Megachurch growth follows national trend

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Megachurch growth follows national trend

By Richard Wilson

Small community churches may be struggling with declining membership, but megachurches continue an upward ascent, religious experts say.

That’s true for many in this part of the state.

Southwest Ohio has a high concentration of megachurches compared to the rest of the state. Of the 52 Ohio churches with congregations around 2,000 or more people, 11 are located within or near the 60-mile corridor between Dayton and Cincinnati, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Ohio remains the seventh most populated state in the country, according to the U.S. Census, but is fifth on the list of most megachurches per state, according to the Hartford Institute.

Megachurches operate on multi-million dollar annual budgets and some publish their financial audits on their websites. With a congregation estimated at 3,000, Southbrook Christian Church in Centerville in 2009 had $5 million in annual revenues and about $9 million in net assets.

Fairhaven Church in Dayton, with a congregation of 1,800-plus, reports having an operating budget of $4 million.

Megachurches employ dozens of people and erect buildings more accurately described as campuses, with gyms, coffee lounges, book stores, day care centers and classrooms, not to mention large video screens in sanctuaries that can seat thousands.

The megachurch movement is not unlike the economic trend toward large retail centers, according to Peter Williams, Miami University professor who specializes in religion in the United States. Megachurches tend to be nondenominational, he said.

“The evangelical message has been around for centuries, the packaging is what’s new,” he said. “The sermons are often self-help lectures rather than theological discourse.”

Megachurches couldn’t survive without the small congregations that surround them, according to Barry Clardy, pastor of Princeton Pike Church of God in Liberty Twp.

With weekly attendance around 1,600, Princeton Pike doesn’t measure up to the megachurch threshold of 2,000, but Clardy said membership is about 2,500.

“The goal is not to compete with other great churches, but to complement what they are doing,” Clardy said. “The big church wouldn’t be viable without the small churches that surround it.”

Some of the largest and fastest growing megachurches are not limited to one building. Crossroads Community Church in Oakley (a suburb of Cincinnati) and Vineyard Community Church in Springdale, both identified in 2004 by Outreach Magazine as the fastest growing Ohio megachurches, are drawing more people through video streaming their messages live to multiple sites.

“It’s the trend in megachurch world,” said Jennifer Fathman, Vineyard Cincinnati financial director. “(Video streaming) allows you to consolidate a lot of administrative costs because you’re handling it as one support function.”

Vineyard, a 6,000-plus member church with an annual operating budget of about $10 million and 90 staff members, is launching three satellite sites this weekend: Danbarry Cinemas in Middletown; the 86 Club in the Short Vine District in Corryville; and the former Vineyard Eastgate church off Old State Route 74 in Batavia.

Twenty years ago there were only 10 churches with satellite locations, but today there are around 3,000 nationwide, according to Krista Jacobsen, Vineyard Cincinnati associate director of communications.

“You don’t have to plant a physical church,” she said. “This is a way to continue to grow and continue to expand. We want to remove as many barriers as possible for people to enjoy church.”

The appeal of megachurches may be in the small groups of friends and families who fill those large sanctuaries every Sunday.

“It’s a community of people,” said Dan Wright of Mason, who attends Crossroads simulcast services at Mason Middle School.

During a recent Sunday service there, hundreds of people gathered in the darkened auditorium. The screen in the school’s auditorium projected Pastor Brian Tome’s message as he spoke on stage at the main campus in Oakley. Upholstered furniture and musical instruments adorned the stage in front of the screen, where a live pastor provided commentary to the audience and musicians performed.

Parishioners at Crossroads and Vineyard say the appeal is also in the dress-down, informal approach to worship.

“My kids enjoy it here,” Wright said. “It’s more accepting of everyone. There’s no dogma that you have to abide by. They accept you, and that’s part of (Crossroads’) success and why it’s growing.”

Ian Simon of Hyde Park, a 21-year-old college student studying chemical engineering, volunteers as a mentor or guide during Crossroads Kids Club, where children up to fifth grade are encouraged to go during the main service. Simon said he leads small group discussions with the youths and tries to “relate everyday life to God’s story, get kids interested and get the story to stick.”

Simon said he has volunteered in some of the church’s outreach programs, such as assisting car donations for those in need. He said he has benefited from Crossroads through gaining friendships and reiterated what many said after a recent Sunday service.

“It’s the community and the similar interests that bind us all,” he said.

Jacobsen characterized Vineyard as a church for the “average Joe.”

“People who didn’t grow up in a church can come in and know what’s going on,” she said.

Perhaps the most recognizable megachurch in the area, attributable to the highly-visible statue of Jesus that burned after a lightning strike last year, is Solid Rock Church in Monroe. Officials there did not return messages seeking interviews for this story.

Controversy has swirled around Solid Rock recently, partly because of the church’s decision to rebuild the statue and partly because of media reports about the legal battle over the estate of co-pastor Darlene Bishop’s brother, the late country music songwriter Darrell Wayne Perry.

But Susan Nicole Waddell, a Middletown resident and 13-year member of Solid Rock, said her church does a lot of good in the world and doesn’t deserve the bad press.

“I love the pastors. I love the church. I love the music,” she said.

Waddell cited Solid Rock’s orphanages in Brazil and Home for Life, a place where women can stay and get the help they need, as examples of the good it is doing.

Waddell grew up attending a small, rural church in Preble County. She said the size of the church is irrelevant. It’s the message that’s important.

“I don’t think it matters whether it’s large or small, it’s about where you’re led,” she said.

Contact this reporter at (513) 696-4542 or rwilson@coxohio.com.

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