Largest Churches in America, 2013 Edition

Largest Church in America? Lakewood Church

Largest Church in America? Lakewood Church in Houston

The Outreach Magazine 2013 list of 100 largest churches in America is out. This year, it also features a second list for fastest growing.

What’s immediately notable to me is not which churches are on the list but the ones missing. Outreach says that churches voluntarily report through its survey, so it may be the case that a church secretary left the envelope sitting on her desk a little too long. Still, off the top of my head, these half dozen notable churches (with reputed membership numbers) are not on the list:

LifeChurch.TV, Craig Groeschel, pastor – 40,000

World Harvest Church, Rod Parsley, pastor – 30,000

Cornerstone Church, John Hagee, pastor – 17,000

First Baptist Church of Hammond, John Wilkerson, pastor – 17,000

Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll, pastor – 13,000

Church on the Move, Willie George, pastor – 12,000

In fact, the Outreach list contains few controversial churches. Missing are the largest Word of Faith churches, and many with charismatic/Pentecostal roots. Fundamentalist churches are missing. While this may be by design, it still makes me wonder.

I’m not endorsing any particular church, but if we want a genuine feel for what is happening out there, that I can think immediately of a half dozen churches not on that list makes its usefulness as a data source suspect.

I also wonder at this fascination with gigachurches (as megachurch is passé). While they tend to have a lot of clout when it comes to producing slick programming, I wonder how many new converts they generate per person attending. This list of gigachurches forces me to ask if unreported revival has broken out in America, since the country is able to sustain all these monster-sized churches. And yet, a simple looksie at the state of America shows us less spiritually attuned than we once were, given that our country is becoming more tolerant of sinful behavior as time passes. So what, if anything, are these gigachurches accomplishing?


38 thoughts on “Largest Churches in America, 2013 Edition

  1. Connie

    The church I no longer attend should have been on at least one of those lists but was missing.

    Wonderful leaders, wonderful people, but its very size makes it really really difficult to do what it used to do so well, which is disciple people. Maybe it grew too quick. I know they did have a lot of new converts, but I wonder how possible it was for them under their present system to truly disciple those new lives the way I was discipled years ago in a smaller venue. Not to mention I had left this church for weeks before some people ever noticed I was gone. Not because they didn’t care, but because of the size. It’s really easy to be anonymous at that type of fellowship.

    (I am in a way smaller venue now, by the direction of God. Definitely happier, I must say. None of the bells and whistles of my last church. Interesting how I don’t miss any of that. )

    • Connie,

      Yeah, the list seems far from comprehensive if I can take five seconds and recall a bunch of churches not on it.

      There’s a theory of 500, and I think it is genuinely accurate. It says that any organization starts to suffer when it gets larger than 500 people. Especially problematic is that humans can’t seem to handle relationships correctly within their group when it exceeds 500. Effective communication deteriorates quickly, for instance.

      You mention the anonymity issue, but I continue to talk with people who LIKE the anonymous nature of massive churches. I don’t understand that at all. It seems contrary to the heart of what the horizontal aspect of church is supposed to be. Yet it’s what people seek. I find that strange.

  2. Heartspeak

    Ahhh, Bigger! Better! Taller! Faster! Able to build tall buildings in a single capital campaign!
    Oh yaayy! The world always like to attach these descriptors to their edifices. Seems a shame that we have adopted the (ahem) world’s ways……

    Just sayin’.

    • Heartspeak,

      I’m not against huge churches in theory. It’s just that I have yet to see one that remains effective as it grows larger.

      I attended Willow Creek (#3 on the list in size) for a good chunk of my senior year in college as part of a research project. I was amazed at how hard they tried to get people into small groups, but then they were trying to cram people into groups of others identical to that person. I remember one of their small group folks desperately trying to find a group for older college students to stick me into, even if I didn’t want to be in a peer group. I thought that was strange, and ultimately, I think it worked against the church’s cohesion. But then, I’m a weirdo. 😉

      • Heartspeak

        Dan, I’m not ‘against’ large churches either. I just don’t believe that, Large, should necessarily be the objective. I, too, attended a mega church in SoCal for a number of years and might continue to do so were I still in the area. However, there is an implicit belief that large is better, or denotes success, or God’s blessing. I don’t think they necessarily must be better or to be emulated. In part, for precisely the reasons you identify.

        When one cell subdivides repeatedly, you get exponential growth. When a large entity reproduces (like humans) you get much less overall growth in numbers, and that is over a lifetime. Scripture speaks of bringing forth fruit 60 times, or 80 times or 100 times over. We are ‘impressed’ with 5%, 10% 20% growth. Something is amiss. Perhaps we should reflect on the implications. You are. I am. One day perhaps our local churches will enter the discussion.

      • Connie

        You raise a valid point. Our church did small groups around personal interests-effectively splintering family groups for the most part. What stung is that before they went that direction, they did small groups for the whole family. We led one of those groups for a time and the friendships formed there have endured to this day. My personal opinion is that when that change happened, it changed the whole church and not for the better. Ironically they made the change because they wanted more of the congregation to join a small group, but I know that the percentage of participation in groups is no larger now than it was before the change. Sad.

        • Connie,

          I was part of a large church that offered both family-style small groups and interest-based groups. That worked fairly well, but the problem is one of diluting good leaders. In a small group model where the church depends for almost all discipleship to happen in small groups you

          1. attract, at absolute most, 40% of the church to small groups,
          2. rarely have enough well-trained leaders to handle all the groups that must be run, and
          3. fall into a tinkering mode that tries to overcome the above two problems by constantly changing the small group formula.

          Eventually, the small groups that are working stop working because on pressure to conform to some new standard that is supposed to help everyone, but backfires.

          That sounds exactly like what you are describing. And yes, it’s a rampant problem.

          BTW, that church I’m talking about for my example? It was once in the Outreach Magazine list and isn’t anymore.

      • ccinnova

        That baptism number sounds impressive, but one has to wonder what kind of teaching is taking place at Mark Driscoll’s church. Several years ago I watched a video of a sermon he preached. I’m still trying to figure out how he came up with several performance-based marks of manhood, including getting married and having children, from a sermon text about John the Baptist.

  3. ccinnova

    I attend a church that’s quite large, although a fraction of the size of the churches on this list. Several years ago the leadership surveyed the congregation and found the levels of discipleship and spiritual maturity were lower than they should be. Over the last few years the church has made an effort to change that. For example, this fall the men of the church have been challenged to read through the books of Luke, Acts and Ephesians.

    One has to wonder about the level of discipleship and spiritual maturity at these megachurches. It’s one thing to pack in the people, but how much are they growing in their faith?

    Also, considering that at least five megachurch senior pastors in Florida, Indiana and Virginia have resigned or been fired for sexual immorality since the summer of 2012, one has to wonder about the level of spiritual maturity among the pastors, never mind the flock.

  4. First time here Dan. Came by way of Planned Peasanthood. I am a pastor or a small town church. In a town of 2300, a county of about 23,000, there are so many churches it will spin your head. We will be 9 years old next month (I have been here 8 of the 9). We average about 130 but feel we are moving in the right direction. We find ourselves going to two services the first Sunday of October. Personally, I abhor the lists you speak of. I think it serves nothing but pride. Do I care if a church is a gigachurch? No. To each his own. But so many factors enter into being a church on that list, some of which we don’t have…like people to draw from. Reach them. Teach them. Teach them to reach them.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I think that in America, we resist splitting churches when they get too big to manage well. People don’t like splitting because too often their reason for staying has everything to do with personality cults and entertainment factor and not with growing in Christ. We would not want to be among those targeted for being split off if it meant not being in the half that has “the best leaders” or “the best sound system.” I think our tendency to see church attendance as another consumeristic choice hurts us in this regard. It leads to churches that are too big to be effective.

      • I agree that many are ineffective. One of the things i am concerned with is also that many do not preach the Gospel. Real Bible study doesn’t often happen. Lite sermons are the fare. I also agree with your point in the response. Our situation here is different. We aren’t large enough to branch off but having two services is causing some consternation among the people i.e how am I going to see everyone?

        • Heartspeak

          I’ve been a part of a church that recently went from two locations to one. The fact that the pastor was having to travel from one to the other and back to the first for another service each Sunday was the least of the problems.

          The 2nd location was intimate and of a ‘good’ size wherein most folks could and did know one another. Some had migrated from the original church because the 2nd site was more local.

          The most common answer for the re-absorption of the satellite church was “so that we could all worship together”. That’s a direct quote from both leadership and many attendees.

          I have yet to figure out how ‘everyone being together and worshipping together’ was a benefit. There is less opportunity and room to even connect with folks before or after a service and we all get lost in a larger auditorium while looking at the backs of one another’s heads. Maybe seeing old friends and saying ‘hey’ to them constitutes ‘better’ but I doubt it. As one who came late to the two location experience, I find that the larger, combined gathering provides less opportunity to connect than ‘sticking out’ in a smaller gathering.

          All told, I think that while the numbers ‘may’ look better,– they’ve lost much of the reason to even attend. Smaller really IS better, more intimate, more familial. Bigger, is not so attractive to me.

          • Heartspeak,

            It seems as if we folks who are pro-intimacy are losing to those who are pro-size.

            The pro-size people can always counter that small groups offer intimacy, but it seems to me that small groups are struggling to work in today’s smartphone-driven society. Everyone claims to be connected through social media, but are they really?

  5. My thoughts? Church attendance fails to be an accurate indicator alone of obedience & faithfulness. Glad God looks at the heart & not the numbers. I know, simple minded perspective, but gigathinking overwhelms me.

  6. Dan, a more interesting question to ask is “what are the financial and economic incentives that lead to the formation of mega-churches”?

    I think that if you seriously explored that subject in depth, you will find lots of surprising answers. I strongly suspect that there are many external forces (e.g. the tax code, cost of health insurance, government policies, etc.) that contribute to encouraging the trend for the formation of mega-churches.

    I even bet that you could turn this subject into a worthwhile book.

  7. Mr. Poet

    One megachurch that came about in my town began as an evangelistic ministry instead of a church. The founder allegedly had no stated desire to pastor a church. He wanted all the newly saved people, most of whom were down-and-outs, to farm themselves out to local churches. Local churchfolk from all denominations would help the ministry because its main push was to reach the poor, the destitute, the addict, etc. But the people who flocked into the ministry never went to the other churches. They just came to the ministry’s services. So eventually, the ministry became a church, the founder became the pastor, and it was one of the fastest-growing megachurches in America.

    The formula seemed pretty simple. The pastor said “Yes” to almost any sincere Christian’s ministry. So it had all kinds of ministries that did all kinds of stuff. They also had a fleet of vans and buses that would go into the surrounding areas to bring in the homeless, the addicts, the children with nothing to do, the elderly with no transportation, etc.

  8. Paul Anderson

    Dan – not sure why some of those you mention aren’t on the list, but at least in a couple of cases, they were on Outreach’s previous list. Specifically, LifeChurch was previously listed as #5 with attendance of 20,823, First Baptist Hammond was previously listed as #19 with reported attendance of 13,678, and Cornerstone (Hagee) was previously #65 with reported attendance of 8,406. Might it be that some have had a decrease in membership/attendance, and have thus dropped off the list?

    You raise some interesting questions in your discussion, and it’s a healthy discussion to have. Living in the DFW metroplex, our family previously attended one of the church’s on the Outreach list. When we first started attending, it was a much smaller church that wouldn’t have even made the top 1,000, but in the 17 years we were there, it experienced explosive growth, and now has multiple campuses and 5 digit attendance. Along with that growth, there were some definitely positives and some definite negatives. Included in the positives were being able to make a bigger outreach and contribution to the community, larger missions outreaches, and the opportunity to do much larger projects for disaster relief aid like Katrina, Indonesia tsunami, Moore tornadoes, etc. Some of the negative are things that have already been mentioned here – difficulty for new members to “find their place”, trying to make small groups work successfully, working through the multiple layers of decision making for ANY type of outreach. As the size and multiple campuses grew, we noticed a definite decline in the actual ability of members to significantly contribute to the ministry – it seemed like the larger things got, the more bogged down things got, and the less effective the lay-leaders could be in their feet-on-the-ground ministry efforts. Everything had to go through multiple layers of approval, and more often than not, someone, somewhere in that chain of authority would object and nothing would get done. After a while, we noticed that most of the lay-leaders just gave up trying to get approval for anything, because they just figured “why bother?”, and the actual hands-on ministry declined to the point of being a non-factor. It’s now pretty much a church where the only effective ministry being done is whatever is taught from the pulpit, which is NEVER what the founding pastor wanted to happen, but in spite of his best efforts, sadly it has. I don’t know what the answer is – I’m not convinced that going back to small churches will solve the problem, because then we lose some of the effectiveness and ability to make large impacts on communities, but at some point along the scale of “large”, most churches get too bogged down in bureaucracy, and lose their effectiveness. We’re back at a church that is small by mega-church standards, but larger than average, about 1,000-1,500 members – we find that it’s large enough to provide a great youth group for our teenager, and good programs and teaching for our school age child, and is effective at outreach projects, but still small enough that we know most of the staff and we can get decisions in a day or less on lay-leadership efforts.

    • Great comments, Paul! Thanks for adding your insights. Yes, there are indeed some advantages to being big. I just wonder if there’s a way to put those into play without falling prey to the disadvantages. I wonder how a smaller church might gain that same power without becoming overly large. Perhaps lean more on the Spirit? 😉

      • Paul Anderson

        Dan – good point. Leaning more on the Spirit should ALWAYS be the first step for any ministry effort. But having said that, there are just some synergies that become possible with larger numbers. If not for denominations, much of the missionary work done over the past 100 years or so would not have been possible, because a church of 100 people just can’t financially generate the support needed to be effective in international outreach and evangelism. But then, the denominations have their own set of negative effects, i.e. politics, bureaucracy, favoritism, self-serving “us vs. everyone else” mentality, etc. I’ve been a part of denominational churches for the first 30 years of my life, and independent churches for the last 20 years, and like small vs. large, each has it’s pros and cons. But back to the size issue, there were international outreach efforts that I was so proud to be a part of when we were at the mega-church, because we literally got to see over a period of a few years the significant impact we were able to make on entire communities in some Latin American countries. Taking several groups of 100+ men on multiple missions trips a year to build churches, orphanages, training centers, etc. was just incredible to watch. I had never seen that before when attending smaller churches, because the financial requirements to make that type of impact were larger than the annual budgets of most smaller churches. Not to say that God can’t work miracles and miraculously provide the finances, because I certainly believe He can – I just had never seen that type of immediate impact before. As I’ve watched and been a part of churches of ALL sizes over my 50 years, I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a “sweet spot” in size, where you’re able to effectively involve the vast majority (70-80%) of church membership in lay-ministry and garner the resources be be incredibly effective, but not so big that you start creating a bogged-down, bureaucratic behemoth that hits the point of diminishing returns in its effectiveness. Don’t have any idea what that size would be, but just something that has made me go “hmmmm..” as I’ve thought about it numerous times over the past few years. Like I said – GREAT discussion, and something to give us ALL something to consider and pray about as we try to advance the Kingdom in whatever our role might be – pastor, church staff member, lay-leader or interested believer. May God give ALL of us wisdom and discernment as we walk the journey He calls us to.

  9. Liz

    One more thing, I have been a member of very small rural churches as well as medium sized urban churches and now I attend a church with multiple campuses and 4 to 6 services at each. This model allows for the huge church to have the feel of a medium sized church when you attend and serve at the same service every week. Small groups are similar to Sunday School but with a broader scope than just Bible study. In my experience, small off campus groups are more conducive to actual friendships and iron sharpening iron than my typical experience with Sunday School.

    The thing is that we are where we are supposed to be right now and because of where we attend a
    We finally got our prodigal son to attend an “organized religion” church and he and his wife were gloriously changed. You can’t discount that people do receive Christ at these churches.

    My father asked me how many false convert did I think we’re at my church. I told him it was probably the same percentage that are at his tiny church. Yeah, the numbers may be bigger, but lets just add up ALL of The Church and ask the same question. We must continue to lead folks to the Savior, bring people along side and allow God to do what he does best.

    • Liz, the key youtube playlist to watch isthis one; try the first 2 10min segments at least.

      Go to youtube and search for this playlist:

      EXODUS From Constantinian Temples


      There is a book on the matter which is an awfully skunky slice of Home Truth Pie; the free sample contains the first 3 chapters; do get a copy:

      Biblical Church – by Beresford Job.

      Do check out the 20 mins.

  10. Liz

    Mark, ah, you are a house church guy. The life groups at our church have a house church style AND we also meet together with a lot of other house churches once a week. Jesus is not there to feed the 5000+, but there are restaurants around the corner. I have been so frustrated by small thinking, hospital visiting but not evangelizing, give to a program but never get your own hands dirty, preach the sermon you got from using a small church to get your doctorate, coffee bar to be hip but no substance or challenge from the pulpit churches. I am challenged and engaged every week and I love seeing all the younger people serving, growing and leading others to know Christ. That is not happening in most small churches or they would not still be small. My experience with house churches is there is usually someone that becomes disgruntled with church and starts a house church so they can gather and lead a very narrow-minded group if believers to do small things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *