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Megachurches are getting even bigger as churches close across the country

Marlena Bhame sings during a "Worship Night" event at Liquid Church in Parsippany, N.J., in November.
Nicholas McMillen
Marlena Bhame sings during a "Worship Night" event at Liquid Church in Parsippany, N.J., in November.

Something clicked for Marlena Bhame when she first stepped into Liquid Church about four years ago. She'd been searching for something more spiritually dynamic and meaningful than the faith tradition she'd grown up in, or the various others she had tried out over the years.

When Bhame, who was raised in the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance tradition, arrived at the church in Parsippany, N.J., she was immediately struck by a feeling of belonging. The congregation mostly looked like her — a lot of millennials and Gen Z — and everyone seemed enthusiastic about being there.

"I was blown away by the amount of young people," she says.

Liquid Church has helped Bhame, 28, and others like her find meaning even as many in her generation have turned away from organized religion. It is one of about 1,800 "megachurches" in the United States — defined as having 2,000 or more members. At a time when empty pews are forcing churches across the country to shutter, these mostly nondenominational houses of worship are largely bucking that trend — attracting younger, more vibrant and more diverse congregations.

The average Christian congregation in the U.S. is in precipitous decline, with just 65 members, about a third of whom are age 65 or older, according to a 2020 pre-pandemic survey. By contrast, a separate 2020 study found that three-quarters of megachurches were growing, many at a rapid clip.

Experts say these trends have continued since the start of the pandemic. Liquid Church claims 6,000 members, 84% of whom are under the age of 55, with most younger than 35. About a quarter of members are Hispanic/Latino, 13% Asian and 8% Black.

Like Bhame, David and Katherine Ramirez bounced around different churches before landing at Liquid. The couple both grew up in the Pentecostal tradition, but when they decided to marry, they went looking for a new church.

"I can say that for me, the deciding factor was just the fact that there were people in my age group," David says.

The Liquid Church's core beliefs, "Grace wins" and "Truth is relevant," are capped by a less theological component: "Church is fun."

"It's one of the pillars," says Katherine. "That's just the culture in the church. So everyone's kind of onboard with that."

Church barbecues, pizza and movie nights are all part of the mix. On Sundays, "it's loud. ... it's casual. People can wear flip-flops and drink coffee," says Pastor Tim Lucas, who founded Liquid Church in 2007.

"We're at the gates of Manhattan," he says. "People can go in and see Hamilton or Billy Joel at [Madison Square] Garden. We're not competing with the world. What we are trying to do is ... put the timeless message of Jesus into new wineskins."

Liquid Church also steers clear of politics, he says. That's common in most megachurches because they are more diverse, according to Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. "The vast majority of them have nothing to do with politics," he says.

"You need a building, we need a pastor"

For the last several years, Liquid Church has been one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation, and a big part of its success has come through assimilating smaller, more traditional congregations. Four of its seven campuses — all in New Jersey — have come through these mergers.

This "multisite" model has been adopted by about 70% of megachurches across the country, according to Lifeway Research, a church consultancy. In it, the main church beams its Sunday sermon to branch campuses, where it is projected onto huge LED screens. Each of the satellite churches has its own pastor, live music and worship services.

"It's like a marriage," explains Lucas. "An older congregation with a rich history but a declining population joins forces with a younger church like Liquid, with fresh energy and vision and volunteers. You basically bring them together and rebirth the church."

Typically, the mergers are with a church in decline or a pastor ready to retire, according to Jim Tomberlin, a member of The Unstuck Group, a consulting organization that offers a service to support church mergers. It's a case of "you need a building, we need a pastor," he says.

Tomberlin sees it as a win-win. The larger church grows its membership. The smaller congregation gets "a great communicator," in the form of a dynamic pastor, but also a local pastor "who's not consumed or distracted by preparing sermons 10 or 20 hours a week, every week," he says. "That gives them time to serve that congregation."

While megachurches currently represent only a tiny portion of all U.S. churches, the size of their congregations puts them in an "elite class," Thumma says.

He compares megachurches to more traditional churches in the same way that Walmart posed a challenge to mom and pop shops.

"Many small churches either have disappeared around the megachurch ... or they've created their own mission ... and have figured out a way to offer alternatives to what the megachurch offers. [They've] made sort of their peace with the big kid on the block," says Thumma.

At the same time, megachurches that have adopted the multisite model "are essentially diversifying, fracturing into smaller pieces so that they can cover a whole city rather than make all of the people drive to one location," he says.

Thumma isn't the only one to use a corporate metaphor. "The kind of person that starts a church that ends up being a megachurch is probably ... more of an entrepreneur," says Dave Ferguson, lead pastor at Community Christian, a multisite megachurch based in Chicago. "They probably look around the landscape of what's happening in a lot of denominational churches [and] are like, 'You know, I love these people. I love what they're doing. But you know what? I think I got a better idea.'"

For Bhame, who started out attending in Parsippany but switched to a new campus in Princeton when it opened about 18 months ago, the biggest adjustment was seeing Lucas, or Pastor Tim as he's known, on a big screen instead of live onstage. But it didn't take long.

"Our Sunday services open up just like any other church," she says. "We have a meet and greet section. We have our live band ... and then we have a campus pastor assigned to the Princeton location and she opens up and welcomes the service."

Megachurches face negative stereotypes

To be sure, megachurches aren't for everyone, Lucas acknowledges. He points to a recent merger with a church in Preakness, N.J. It was down to fewer than 70 members and only managed around 35 on most Sundays. "Almost 100% were over the age of 65," he says. The congregation understood that rebirthing the church wasn't for them, but it was really for their children and grandchildren, he says.

But oftentimes such a merger involves a church affiliated with a particular denomination being absorbed by a megachurch that is less rigid about its theology, says Thumma. For many, that can prove a bridge too far. "They're so wedded to their old expression of a church in this building that they just can't stomach any change," he says.

Some make the transition pretty easily, he says, but in other cases, the megachurches "chase away all of the old people and kind of refresh with a whole new group of folks."

Often, too, megachurches are forced to battle a negative stereotype among a slice of the public that views them as giant moneymaking operations tainted by scandals, such as the one at Hillsong Church, where pastor Carl Lentz admitted to marital infidelity and was fired in 2020 for "moral failures."

Because the churches are outsized, their scandals "are broadcast on a larger stage," Thumma says.

"People tend to think of the Joel Osteens," he says, referring to the controversial televangelist at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, one of the largest congregations in the country, claiming some 45,000 members. "But really, that's a very small fraction of the number of 1,800 congregations" classified as megachurches, he says. "The average size is 3,500."

"Digital discipleship" is key

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Liquid, like many other churches, took a hit on attendance. But it was already better prepared than many to continue serving its congregation, having long crafted a digital presence designed to reach its members wherever they are. "A big piece of our strategy is really digital discipleship, realizing people watch, listen at home, in the car, on the Peloton," Lucas says.

Smartphones, too, are "absolutely vital," he says. There's an app that allows congregants to watch services online or just keep up with church happenings. "Everything we do is optimized for mobile. It's the new front door of the church," Lucas says.

David Ramirez says one of the things that attracted him to Liquid Church was that it is nondenominational. "Anybody can show up. Anybody's welcome. And, you know, it's a journey. We're going to figure this out together. We're going to walk through this together," he says.

But that ease of entry means megachurches such as Liquid are typically in a constant state of flux, Thumma says.

"You can just sort of wander in and be anonymous and worship there and be a spectator for as long as you want," he says. "But there's an almost equal number of people who are going out the back door because they didn't find their place."

Despite that flux, however, many have found reasons to stay. Among other things, Bhame is in demand for her skills as a singer. David is active in the worship and social media teams, while Katherine Ramirez has helped organize a women's conference and helps with Liquid Family, the church's equivalent of Sunday school.

"These churches became large for a reason," observes Ferguson. "The reason in many cases is because they've helped people find a connection with one another."

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Corrected: July 14, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Jim Tomberlin founded The Unstuck Group. He is a member, but not the founder, of the group. Also, the story said Joel Osteen founded Lakewood Church in Houston. In fact, John and Dolores "Dodie" Osteen founded it.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.