Joel Osteen

A megachurch is a church having 2,000 or more congregants in average weekend attendance. The Hartford Institute’s database lists more than 1,300 such Protestant churches in the United States. According to that data, approximately 50 churches on the list have attendance ranging from 10,000 to 47,000. While 3,000 individual Catholic parishes (churches) have 2,000 or more attendants for an average Sunday Mass, these churches are not seen as part of the megachurch movement.

Globally, these large congregations are a significant development in Protestant Christianity. In the United States, the number of megachurches has more than quadrupled in the past two decades. The phenomenon has since spread worldwide. In 2007, five of the ten largest Protestant churches were in South Korea. The largest megachurch in the United States is Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas with more than 40,000 members every weekend and the current largest megachurch in the world is South Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, with more than 830,000 members as of 2007.

The origins of the megachurch movement can be traced to the 1950s. There were large churches earlier in history, but they were considerably rarer. Charles Spurgeon’s Baptist Metropolitan Tabernacle in London attracted 5,000 weekly for years in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, religious broadcaster Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was similarly large. The advent of television in the 1950s, and the Internet in the 1990s and 2000s have been seen as a motivator for megachurches as megachurch services are often broadcast.

A common criticism of megachurches is that they draw members away from other churches. This has led to use of the derisive term, ‘big box churches.’ The majority of North American churchgoers attend small churches of fewer than 200 members. Additionally, critics of megachurches claim that such churches are more concerned with entertainment than religion. Al Sharpton alleges that such churches focus on personal morality issues while ignoring social justice. Critics have also raised issues with the application of corporate business models, e.g., from Wal-Mart; a seeker-friendly approach, intensive market research, heavy reliance upon opinion polls, polished advertising targeted at affluent young professionals, unconventional worship styles and Eastern influences.

Some megachurches, such as the Christian Open Door, have been criticized by former members and anti-cult associations for an alleged use of cultic practices. Another concern with megachurches is their tax-exempt status. These churches generate millions of dollars in revenue and are not subject to the same disclosures that charities are on tax-exempt revenues. This has received attention from the US Senate. A megachurch was investigated by a media outlet for allegedly illegal contributions to the political campaigns of Republican candidates.

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