Inside a Houston, TX, megachurch. // Julian J. Rossig

mapping the megachurch

While churches and other religious institutions are found in nearly every corner of the earth, megachurches—those attended by crowds comparable in size only to a Beyoncé concert—are much less common. Even in the countries where they flourish, such as South Korea, Brazil, and the United States, the rate of megachurches varies greatly from city to city. Boston, MA, and Providence, RI, for instance, have nothing on the abundance of megachurches found in Dallas, TX, and Atlanta, GA. Using this discrepancy in the American case as their point of entry, German sociologist Insa Priusken explores the socio-demographic and cultural conditions that appear to create the ideal breeding grounds for megachurches in U.S. cities.

Priusken’s approach differs from traditional studies of religious proliferation by replacing individual-level religiosity with the “place-based” characteristics of urban areas in their inquiry. By doing so, the author identifies three key conditions that appear necessary for megachurches to succeed: the presence of 1) a large and closed Evangelical community (e.g., Dallas, TX, and Atlanta, GA); 2) a large and upward-oriented Christian immigrant community (e.g., Miami, FL, and Phoenix, AZ); and 3) highly tolerant and educated populations including a large community of mainline Protestants (e.g., Baltimore, MD, and Minneapolis, MN).

In an era of increasing globalization and mobility, as well as declining religiosity, it may seem counterintuitive that megachurches are flourishing in many American metropolitan areas. But this research shows that the conditions necessary for their success are quite common in many American cities. More importantly, this research shows that to understand why particular social institutions fail or take flight, we must understand their broader context.