When Angelus Temple opened in Los Angeles in 1923 with seating for 5,300, the megachurch was born. An evangelical Christian congregation led by a charismatic pastor, committed to welcoming new believers, Bible-based but lacking conventional denominational boundaries, the new church drew huge crowds. Lakewood Church, founded in Houston in 1959, was another early example of the type. It was theologically conservative, racially inclusive, and popular from the start. By 1979 Lakewood was attracting more than 5,000 people to its services; today it is America’s largest church, with average weekly attendance of 43,000. (Megachurches are among the most integrated institutions in the U.S., averaging a 20-percent-minority mix of congregants, while Lakewood is 40 percent white, 30 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic.)
Megachurches are conventionally defined as those attended by at least 2,000 congregants per week. There are now 1,300 such churches in the U.S. (up from just 50 in 1970), housing about a tenth of all U.S. churchgoers, and they are continuing to expand in both size and influence. They include prominent institutions like the Willow Creek Church led by Bill Hybels, the Saddleback Church under Rick Warren, the McLean Bible Church founded by Lon Solomon, and the Potter’s House pastored by T. D. Jakes.
This vast expansion was driven not just by congregational donors but also by broader philanthropy. Bob Buford built a large network of cable television stations, but he was also a devoted Christian and in his mid-50s felt strongly drawn into the world of nonprofits and church-building. Buford had become close friends with famed management theorist Peter Drucker, who viewed America’s vigorous civil society of churches, charities, and helping organizations like the Salvation Army as secrets to the country’s success, and vital buffers between private interests and the state. Together they discussed what became the Leadership Network—a group devoted to helping the pastors of fast-growing churches thrive even more. Leaders of new churches with a thousand members or above would be brought together with similar peers so they could learn from each other, and be taught essentials of excellent management and oversight.
Bill Hybels and Rick Warren were just two of many church founders who benefited from Leadership Network training and resources as they grew their congregations to over 20,000 members. Bob Buford also joined with philanthropist Phil Anschutz to finance the Burning Bush Fund, which concentrated on planting new churches and cultivating new leaders to open churches. Pastors like Tim Keller, Larry Osborne, and Greg Surratt were aided by the fund as they built thriving, multi-campus evangelical churches. In a 1998 Forbes interview, Peter Drucker characterized megachurches as “surely the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years.”
- Forbes reporting on Buford, Drucker, and Warren, forbes.com/sites/richkarlgaard/2014/03/26/peter-drucker-and-me
- Christianity Today background, christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/april/catalyst-that-fostered-movement.html