Learning from Megachurches: Interview with Scott Thumma

Scott Thumma is professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, where he is also director of the doctor of ministry program and the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Thumma is widely cited for his studies of megachurches, nondenominational churches, and a range of American congregational trends. He is co-author of The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants (Jossey-Bass, 2011) and Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (Jossey-Bass, 2007). Thumma has an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Emory University. As for his own spiritual background, he grew up independent Baptist and has had involvement with Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, and Southern Baptist congregations, as well as nondenominational megachurches and small independent charismatic fellowships. He doesn’t presently belong to any congregation. “I think of myself not as someone affiliated with a denomination but as a spiritual person who occasionally affiliates with particular congregations.”

REFLECTIONS: Do you worry about the future of mainline churches?

SCOTT THUMMA: All the time! The world is changing, and much of the old mainline model is based on the 1950s. And it was successful, so it’s difficult to let that go. The inclination is to keep the same model and say, “Let’s just try harder.” But the world isn’t there anymore. You see this in commerce and business. IBM was dominant for so long, then it slipped – it didn’t change fast enough. After World War II, a particular church style got concretized. It became a spiritual model that looked authentic but in fact was simply relevant to a particular time in U.S. history, reflecting the organizational values of the day. Mainline churches at the time were reflecting the times. Megachurches are reflecting the times today.

REFLECTIONS: In America, “success” usually means “big.” Does the culture of the moment usually dictate the ways churches organize themselves?

THUMMA: I don’t think culture drives theology, but it does shape our organizations and institutions. So, if contemporary life is characterized by screens and big-scale presentation and choices and customization of those choices, and then for one hour a week you go into a church that has no screen, no choices, I don’t think the prospects are good for that church.

REFLECTIONS: Shouldn’t churches question the culture around them?

THUMMA: Yes. At the healthy congregations I see, the message is countercultural – values of humility, serving others, high levels of giving.

REFLECTIONS: What about dissent – questioning values of national life that glorify consumerism or tolerate economic inequality and give blessing to war? The complaint against megachurches is they customarily avoid that kind of outspoken witness.

THUMMA: They are not alone. When I speak at liberal congregations, I tell them frankly that I don’t very often hear a forceful public prophetic message from them that condemns economic injustice or corporate abuses and military power. I don’t hear it from prominent clergy. In the 1960s and 70s they had impact. Then the influence of religion in society started to decline – clergy sex scandals and televangelists in the 1980s and 90s contributed to that. Today, many church leaders don’t use their platform for taking political risks. They fear that a few more congregations will leave. But I think the message has to be countercultural – standing up to politicians and Congress and cultural trends. Churches should be addressing this every week, declaring how their faith relates to issues of race and justice in practical, actionable ways.

REFLECTIONS: We’ve seen the word Christian itself get rebranded in the last 40 years.

THUMMA: The political conservative agenda has been allowed to define what it means to be religious and Christian. When a vast majority of young people hear the word religion, they think of only one model – extreme or intolerant – and that’s not what they want. The only way they will end up in a church is to be invited by friends who say their church offers passion and joy, not extremism or intolerance, and they’re there because they’re growing spiritually.

REFLECTIONS: Does a particular model work?

THUMMA: Our research shows that having contemporary services does correlate with growth, but it’s not nearly as important as a spirit of innovation, the willingness to change. That doesn’t mean there’s only one model for the growth or health of a congregation. There isn’t one model. I recently visited 15 big churches in Atlanta. Almost all of them were on the evangelical side, but none of them had the same feel. There were slight differences in style and theology. What they do have in common is a willingness to change and experiment with technology and reach out to new people.

REFLECTIONS: You’ve written that a mark of a healthy church is the excitement you notice there.

THUMMA: I look for the 40 percent. If you can find 40 percent in a congregation who are passionately involved and who think exciting things are happening there, then that congregation is more likely to grow. I can walk into a church, and it feels exciting – or it feels dead. The exciting place is where people come up to you and say, there’s a cool event happening here next week and I’d like you to come. They don’t even have to say, “Would you like to know Jesus?” But they’re letting you know that they are getting something at church that they can’t get anywhere else – spiritual growth. This might mean they are learning to teach a Sunday school class, or they are handing out sandwiches at the soup kitchen. Each of those things is experienced as spiritual growth.

REFLECTIONS: Has “megachurch” undergone redefinition over the years?

THUMMA: In the 1980s, the definition focused on congregations with attendance of 2,000 or more, and it probably also included screens and charismatic pastors and small groups on weeknights. Over time, those characteristics were copied by smaller churches. The definition today still focuses on 2,000 weekly attendance. But such churches now likely use a multi-site model – and they are seriously engaged in social outreach. This social outreach dimension represents a maturing within megachurches. In the 80s and 90s they were growing overnight and didn’t know necessarily how to do church organization, so they turned inward to learn how to do education and nurture and management. And now they’re figuring out how to do missions.

REFLECTIONS: What are three things mainline churches can learn from megachurches?

THUMMA: The first theme is hospitality. In my experience, bigger churches engage the visitor. They are good at the care and feeding of new people. They follow up. They are also better at racial and intergenerational diversity. Second, they are lay-led. Even when the church is large, it doesn’t have enough money to afford all the staff it needs. It depends on laypeople. They are doing the main work. Third, there’s a sense of purpose and vision. The question is, Why am I here? A person who is excited about being there can answer that question in 12 words or less. They believe God is doing something through them in the community. Or perhaps they believe the church is there to give people hope. Now, here’s the point about these three themes: All three of them can be done at a smaller church. It doesn’t require a megachurch to be good at hospitality, lay involvement, and purpose. You can have those things at any size.