On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 4: Megachurches, and actual statistics

I’d like to take a brief, unplanned detour from what I said I was going to talk about in my last post to briefly offer some thoughts on one of the most common responses to the topics I’ve brought up in my series so far (here, here, and here). I’ll apologize from the beginning for two reasons: first this is going to be a slightly technical post and second, it is answering a specific counter-argument that usually comes up at this point in the conversation, which I personally don’t find particularly helpful to the conversation. But in talking with various ministers and church leaders, this is the first objection that inevitably pops up. The argument basically goes like this: if what you’re saying is true, why are megachurches doing so well, and why do they seem to be attracting 18-35’s? The short answer is, “I don’t think they really are…” but understanding why requires that we look at some broader data about religious trends in the United States. If you stick with me to the end, I promise some relevant takeaways for Restoration movement churches.

I should begin by saying that I’m not a sociologist, and I haven’t done any polling on this issue. I have no particular training in this area, and I’m sure a real social scientist might take some issue with what I say. I might be completely wrong about this, and as far as I can find, the research I’d really like to look at to help answer some of these questions doesn’t exist. If you’re a sociologist and interested in these questions, hit me up.

I should also say that I’ll be using some slightly new terminology in this post, just to keep things a bit more clean. Specifically, I will be referring to Generation X, and Generation Y. In the terms of the previous posts, Generation Y represents current 18-35’s, whereas Generation X roughly represents those born from the early 60’s until the early 80’s. There is some disagreement about where to draw the X/Y line, but it generally ranges from 1979-1983. By way of disclosure, I am 33, born in 1980, and therefore sit right on the border between these two generations – which allows me, in some ways, to speak in the native language of both groups, while not really being a part of either.

Ok. Let’s start by laying some groundwork. This post is going to be a bit more graph and numbers heavy than the previous ones, but I think it’s good to try to put some pictures with this thing. A caveat about my data: I’m drawing the religious data from the 2008 Pew Center Religious Landscape Survey, and my US Population demographics from the 2010 Census. Unfortunately, these organizations don’t bin their data the same way, so I’ve had to make an assumption that the 15-19 age demographic has a uniform distribution, and specifically that 18-19 year olds represent 40% of the bin. Given the fairly uniform distribution between bins (a max of about 2% variation between 5-year bins up to age 29) this seems fairly reasonable. Also note that because this is 2008 data, the 18-29 age demographic is now 23-34. Thus the 18-29 group basically represents Gen Y, with 5 years of missing kids who would now be 18-22. The 30-49 group would now be 35-54, and roughly represents Gen X, and the 50-64 group roughly corresponds to the boomers.

First, let’s look at the distribution of church members by age in various demographics. This graph shows the distribution by age of four religious groups set alongside the age distribution of the total popdistpopulation of the United States (shown on the left for each group, in orange). So in other words, 22% of the total adult population of the United States is in the 18-29 age range. If a particular group’s bar is lower than the orange bar, that age group is underrepresented in that particular religious tradition. If the bar is over, then that particular group is overrepresented. Because this is a fixed population, all bars add up to 100 (or, well, two add up to 99, due to rounding errors). In other words, if you are overrepresented in one area, you will necessarily be underrepresented somewhere else.

So what are a couple of quick takeaways from this graph? First, all groups are under-represented in the 18-29 demographic, compared to what we would expect based on the US population. In fact, the only religious group overrepresented among Gen Y are traditionally black churches in the Pentecostal tradition (and frankly, there may be some small sample size issues there). It is certainly true that non-denominational and Restoration heritage churches look better here, but even for them, the message is not all roses. Non-denominational churches in particular (and most megachurches would fall into this group) seem to be primarily a Gen X affair, with some Gen Y involvement, and almost no people who are older than boomers. Particularly worrying is a trend among evangelical Baptists, typically considered the largest and most influential evangelical Protestant denomination. Evangelical Baptists show one of the worst representations among Gen Y outside of mainline churches, at only 14%. The only non-mainline groups that do worse are fundamentalist non-denominational churches and Evangelical Lutheran churches, both at 12%, and Evangelical Presbyterians at 13%.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out at this juncture related to Churches of Christ. The first, again, has to do with the issue of instrumental music. To be explicit, a capella churches of Christ draw better among Gen Y than instrumental Baptist churches, and equal to non-denominational churches, as a percentage of the members who attend. For what seems like the hundredth time in this series of posts, I will continue to beat the dead horse: instrumental music is not a silver bullet that will keep the Gen Y crowd in Churches of Christ. More on this later. Second, we should also note that Churches of Christ are the group with the largest overrepresentation among the “older than boomer” crowd. In other words, a lot of our members are, or will soon be dying off. This will rearrange the distribution of our various age groups, but will likely give the biggest “bump” to the Gen X crowd, not Gen Y.

Ok. Now is where I’m going to pretend to be a social scientist. Full disclosure: this is not my day job.

Let’s bring in a couple of concepts to discuss a bit more about what might be going on here.

We’ll start by defining a group of Christians present within each of these four age groups that we will call “consumer-oriented”. We can define this group roughly as “Christians who view church as a place where they consume religious goods and services.” It’s doubtful many people would say they believe this, of course, but I suspect we all know people who fit this mold. Phrases like “church shopping” wouldn’t make sense outside of this consumer oriented mentality. In other words, this group of people, when looking for a church, is, in a sense, shopping for a country club – they want to be a part of the church with the best benefits (worship, programs, ministries). To be clear, all of us do this to some extent, since nobody looking for a church tries to find the absolutely worst fit possible, but when I’m talking about someone in a consumer-oriented mindset, I’m talking about someone who is at least tempted to pack up and move the kids when a new church starts across town with a great youth group, or great preacher, or great band. Church is primarily about the goods and services I consume.

Consumer preferences are not the only factor at play here, though. There is also an issue related to mobility. By way of analogy, if you have a large house crammed full of stuff, there is a much higher barrier to moving than if you inhabit a two-room apartment filled with your furniture from college. In the same way that Gen Y’ers are more readily disposed to pick up and move across the country (which is easier to do if everything you own fits in your car), they have far fewer attachments to the institutional name-brands of their churches. Additionally, they haven’t (in general) built up years of history with a particular local community. I’ve met dozens of people in churches who have been a part of a local congregation for ten, fifteen, or fifty years who remain, not because they particularly like anything about what was going on in the church or the direction it is headed, but because of the personal relationships they have formed with other members of the church. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s just a reflection of the reality that once you’ve put down roots, whether in Peoria or Pine Grove Community Church, moving becomes much more difficult.

Let’s engage in a brief thought experiment. Imagine a city where there are 4 churches, each with 250 members. Half of the members in each church belong to a “consumer-oriented” mindset, and
churchesthe other half do not. Let’s consider a few scenarios related to mobility and market advantage. The trivial situation is when no church has a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and mobility is fairly high. In this case, we would expect things to basically maintain the status quo. There might be some movement, but not a lot. Conversely, if we increased the market advantage of one church until it had its run of the market while mobility remained high, we would expect to see almost all of the consumer oriented members flock to that church, as in this graph, creating, in effect, a mega-church.

Next, let’s think about the distribution of this consumer-oriented mindset within various age groups. Whether members of Gen Y are as consumer-oriented as previous generations is a matter for some debate, but there is at least evidence that Gen Y consumes in a very different way than previous generations. In the terms sketched out above, however, I think it would be fair to say that we would expect Gen Y to have a lower rate of “consumer-oriented” Christians than either boomers or Gen X. We’ll set aside for the moment how much lower. Regardless, we have noted that Gen Y is far more mobile between religious groups than Gen X or the boomers, primarily owing to life stage.

So if all of this is reasonable, what would we expect? We would expect some portion of Gen Y to be consumer-oriented, and because of their mobility we would expect the vast majority of that consumer-oriented group to end up at relatively few churches – the ones which enjoy a competitive advantage in a particular market. My suspicion on this is that the distribution would follow something like a power law, meaning that we might expect to see on the order of 90% of this consumer-oriented Gen Y group (across all denominations) in any given market split between one or two churches, and the remaining 10% spread across the rest of the churches. Which raises the question, “Just what percentage of Gen Y believers fit this consumer oriented approach, which tends to result in a megachurch?”

I don’t know that there are any good answers for that at the moment, but I do think there are some trends in the Pew Center data that may help us say some things. First, looking at the non-denominational (think: megachurch) data, it’s clear that the largest group within that demographic is Gen X. This isn’t terribly surprising, as the non-denominational movement was getting started in force right around the time Gen X was most mobile, from a “switching churches” standpoint. Given their more consumer-oriented tendencies, it’s not entirely surprising that these churches attracted mostly Gen X’ers and some boomers. If our mobility hypothesis is correct, we should expect that Gen X and boomers will be more likely to stay where they are at this point, unless they experience a major life change (death, divorce, new job, etc.). The barriers to moving are just too high.

As an aside, it is probably worth thinking for a moment about where this overrepresentation of Gen X within non-denominational churches came from. Non-denominational churches contain about 35% more Gen X members than we would expect based on their US population frequency. The data for Protestant denominations in general show that Gen X is slightly overrepresented (38% vs 36%), but this is most likely related to the relative underrepresentation of Gen Y. In Restoration churches, however, Gen X is significantly under-represented (36% vs 31%). Correcting for relative US population frequency, there are actually fewer Gen X’s remaining in our churches than Gen Y’s. Another way to say this is that there is indeed some wisdom to the idea that a significant group of people wanted more progressive worship services, and indeed have already left to find them. It’s just that those people aren’t Gen Y’s – they’re Gen X’s. And as we’ve discussed above, they have, for the most part, settled themselves in new traditions.

The final part of the data I want to point out deals with Gen Y’s in non-denominational churches, the category in which most megachurches are grouped. As we’ve already said, non-denominational churches are great at connecting with Gen X. But it doesn’t seem like they’re having the same success with Gen Y. Once we correct for population frequency, we see about a 29% decline from Gen X to Gen Y in non-denominational churches. In other words, while non-denominational churches may be more successful in attracting and retaining the Gen Y crowd than mainline congregations or evangelical Baptists, there is nonetheless a 30% generational decline in their effectiveness when it comes to reaching “young people”.

So what are a few takeaways?

First, in my opinion, the issue of megachurches reaching 18-35’s is a red herring and a misinterpretation of the data. It’s a red herring because, if the population distribution of churches follows the population distribution of cities – and there’s no real reason here to think it doesn’t – then megachurches are not the future, at least for most of us. It would be analogous to Des Moines secretly harboring an ambition to become as large and influential as New York City. For the vast majority of us, we won’t be a megachurch, even if we want to be. For every 20,000+ person church in America, there will be dozens or hundreds of 2,000 person churches, and for every 2,000 person church, there will be dozens or hundreds of 200 person churches. By and large, megachurches succeed because a) they have a competitive advantage in the marketplace of Christianity and therefore “attract” consumers looking for the highest quality provider of religious goods and services or b) they were the “first to market” and were able to capture a segment of people before anyone else was there. As a secondary aside, I would also point out that many megachurches are built around individuals who are uniquely charismatic (in a good way). Leadership transitions in these organizations are generally not smooth, making their long-term future a matter for some debate.

Furthermore, raising the specter of megachurches in the 18-35’s debate simply ignores the available data, which suggests that they are mostly a Gen X affair, with a significant falloff (almost a third) from Gen X to Gen Y, once relative population frequencies are taken into account.

Finally – and, hopefully this is viewed as good – the situation Churches of Christ find themselves in at the moment is, relatively speaking, fairly positive. When it comes to Gen X, there are a lot of “statistics” within our fellowship. But, at least so far, Gen Y has remained, remarkably, reasonably engaged (present company notwithstanding). And so, in a sense, the tradition is at a crossroads – not unlike, I would guess, the one that occurred shortly before the departure of a large section of Gen X from our ranks. My prayer would be that leaders in all churches – Church of Christ and otherwise – would have the wisdom to not address the issues that caused previous generations to leave, but would deal seriously with the issues causing the current generation to leave. We would do well to keep in mind what Dr. Jeff Childers reminds us – “big” is not a virtue. To paraphrase Dr. Chris Flanders, since Jesus commanded us to make disciples, and not attenders, we do not need to worship bigness as a marker of success.

Lord have mercy.

In my next post, I will, actually, talk about some ways the world has shifted, and hopefully brainstorm about how a changed church might connect with a departing generation.

Next: Part 5: Brave new world

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