly a dozen campuses and interviewing 82 people, including Cavey himself, multiple times.
“I tried to live within this community as an ethnographer,” explains Schuurman. “And see how church life is lived instead of being an armchair critic.”
Schuurman said he found that charisma is not an individual personality trait within the church, but that it is in fact a collaborative effort and that the leader is central.
Cavey was “cozy, engaging, witty and humorous” when he was on stage, but personally, Schuurman said he was passive and even a little shy.
Schuurman said he was shocked to learn of Cavey’s arrest, and although he knew he was at The Meeting House as an academic observer, he said he believed Cavey’s persona and attitude onstage. He said Cavey claimed to be the antithesis of the stereotypical right-wing evangelist, adding that he seemed to challenge many traditional church views, especially when it came to gender.
The accusations “will tarnish his reputation and he will be compared to other manipulative evangelists plastered on our television sets and[screens],” Schuurman said.
Cavey is due to appear in court on June 27.
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