To the editors:
The megachurch phenomenon which Robert McClory reports on isn't new ["Superchurch," August 7]. Not to detract from his excellent portrayal of Willow Creek, but the Gospels record crowds of 4,000 to 5,000 following Jesus Christ around the Galilean region for a period of three years. Within two months of Christ's crucifixion, the Book of Acts records church membership topping 3,000 and 6,000. The ability of Christianity to draw large crowds is legendary. Today's megachurches do lend credence to these ancient numbers as being more than mythical.
The megachurches of the 1970s and 1980s are a part of a global trend toward "massification" of Christianity. Seoul, Korea, boasts the largest megachurches in the world and has more of them than any city in the world. In the early 70s, Fuller Seminary organized the "Church Growth Institute" to study this phenomenon and have isolated characteristics that will enhance the growth. The leading factor is a likable, loyalty-inspiring, and perennially well-organized pastor. This fits Jesus Christ, Korea's Paul Yonggi Cho, and Bill Hybels.
The sociologists investigating the wider social conditions favorable to mass religious organization seem to have established that a large, highly mobile, and socially uprooted population is a necessary milieu for megachurches. The last time such conditions existed prior to the maturation of our postwar baby boom was the prewar influx of European immigrants to America. At the height of this period, urban parishes in traditional denominations could cite congregations of 20,000. Those days are gone forever.
As a former resident of Dallas and Los Angeles, I can personally attest to the fact that Bill Hybels is no innovator. These metropolitan areas each sport over a dozen megachurches of 5,000 or more Sunday attendance. Many of these predate Willow Creek by a decade.
What is the ultimate fate of the megachurch? I find it suggestive to return to the Gospels. At one point it records that Jesus turned to the crowds following him and said, "Many are called but few are chosen."