The sermon on the screen

Staff WriterJune 18, 2009 

Jeff Eickhoff is the face of megachurch members.

The 38-year-old single father of two from Clayton represents many of the attributes of megachurch participants, according to a new study that looks at people who attend churches that draw more than 2,000 people each weekend.

To begin with, there's his age. People who attend megachurches are younger on average than those who attend smaller churches. According to the study, the average megachurch participant is 40, but the average age of people in smaller churches is 53.

Then there's his marital status. Nearly a third of the people attending megachurches are unmarried, whereas in smaller churches only 10 percent are single.

Finally, like many other megachurch members, Eickhoff, a sales manager, is a college graduate. A majority of megachurch participants have attended college or graduate school, and on the whole they are wealthier than members of small churches.

Eickhoff -- who has attended Cleveland Community Church, better known as C3, for a little more than a year -- has become a huge fan of his church home.

'It's made a positive impact on my life and on my children's life," said Eickhoff, who rated the church "A+."

The study, by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and the Leadership Network of Dallas, surveyed people attending 12 megachurches across the country. Researchers then compared the responses they got from 24,900 megachurch-goers with data from the U.S. Congregational Life Study, a survey of Protestant churches of all sizes.

There are an estimated 1,300 megachurches across the United States. The Triangle is home to nearly a dozen. They include C3 in Clayton, which has an attendance of 4,000 each weekend; Colonial Baptist Church in Cary, which has similar attendance; Hope Community Church in Raleigh, with between 5,500 and 5,800 people each weekend; and the Summit Church in Durham, with about 3,400 people. In addition, a few smaller churches -- including Wake Chapel and Elevation Baptist, both in Raleigh -- draw about 2,000 people each week.

Though no two megachurches are alike, these congregations typically are more open to contemporary worship forms, including rock and jazz bands, projection screens and an auditorium-type feel. Such approaches contrast with traditional churches, which feature solemn sanctuaries, pews and stained-glass windows. And unlike traditional churches, megachurch leaders count attendance rather than membership.

One of the big attractions of megachurches, the study found, is that they offer savvy consumers an opportunity to pick and choose their level of commitment.

"Part of the attraction of the megachurch is that it provides a way for folks to shape their spiritual experience to best meet their needs," said Scott Thumma, the lead researcher.

For example, one of the signature programs of nearly all megachurches is small groups. Pastors at these churches strongly recommend that people get involved in small groups to study the Bible, pray and offer one another support. These groups are critical for creating Christian community because the megachurch, by definition, is often too big to offer intimacy. Yet only 60 percent of megachurch participants actually join such a group, the study found.

Eickhoff, for example, is not a member of a small group. A salesman who travels often, he said he didn't want to make a commitment to a group and then attend only half its meetings. Instead, he has found support and fellowship by volunteering with the children's ministry on Sundays.

Eickhoff's willingness to volunteer is less typical. The study found that 45 percent of megachurch-goers don't volunteer, and 32 percent don't give money. That's significantly below the rate of volunteering and giving for members of smaller churches. Still, the study found that the longer people stay in the megachurch, the more they give.

Pastors of megachurches say they weren't surprised by the findings about volunteering or giving.

"A lot of the people we reach are coming back to church," said Mike Lee, senior pastor at Hope Community Church. "We know it's a process of giving people time before they can trust God. We would rather have them here and address their needs."

What drives many worshippers to megachurches, according to the study, is the service itself. People cited the worship style, the senior pastor and the reputation of the church as top factors drawing them to megachurches.

Eickhoff adds his own reason: friendliness.

"They go out of their way to make you feel welcome," he said of his church.

No surprise: Nearly 87 percent of worshippers at megachurches were so pleased with their churches that they invited others to visit.

"There's something going on, whether it's a spectacle, an inexpensive good show, a significant change to their spiritual lives," said Thumma, the lead researcher. "Whatever it is, they're excited about being there, and they want to bring other people there."

And that, said Thumma, may go a long way toward explaining why these churches grow so rapidly.

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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