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The rise of the megachurch is a recent phenomenon within American Protestantism. These are large churches, frequently defined as having more than 2,000 worshippers for a typical weekly service, seen as a new phenomenon in Christianity.
While large churches with buildings for large numbers of worshippers have existed throughout the history of Christianity, these large churches usually existed to accommodate pilgrimage sites and other throngs of non-local worshippers. The Angelus Temple built by the religious broadcaster Aimee Semple McPherson is perhaps a transitional structure; this house of worship could seat 5,000 people, but it is unclear how many of the worshippers actually belonged her Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and how many were guests drawn by her radio broadcasts. The contemporary megachurch, with a large number of local congregants who return on a weekly basis, begins in the 1950s.
Megachurches are most frequently found in suburban areas of the Sunbelt in the southern United States. More than half of these large church institutions are non-denominational churches; those that have ties to a larger body are most often members of the Southern Baptist denomination, which accounts for perhaps one in five megachurches. The Assemblies of God claim approximately one in ten. Another one tenth of the churches with congregations large enough to be included in the class are associated with historically African American denominations. Even those megachurches that belong to denominations have more in common with other megachurches than they do with smaller churches within the denomination.
Coping with the large numbers of people who attend them requires many adjustments to the style of worship. Worship in a megachurch tends to be more formal in practice, even as it becomes less traditional in tone. Because megachurches command resources that smaller churches cannot, they typically hire professional musicians who perform upbeat, modern praise music in a number of pop styles instead of traditional hymns. Despite the contemporary music, worship at a megachurch is a highly structured occasion. The worshippers are more audience than participants, and the entire production is typically choreographed in minute detail. Adjustments to traditional church architecture must be made to make sure that everyone gets a clear view of the proceedings and good acoustics to hear the amplified music. Elaborate video presentations and projections often figure in the services, and sometimes take the place of the hymnals found in the pews of more traditional churches. Because of the need for large parking lots to accommodate the worshippers, these churches are frequently located on the outskirts of large cities, on tracts of an acre or more.
The ministry of these churches must also be adjusted to cope with their size. Most megachurches tend to be evangelical in their theology, while necessarily avoiding taking unusual or unconventional doctrinal positions or advocating difficult plans of asceticism. Much of the actual teaching work of the church is handled by committees and smaller meetings outside the weekly services themselves, which are almost exclusively meant for collective but passive worship. Many megachurches were launched by a single gifted pastor, a person who combines flamboyant sermons with the organisational skills needed to turn weekly worship into a production number. There is sometimes an element of a cult of personality within some of these megachurches, which can lead to divisions and organisational difficulties when the founder retires or dies. Some megachurches have been able to weather these difficulties; others have failed.
Megachurches appeal to baby boomers and others who enjoy the polished showmanship of the worship services, and who find the size of the organisation and the upbeat style of these churches appealing. The large numbers of worshippers is not for these believers a problem of scale; it is a demonstration of the dynamism of the institution. Other Christians find the polish of the services and the impersonal nature of worship in these megachurches disconcerting.