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A conversation with Scott Thumma

A LEADING SCHOLAR on megachurches and nondenominational Christianity talks about the characteristics of growing churches.
Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn., has written extensively about the growth of “megachurches,” churches with 2,000-plus members, in the United States. In his latest book, “Beyond Megachurch Myths: What we can Learn from America’s Largest Churches,” published by JosseyBass, Thumma and co-author Dave Travis use extensive, broad-based research to explore the megachurch phenomenon.

Thumma earned a doctorate in religion from Emory University in Atlanta. He also wrote research reports for the Faith Communities Today studies on nondenominational congregations in 2000 and 2005. The studies examined the character of churches across the nation, including Churches of Christ. Thumma is known for his extensive and sensitive understanding of religious groups in America.

This year Thumma will conduct a study of 50,000 attendees of 12 megachurches to determine what attracts people to them, why they stay and the strength of their commitment.

Thumma and his wife, Jennifer, have three teenage children.
We have heard a lot about the decline of Christianity in the U.S. Is it true?
The U.S. religious landscape is changing. What this portrait looks like depends on what you measure and how the past is portrayed. Even among the more theologically conservative churches still showing membership increases, the growth is slowing and is not keeping up with general population increases.
When one explores the larger American culture, two opposing pictures are present — popular culture is increasingly secular, immoral and even amoral, and yet discussions about the role of faith in the public arena seem to be ever increasing.
Based on national research on growing churches, what attracts people to church these days?
Drawing on the 2000 and 2005 Faith Communities Today national surveys, the characteristics of growing congregations are clear:
• Growing churches have a clear identity — a sense of themselves, a vision and purpose and a well-defined sense of whom God is calling them to be and minister to.
• They have a resonance with and relevance to the contemporary world (that they are called to minister to). This doesn’t have to be expressed in electric guitars, drums and Christian rock, edgy topical sermons or Hawaiian shirts, but it does mean relevant messages, practical advice for living faithfully in the real world and worship forms that fit the style and tastes of those the church is called to reach.
• These churches are full of excited, enthusiastic, joyful, motivated attendees who think there is something special about their faith and their church. This excitement is so great that they want to — even have to — bring their friends to experience it.
• Such churches work hard at integrating new people quickly into the life of the congregation and into small groups.
• Finally, growing congregations get the word out — by publicizing and advertising who they are, by having a clear, meaningful Web site and by doing activities in the community and world that demonstrate a Christian influence in society.
What are the characteristics of growing churches across the nation?
Nearly all church growth is the result of a circulation of the saints. Very little significant church growth occurs as a result of converting the unsaved, except for the conversion of ones’ offspring.
The “unchurched” in our society are mostly secular, suburban and contemporary people. They shy away from overt religious trappings, the “religion of their parents,” and seem to prefer contemporary, user-friendly worship forms that are technologically conveyed. They are consumers of faith, but on their own terms. They want a practical message that touches them at a deep level, makes a difference in spiritual life and is meaningful to them as individuals. They want their faith to accomplish something, but they also want it customized to their own needs and tastes.
What growth lessons can be learned from your research on megachurches?
All megachurches have grown from a small congregation into a very large one. We often forget this.
When congregations reach megachurch proportions, they must continue to exhibit the same qualities that accounted for their growth in the first place. These include having a strong vision and purpose, holding contemporary worship that is informal, exciting, practical and meaningful, and integrating new people quickly into the life of the church. They also must cultivate individual gifts and make places for members to express these gifts.
As a megachurch, however, all these characteristics need to be undertaken with much more planning, intentionality, structure and professionalism.
Since growth is about more than numbers, what do these churches do to deepen the spiritual lives of members?
They provide a worship life that inspires and educates attendees to live out their faith. My observations in many megachurches and hundreds of other congregations show that they intentionally help attendees to discover what God wants them to do in the world.
These churches actively engage their participants in education, in training, in volunteering and in leading.
They provide multiple places for members to act out these individual desires to serve, minister and fulfill their personal calling. If no such place exists in the church, the leadership helps the person create a place of ministry and connect them with other like-minded members or groups for spiritual support, help with the mission and mutual fellowship.
By empowering an individual’s calling, that person becomes excited about living out a life of faith and naturally wants to share this experience with friends. The more spiritually inspired the attendees, the greater level of spontaneous evangelism and the more the church grows.
What challenges do Churches of Christ face in thinking about growth over the next few decades?
This is a tough one for me. Clearly from what I’ve said, the majority of Churches of Christ are out of resonance with the predominant, contemporary, suburban, mainstream culture. Nearly every American lives with instrumental music every hour of their waking lives. In that, the Church of Christ has a serious challenge. But this characteristic and its other unique features could also be seen as a distinctive “brand,” a niche, our unique message.
However, I say to you at the close of a year of self-reflection what I tell every church leader coming to me about the secret of megachurch growth. Above all, each congregation and the entire fellowship — the ministers, theologians, lay leaders and members — need to ask sincerely, “What does God want of us, of our group, our traditions and our understanding of the Bible? What is God calling us to be in this new century?
How are we to reach out into the world?”
What is God calling the Church of Christ to keep as core biblical beliefs, and what is God asking you to change?
These are not “church growth” questions, not crass pandering to consumers, but they are spiritual questions of vision and mission of the Churches of Christ, and only you seeking God’s will can answer them.
May God bless this spiritual endeavor.

Filed under: Dialogue

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