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Anna G. Larson, Published December 08 2012

Faith in Focus: Megachurches on the grow

Today is the second of a four-part series titled “Faith in Focus,” which will be featured in The Forum every Sunday this month.

Today’s package looks at the megachurch phenomenon.

Next week, we’ll profile people in our local Muslim and Jewish communities.

The final installment of the series will be about what churches are doing to reach out to young adults.

FARGO - Though a typical American church draws about 100 people to worship a week, two churches in Fargo will see just short of 5,000 people combined at their services this week.

Bethel Evangelical Free Church attracts about 2,000 total attendees during its four weekly services, said the Rev. Matthew St. John, its senior pastor. Hope Lutheran Church’s two campuses attract about 2,900 weekly attendees at its eight services, said the Rev. Paul Nynas, executive pastor at Hope Lutheran.

They are the only congregations in the metro area – and all of North Dakota – large enough to be considered megachurches, the still-growing phenomenon that provide faith homes for more than 10 percent of U.S. Protestants.

But the large number of people a megachurch attracts also presents challenges. Overcoming the idea that the church is not intimate due to its size is difficult, Nynas said.

“I think there are misconceptions about large churches,” he said. “We make sure our people feel connected, and we don’t dumb down the gospel.”

St. John said keeping an intimate feel with a large crowd is something he thinks about every day. He admits Bethel hasn’t always done it well, though he feels confident in the church’s current efforts.

“I don’t think the intimate feel is so much tied to the actual size as it is to the ability for us, as leaders, to ensure opportunities are in place for people to connect in meaningful community,” he said.

Small groups essential

Any Protestant congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services is considered a megachurch, according to Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Of the megachurches surveyed by the Hartford Institute, 82 percent said small groups are central to their strategy of Christian nurture and spiritual formation. The churches surveyed reported that 46 percent of attendees are involved in small groups.

At Bethel, small groups of four to 20 people they call Growth Groups meet weekly or every other week to talk, study the Bible and support each another.

Through small groups like those, people find a church family within the large church family, St. John said. He calls such groups the backbone of the church.

“The groups are designed to take a big church and give it a sense of community that’s small and comfortable, and that really resonates in the hearts of so many of our families that come from smaller contexts,” he said. “They’re like mini churches.”

“As we like to say, yes, we’re a big church, we’ve got big numbers, but what we really want are big people,” St. John said.

About one-third of Bethel’s adult attendees are in a Growth Group. Groups are formed based on age and interest, said Jonas Bundy, pastor of equipping ministries. Bundy is a member of a Growth Group.

“For me, Growth Groups bring a sense of community and become like another family,” he said.

When Bundy joined Bethel Church in 2009, he said it was difficult to find his place in the large church, but his Growth Group helped him find it.

“Now, I love it,” he said.

Reaching new members

Young families account for a sizable portion of both Bethel and Hope’s congregations.

People attracted to the average megachurch are youthful, family-oriented and solidly middle class, according to the Hartford Institute study.

The average age of a megachurch attendee ranges from 30 to 40, and 70 percent are under the age of 50. Of regular participants, 40 percent age 18 and older are new to the congregation in the last five years.

Nynas said Hope’s healthy population of young people is due to outreach efforts.

One key Hope Lutheran outreach program is HopeCare, ministries meant to assist community members, Nynas said.

People can sign up to help with different teams that do everything from delivering meals to sending out cards to brighten peoples’ days.

“Our core ministries then are geared toward welcoming and inviting people,” Nynas said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a member of our congregation or not. If you have a need we can help with and we know about it, we will strive to care for that person as our faith calls us to.”

Offering options

Multiple worship times and a variety of types of services – from traditional to contemporary – are crucial to megachurches.

Almost all churches surveyed by the institute have multiple Sunday morning services, 48 percent have one or more Saturday night services and 41 percent have one or more Sunday night services.

Bethel Church’s services are all on Sunday. The 9 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. services in the Worship Center are contemporary and streamed to the church’s coffee shop and a live Internet feed that St. John said is viewed by people worldwide.

A traditional service with liturgy and hymns starts at 10:45 a.m. in the Family Life Center. At 6:45 p.m., “Current” takes over the Family Life Center for the church’s most modern service. Video teaching, live worship and music are characteristics of “Current” services.

Both of Hope’s campuses host a 6 p.m. service every Wednesday. Each location has three Sunday morning services. The earliest service at each campus is traditional, with responsive readings, sung liturgy and hymns.

Two contemporary services follow the traditional service at both campuses. Contemporary worship is led by a worship team that uses drums, bass, a keyboard, guitars and singers to enrich the service.

“With the way life is now, you have to have those additional days and times so people can worship.” Nynas said.

Gauging growth

Very large churches continue to show an overall pattern of continued dramatic growth. Surveyed megachurches reported a median growth rate of 47 percent between 2005 and 2011, and 28 percent grew by 100 percent or more.

Bethel had about 700 members in 2000. By 2006, the church had grown to its current size, St. John said. The church has approximately 600 voting members. Most of its attendees are not yet members, St. John said.

“We are far more concerned they have a real and personal relationship with Jesus than that they be a member of our church,” he said. “For us, membership has voting and leadership responsibilities that, though vital, pale compared to knowing Christ and living for him.”

Hope’s congregation grows almost every year, Nynas said. Hope has 11,000 baptized members.

“Our Lutheran heritage is strong,” Nynas said.

With growth, came challenges. The greatest challenge for Hope over the years has been to not lose focus on the church’s mission, Nynas said.

“At Hope, we have been blessed to have great lay leadership that keeps us focused on proclaiming God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ,” he said.

When St. John arrived at Bethel in 2008, church membership was declining, mostly due to a long transition time between the former pastor and St. John, transitions with other ministry staff and issues with the church’s structure and style, St. John said. When he was hired, the decrease in attendance continued for a while because some people may not have liked his approach to ministry, St. John said.

“This is very common, such times can be hard on a church family,” he said.

Attendance is now increasing, with figures that are 27 percent higher than last year at this time, St. John said.

Seventy-nine percent of megachurches said the church’s most dramatic growth occurred during tenure of its current senior pastor, according to the Hartford Institute study. St. John has been Bethel’s senior pastor since 2008. Nynas has been a pastor at Hope for more than 10 years and executive pastor for two years.

A church’s membership isn’t all about the pastors at the front. Growth can be attributed to small group ministries, Bundy said. But in Bethel’s past, charismatic pastors have helped drive growth, he said.

“Matthew is very different than past senior pastor,” he said. “He attracts people because he’s authentic. He really wants to see people grow into who they can be.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525