Whether belonging to an established denomination or nondenominational, practically all American megachurches share a conservative, evangelical theology and aim at attracting members from many religious backgrounds. Most megachuches have pastors who possess a markedly charismatic preaching style and often make use of print, television, and radio in their ministry. Run as much like businesses as religious institutions, megachurches usually serve social as well as theological functions. Typically open from morning until night, seven days a week, they very often host conferences, hold classes, operate cafés or food courts, maintain gyms and other sports facilities, offer child care and youth programs, and have many other auxiliary operations, including a variety of outreach programs. Other features of some of today's megachurches include the operation of a variety of business ventures such as residential developments, shopping centers, investment partnerships, a sports arena, publishing house, limousine service, graphic design studio, recording studio and record label, and specialized web sites.
One of the earliest, best known, and probably the most architecturally distinguished of the megachurches is the Crystal Cathedral (1980), Garden Grove, Calif., home church of televangelist Robert Schuller; the building was designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. By the mid-2000s, the nation's largest such church was the nondenominational Lakewood Church, Houston, Tex., pastored by Joel Osteen and holding services for a congregation of more than 40,000 in a former sports arena.
See studies by O. Guinness (1993), J. N. Vaughan (1993), G. A. Pritchard (1996), D. E. Miller (1997), L. E. Schaller (1992 and 2000), J. H. Kilde (2002), A. C. Loveland and O. B. Wheeler (2003), J. B. Twitchell (2004), G. Marti (2005), S. Ellington (2007), and S. Thumma and D. Travis (2007).
A megachurch is a church having around 2,000 attendants for a typical weekly service. The Hartford Institute's database lists over 1,300 such Protestant churches in the United States. According to this data, about 50 churches on the list have attendance ranging from 10,000 to 47,000. Additionally, while some 3,000 individual Roman Catholic parishes (churches) have 2,000 or more attendants for a typical weekly service, these churches are not seen as part of the megachurch movement.
Globally, these large congregations are a significant development in Protestant Christianity. While generally associated with the United States, the phenomenon has spread worldwide; as of 2007, five of the ten largest Protestant churches are in South Korea. Most megachurches tend to be evangelical or Pentecostal, and are often semi-independent from the major Christian denominations.
The current largest megachurch in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church, with 830,000 members as of 2007.
Denominational megachurches generally have more in common with other megachurches than they do with smaller churches within their own denomination. The exception to this rule is found in church movements begun by megachurches, like City Harvest Church, Christian City Churches or Hillsong Church. Churches in these movements tend to fit the megachurch classification while remaining very similar to other churches in the movement, maintaining a similar appearance, logo, worship style and vision.
Worship in some megachurches tends to be formal in practice, though untraditional in tone. Megachurches typically use modern, upbeat contemporary worship music in a number of pop styles instead of traditional hymns. Despite the contemporary music, worship at a megachurch is a highly structured occasion. Due to organizational considerations, the service becomes actually a large scale production in minute detail.
The immense architecture of the megachurch requires that the entire congregation can see and hear. Large open spaces allow line of sight to elaborate video presentations and projections. To overcome the limits of acoustics, sound is amplified, with large PA systems and mixing desks. Words to hymns and songs are projected on screens, reducing reliance on the hymnals found in the pews of more traditional churches. Many newer churches use theater-style individual chairs instead of pews.
The need for large parking lots to accommodate worshipers has often led these churches to be located on the outskirts of large cities, on tracts encompassing multiple acres. A recent trend shows megachurches may have one or more "satellite" locations away from the main church, which will have a small local staff. However, the main message is presented by the senior pastor via video presentation. This is referred to as the multi-site movement.
The ministry of these churches must also be adjusted for size. 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 (sometimes enthusiastic) worship, with relatively few people engaged in up-front roles. Congregational oversight is generally limited to an annual meeting (where a budget and "board of directors" is approved); in some cases, the senior pastor has complete authority over all decisions.
Many were launched by a single pastor, a person who combines engaging sermons with the organizational skills needed to facilitate a large scale weekly service and manage the team who runs it. To complement the large-scale sermons, some churches supplement this strongly with smaller independent groups (called "cell churches" by some, notably David Yonggi Cho).
Critics of megachurches claim that such churches are more concerned with entertainment than religion, earning them the nickname "Disney Church". The Rev. Al Sharpton has claimed that such churches focus on personal morality issues while ignoring social justice.
An illustration of the divergence from evangelicalism and pentecostalism that occurred recently was the failure of a number of US megachurches to hold worship services on Christmas Day in 2005 where it fell on a Sunday. However, many of these churches preferred to hold a service on Christmas Eve, out of consideration for their volunteer team, so they were able to spend Christmas Day celebrating with their family and friends.
Critics have raised issues with the application of secular business models, e.g., from Wal-Mart, a humanist or seeker-friendly approach, intensive market research and heavy reliance upon opinion polls, polished advertising targeted at affluent young professionals, unconventional worship styles, and Eastern influences.
Another criticism falls along cultural lines, including the fact that many megachurches are located in the United States. (Although it should be noted that the majority of megachurches are found in Asia and Africa) . For example, in a December 2005 issue of The Economist, a British reporter who visited Willow Creek Community Church suggested that megachurches reflected U.S. trends Europeans consider negative, such as urban sprawl and the proliferation of McMansions.