NEW YORK – Maybe churches aren’t so different from corporations. World Changers Ministries, for instance, operates a music studio, publishing house, computer graphic design suite and owns its own record label. The Potter’s House also has a record label as well as a daily talk show, a prison satellite network that broadcasts in 260 prisons and a twice-a-week Webcast. New Birth Missionary Baptist Church has a chief operating officer and a special effects 3-D Web site that offers videos-on-demand. It publishes a magazine and holds Cashflow 101 Game Nights. And Lakewood Church, which recently leased the Compaq Center, former home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, has a four-record deal and spends $12 million annually on television airtime.
Welcome to the megabusiness of megachurches, where pastors often act as chief executives and use business tactics to grow their congregations. This entrepreneurial approach has contributed to the explosive growth of megachurches–defined as non-Catholic churches with at least 2,000 members–in the U.S. Indeed, Lakewood, New Birth, The Potter’s House and World Changers, four of the biggest, have all experienced membership gains of late. Of course, growth for them has a higher purpose: to spread their faith to as many people as they can. “In our society growth equals success,” says Scott Thumma, faculty associate at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “And religious growth not only equals success but also God’s blessing on the ministry.”
In 1970, there were just ten such churches, according to John Vaughn, founder of Church Growth Today, which tracks megachurches. In 1990, 250 fit that description. Today, there are 740. The most common trait that these churches share is their size; average number of worshippers is 3,646, up 4% from last year, according to Vaughn. But they also demonstrate business savvy, with many holding conferences (47%) and using radio (44%) and television (38%), according to a 1999 survey conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The average net income of megachurches was estimated at $4.8 million by that same survey.
Churches are exempt from income taxes. But in some cases they do pay an unrelated business income tax on activities not substantially related to the church’s religious, educational or charitable purposes. (Churches do pay payroll, sales and, often, property taxes.)
|Lakewood Church||25,060||Houston, Tex.||Joel Osteen|
|World Changers||23,093||College Park, Ga.||Rev. Creflo Dollar|
|Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa||20,000||Santa Ana, Calif.||Pastor Chuck Smith|
|The Potter’s House||18,500||Dallas, Tex.||Bishop T.D. Jakes|
|Second Baptist Church||18,000||Houston, Tex.||Dr. H. Edwin Young|
|Southeast Christian Church||17,863||Louisville, Ky.||Bob Russell|
|First Assembly of God||17,532||Phoenix, Ariz.||Dr. Tommy J. Barnett|
|Willow Creek Community Church||17,115||S. Barrington, Ill.||Bill Hybels|
|Calvary Chapel of Ft. Lauderdale||17,000||Fort Lauderdale, Fla.||Pastor Bob Coy|
|Saddleback Valley Community Church||15,030||Lake Forest, Calif.||Dr. Rick Warren|
|*Catholic churches are not tracked for this study. This is all 2003 attendance data and represents total weekend attendance for each congregation. Source: Dr. John N. Vaughan, Church Growth Today|
Technology also plays a large role in helping these giant churches communicate with members and keep track of them. Many provide a transcript of the weekly sermons and an events calendar on the Web site as well as sell products, such as books and CDs. They also allow members to post prayers and donate online. Almost all (99%) have Web sites. “Cell phones, e-mail, complex phone systems and the Internet all enhance the way megachurches work,” says Thumma, faculty associate at the Hartford Institute.
Helping churches grow is a business in itself. There is even a publicly traded company, Kingdom Ventures whose sole mission is to help faith-based organizations get bigger. Founded in 1999, the tiny company operates 12 subsidiaries and claims to work with 10,000 churches on everything from fundraising to event planning (it provides speakers and artists for events) to upgrading technology by helping sell new audio and visual equipment and sound systems. “One of the reasons megachurches are as big as they are is because they use the technology of today,” says Kingdom Chief Executive Gene Jackson, “We can help smaller churches become big with technology.”
If that doesn’t help, they may steer folks to a new book they are about to publish: , which is hitting Christian book stores this month. The book teaches pastors to think like entrepreneurs; for instance, encouraging them to set up strategic partnerships with nonchurch groups and to use event marketing to draw in new members.
For a lesson in marketing, religious leaders would do well to study the success of Bill Hybels and his Great Barrington, Ill.-based Willow Creek Community Church. In 1975, he and members of his student ministry went door to door asking residents what kept them away from church. Hybels then crafted his services to address their concerns, becoming one of the first pastors to use video, drama and contemporary music in church and encouraging a more casual dress code. “Hybels really showed that churches can use marketing principles and still be authentic,” says Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociology professor who has studied megachurches. Willow Creek, which has a staff of 500 full and part-time employees, is renowned for its conferences and seminars that teach other churches how to market themselves as well as for its “buzz” events, featuring well-known personalities such as country singer Randy Travis, NASCAR Champion owner and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and Lisa Beamer, widow of Sept. 11, 2001, hero Todd Beamer–all intended to attract nonchurch goers.
Media has helped spread the message, particularly for Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in the U.S. In 1981, Joel Osteen, son of then-pastor Joe Osteen, quit college to set up his father’s television ministry. The services eventually aired in 140 countries. He also advertised Lakewood on local television and on billboards throughout Houston where the church is located. After his father passed away in 1999, Osteen became pastor and expanded the church’s media strategy.
Like most churches, Lakewood’s broadcasts had been relegated to the very early Sunday morning shows. Lakewood instead decided to target the top 25 markets in the nation and negotiate for timeslots on the four top networks between 8 A.M. and 10 A.M., rather than working with just one network. It also agreed to increase its budget for airtime to $12 million from $6 million. Its program now can be seen in 92% of the nation’s households.
Never satisfied, the church analyzes its media strategy each quarter.
As for the services themselves, Lakewood makes sure to put on a grand show. It has a 12-piece stage band, a lighting designer to set the mood and three large projection screens. The technology will be even more spectacular when it moves into its new home in the former Houston Rockets’ stadium “We really want it to feel like a concert,” says Duncan Dodds, Lakewood’s executive director. Something is working: Church attendance has grown from 6,000 in 1999 when Osteen became pastor to 25,060 today.
Pastor Rick Warren, who founded Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., in 1980, has deftly used technology as well as marketing to spread his message. His Pastors.com, which reaches 100,000 pastors worldwide each week, has e-mail forums, archives of all of his sermons from the past 22 years and a place to post prayer requests. He also sends a free weekly newsletter, Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox, to pastors. When it came time to launch his book, The Purpose Driven Life, last year, Warren used Pastors.com to invite churches to participate in a “40 Days of Purpose” event (to correspond with the book’s 40 chapters). The 40-day-long event attracted 1,562 churches and was kicked off with a simulcast broadcast to all those churches. Some 267 radio stations ran a “40 days campaign” during the same time period. And a CD of “Songs for a Purpose Driven Life” featuring well-known Christian artists was also released. From the start, the books and CDs were distributed in mass-market retailers such as Wal-Mart. It quickly became a New York Times bestseller and has already sold 5.8 million copies, outselling Billy Graham and making it one of the most successful book promotions in Christian publishing history.
No doubt, churches have learned some valuable lessons from corporations. Now maybe they can teach businesses a thing or two. Companies would certainly appreciate having the armies of nonpaid, loyal volunteers. “The business world would love to have that kind of fellowship,” says Vaughn.