The Hartford Institute for Religion Research defines a megachurch as any Protestant Christian church having 2,000 or more people in average weekend attendance. A megachurch is an organization type rather than a denomination.
The concept originated in the mid-19th century, with the first one established by Charles Spurgeon in 1861, London, England, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, with a 6,000-seat auditorium. Others emerged in the 20th century, especially in the United States, and expanded rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 21st century, megachurches are widespread in the US and a growing phenomenon in several African countries, Australia, and elsewhere.
The Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was inaugurated in 1923 by Aimee Semple McPherson, and has a 5,300-seat auditorium. A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research published in 2020 found that 70 percent of American megachurches had a multi-site network and an average of eight services per weekend. The study also found that the majority of US megachurches are located in Florida, Texas, California, and Georgia.
In 2010, the Hartford Institute’s database listed more than 1,300 megachurches in the United States. Approximately 50 churches on the list had average attendances exceeding 10,000, with the highest recorded at 47,000. On one weekend in November 2015, one in ten Protestant churchgoers in the US, or 5 million people, attended services in a megachurch. In the United States, the phenomenon has more than quadrupled in the two decades to 2017.
During the last twenty years or so, people at large saw vast megachurch halls filled with chanting congregations, multi-million-dollar mansions, and jets owned by pastors. People gave and the pastors took, done in the name of worshiping God, and the pastor as God’s voice to the faithful. However, salvation came at a price.
All megachurches follow the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ creed to enrich themselves at the expense of their followers.
The prosperity gospel, or the health and wealth gospel, is a belief among many Protestant Christians that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God, and that faith, worship, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s own material wealth, which in turn will lead toward eventual salvation. Material, and especially financial, success is seen as a sign of divine favor. Megachurch pastors have taken this creed literally to amass vast fortunes.
Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans. If humans have faith in God, He will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, maintaining it is God’s will for his people to be blessed. Atonement, or reconciliation with God, is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses, to be overcome by faith. Followers believe this is achieved through donations of money, service attendance, and positive confession.
Prosperity theology has been criticized by leaders of various Christian denominations, including some within the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, who maintain it is irresponsible, promotes idolatry, and is contrary to the Bible. Secular and some Christian observers have also criticized prosperity theology as exploitation of the poor and the ignorant. The practices of some preachers and self-proclaimed pastors have attracted scandal, which has led to charges of financial fraud.
It was during the Healing Revivals of the 1950s that prosperity theology first came to prominence in the United States, although commentators have linked its origins to the New Thought movement that began in the 19th century. The prosperity teaching later figured prominently in the Word of Faith movement and 1980s televangelism. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was adopted by influential leaders in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements in the United States, and has spread throughout the world. Prominent leaders in the development of prosperity theology include E. W. Kenyon, Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, Robert Tilton, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Reverend Ike.
According to Fox Business, megachurches take in hundreds of millions every year, primarily from voluntary donations called ‘tithes’, and all are run like businesses. All church organizations exhort donations from their members. The fact that megachurches benefit from economies of scale isn’t too surprising. What is in question is the use of that money by pastors.
Megachurches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback require that a member signs a church covenant and make a commitment to God to give a minimum of 10% of gross income to the church. Some strongly ‘encourage’ members to will a portion of their estate to the organization in the event of death. Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek requires set tithing as a goal, or a commitment to move towards tithing, or exceed a given tithe, if a member is not already doing it as the price of being a member.
What is it about the evangelical ‘product’ that makes it so desirable to congregations? Numerous scholars have noted that in recent years, evangelical churches have the fastest growth as people abandoned traditional Christian denominations. There seems to be something in our nature that requires not just feel-good spirituality, but strong moral direction, which evangelical pastors exploit fully. People seem willing to live by the dictates of megachurches in absence of Catholic relevance in the modern world.
Megachurch pastors have embraced this trend and incorporated it with basic consumer theory. Sacrifice, not least tithing, signifies value to members. The more a person sacrifices, the more he/she will perceive the value of the product. In this case, evangelical preaching that promises forgiveness and salvation. Why do some believers sometimes puncture themselves, walk on their knees until they bleed, fast until they are skeletons, join a monastery, or vow to be silent? A marketing expert will say, it is ‘brand allegiance’, and ‘selling, selling, selling’. If something is repeated often enough, people start to believe it is true regardless of evidence to the contrary.
There is nothing wrong with being wealthy, and many megachurch members claim it is none of their business how their donations and tithes are used. It is all done to glorify God. However, with great wealth should come great responsibility. Regardless of a person’s financial status, people must remember that Jesus viewed wealth as a gift from God to be used in His service.
‘No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.’ (Luke 16:13-31).
Many people are questioning megachurch leaders, their incessant drive to accumulate wealth for personal use, and hide behind faith as a cloak to bleed the poor, the gullible, and the ignorant. Perhaps it is time Western governments everywhere started to consider seriously that all organized religions are businesses, and should be treated as such by subjecting them to taxes.
SOME of the WEALTHIEST MEGACHURCH PASTORS in the US
Kenneth Copeland: Net Worth, $760 Million
Kenneth Copeland, who leads the “Believer’s Voice of Victory,” TV show and network, is a giant within the Word of Faith branch of Pentecostalism. Kenneth Copeland Ministries operates on a 1,500-acre campus near Fort Worth, Texas, equipped with a church, a private airstrip, and a hangar for the ministry’s $17.5 million Gulfstream V jet and other aircraft. Copeland resides with his wife Gloria in a $6 million church-owned lakefront mansion.
Pat Robertson: Net Worth, $100 Million
Marion Gordon ‘Pat’ Robertson, son of U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson, served as a Southern Baptist minister for many years before carving out a career as a media mogul. Robertson is host of ‘The 700 Club’, the flagship program of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which Robertson launched in 1960 in Virginia Beach, VA. After an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988, Robertson founded the Christian Coalition, a Christian Right organization that raises money for conservative political candidates. Robertson was instrumental in building a number of organizations committed to promoting conservative Christian ideals.
Joel Osteen: Net Worth, $40 Million
Joel Osteen is a best-selling author and senior pastor of the Lakewood Church, the largest Protestant church in America, based in Houston, Texas. Osteen spent much of his career behind the scenes. He founded Lakewood’s television program and produced his father’s televised sermons for 17 years until his father died suddenly from a heart attack. Although his father always encouraged Osteen to preach, he didn’t take the stage until two weeks after John Osteen’s death. Since then, Lakewood’s attendance has grown from 5,000 to 43,000. In his teachings, Osteen says that he aims to focus more on the goodness of God and on living an obedient life rather than on sin. He says that he tries to teach biblical principles in a simple way, emphasizing the power of love and a positive attitude. Sometimes his teachings are characterized as prosperity gospel. He lives with his family in a $10.5 million home.
Creflo Dollar: Net Worth, $27 Million
Creflo Augustus Dollar, Jr. runs a number of organizations: Creflo Dollar Ministerial Association, Creflo Dollar Ministries, and Arrow Records. He is the pastor and founder of the non-denominational World Changers Church International based in College Park, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. Raised in a Baptist church, Dollar received a Bachelor of Science degree in education from West Georgia College in Carrollton before holding his first sermon in an elementary school cafeteria in 1986. By 2007, he was preaching to a congregation of 30,000 members with $69 million in revenue through gross cash collections. His prosperity gospel-style teachings and lavish lifestyle have been criticized by many. He owns two Rolls-Royces, a private jet, and three multi-million dollar homes. Pastor Creflo Dollar faced scrutiny in 2015 when he urged his congregation to buy him a $65 million private jet.