Church on Sunday

June 14, 2009

Via Erin at Crunchy Con, this should come as no surprise:

Despite their reputation as symbols of baby boomer America, Protestant megachurches attract a younger crowd and more singles than the average Protestant church, according to a large study released Tuesday.Among the survey’s highlights was that many megachurchgoers don’t exhibit the behavior the churches expect of members: Nearly 45 percent of megachurch congregants never volunteer at the church, and 32 percent give little or no money to the church.

Erin speculates as to why:

The megachurch loses a lot of that [community], because of the sheer size. Gathering to pray with two thousand people each Sunday means that you’ll be a single face amidst a huge crowd; getting to know the dozen or so people seated near you would be challenging enough, but you’re not going to be able to do much more than that. There may be some opportunities for smaller-group prayer or study sessions provided by the church, but that sense of being a vital, necessary part of a community will be harder to come by at such a big church; people come and go, and some may come to the megachurch only occasionally, preferring their regular worship to take place at a smaller, more traditional church community.

As plausible as I find this explanation, I think the real story may actually be more complex. For many mega-churches, most famously New Life, there’s very  little effort made to build the church up at congregational level.  The real foundation for those communities is their use of small, self-selected groups based on common interests to provide the closeness lacking at the largest scale.  My guess would be that the lack of volunteering is reflective of the fact that these people are spending the time they would otherwise be spending at the church with each other, away from the church and engaged in activities that don’t obviously count as volunteering. (Indeed, in many cases, using that time for entertainment purposes.)

So if that’s right, this isn’t just a feature of our preference for spectacle, its also that we are getting vastly more segmented than we used to be, with the concurrent effect that our civic life, while flourishing in new ways, is increasingly disjointed from the everyday organizations that once grounded it.  Further proof that rationalization truly cuts both ways.

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