Decline in the US mega-churches

By Martin E. Marty
June 7, 2010

Schadenfreude, or rejoicing in others’ misfortunes, is abundantly evident in responses, blogged and otherwise, to the bad/sad news about the decline of the famed Crystal Cathedral, a mega-church founded in the mid-1950s in California.

Publicity has been constant, for over a year, concerning the church’s 55-million-dollar debt, sellings-off of property, non-payment of bills, et cetera. Other mega-churches have closed when the nearby malls on whose traffic they half-depended went broke.

In other cases, staff firings draw attention and sympathy. Still others are driven to hold special fund drives to make up for financial declines in the current crisis. Not only mega-places have had to do that, but do setbacks in the stories of super-successful churches add up to anything particular?

First, why Schadenfreude? One has to see a turnabout-is-fair-play attitude in some of the uncharitable responses. The mega-church networks build constituencies in part by attacking denominations, even as these networks then become more-than-virtual, indeed, parallel and competitive “denominations” themselves.

Worshippers who gather in town-and-country, inner-city, and left-behind neighbourhoods, where neither congregations nor anything else can grow, chafe when the mega-success folk deride them, publishing books and releasing releases which suggest that smaller, declining, or holding-their-own churches and synagogues are simply doing wrong, or at least not doing right.

Through the years I have been careful about criticising such churches. We were all trained to keep a critical eye on denominations, Protestant and Catholic, in what is now written off as “the mainstream.” Along the way I learned not to be hyper-critical. The morning after even a mild half-sentence of criticism appears on TV or in print, the public relations people of the powerful churches are at the critic’s door. And, let it be said, the other half-sentence often expresses positive views of what such churches achieve.

First, they are by no means all alike, and many could pass most critical tests. Second, they do reach and serve people who would otherwise not be reached. Third, many are responsive to criticism. And hundreds of them nurture small groups that provide opportunities for theological probing and equip for servant-leadership. Why knock that?

Back to the issue: What is going on with the decline of the mega-churches? I’ve read some sociological analyses, works in progress on which we’ll report after they are published, which have some big clues.

Most come down to the fact that so many of these churches replace or eclipse classic concerns such as “repentance” and “redemption” and have converted, in their terms and substance and energies, to market models.

One organises strategies, methods, and messages to adapt to such models and offer what the market at its best can offer. But we are learning these years that markets have limits, as do churches which are too adapted to them.

When a charismatic pastoral-founder is moved from the scene, when success does not always follow those in the minority of mega-churches that over-promise success, when cultural tastes change, down go the fortunes of the market-churches.

No, the mega-churches are not going to disappear. But as they transition from the world of inevitable success to re-participation in a world of partial success, setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations, now is a good time to see what about them can be appropriate in the lives of so many other kinds of churches and synagogues, which have much to learn, and only sometimes are themselves eager to change.

All kinds of religious institutions are in this – whatever this is – together. Forget the Schadenfreude.

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(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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