The Modern Megachurch Can’t Really Die

That’s because it’s not just one church.

Mars Hill church
The former Mars Hill church in Seattle, and the multisite afterlife.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock, Paul VanDerWerf/Flickr, Library of Congress

For those who ghoulishly delight in the reliable stream of church-scandal headlines, the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle had a satisfying narrative arc. Founded in 1996, it became known for the preaching of its popular pastor, Mark Driscoll, who crossed conservative theology with a kind of bro-ish cool. But the past few years brought an onslaught of miniscandals: Driscoll was accused of plagiarism, “spiritual abuse,” online crassness and misogyny, buying his No. 1 slot on the New York Times best-seller list, and so on. He resigned in October. A few weeks later, the church announced it would dissolve on Jan. 1. Its central staff was let go. Its stylish website went offline. Its Wikipedia page is in the past tense. The big, bad megachurch had failed, suddenly and spectacularly. 

But there’s a twist ending to this story, and it’s one that tells a surprising shift in the evolution of American evangelicalism: Most of Mars Hill’s church locations live on. That’s because despite having at least 15,000 weekly attendees at its peak, Mars Hill was not a “megachurch” in the old-fashioned sense: one stadium-size building with a pastor visible from the balconies as a speck on stage (and looming on a Jumbotron). Instead, it had embraced the “multisite model” of church growth, which has been ascendant in evangelicalism since around the turn of the millennium and is changing the way successful churches operate—and survive.

With the multisite model, a growing church doesn’t keep expanding indefinitely in one location. Instead, it plants satellites that operate with varying degrees of independence; often, a senior pastor will preach at the main campus and the sermon is broadcast onto screens in the other locations. A report last year found that almost 1 in 10 American Protestants now attends a multisite church. There are 8,000 such churches in the country, up from 5,000 in 2010. (That figure also includes churches that hold more than one service in the same location, a more traditional way of making a gigantic church feel more intimate.) Multisite churches in the largest category, with more than 15,000 weekly attendees, had an average of more than eight campuses each.

The thinking behind the new model is that smaller congregations encourage participation and community much more than the stadium setup does. And they’re also more aesthetically appealing to a generation attracted to all things local and authentic. By contrast, the stadium setting feels cheesy and slick, the province of televangelists. Not that those don’t still exist: Joel Osteen, whose feel-good sermons are broadcast all around the world, preaches from a renovated sports arena in Houston.

Although the multisite model offers worshippers the feeling of a smaller church, the many locations still constitute one institution. And to be sure, Mars Hill the parent institution did dissolve, which makes for some complicated logistics. At its peak, the church boasted 15 separate branches, most of them clustered in Washington state. Three of those branches shuttered last fall, before the larger church announced it would close. One report said that Mars Hill held $32 million in assets as of 2012, a year in which it brought in $24 million in donations. Near the end of last year, the church had apparently listed several properties for sale, including a 30,000-square-foot building in Sammamish, Washington, complete with a full-size basketball court. Dogged blogger Warren Throckmorton reported that the related website and its list of 59,687 email subscribers were being shopped around for $100,000. When it announced its dissolution, Mars Hill said if any money remained after satisfying all its obligations, it would be disbursed to the newly independent churches.

But the bottom line is that while the central organization may be dead, many of its fruits—the smaller congregations that once shared the name Mars Hill—have survived. Now, all of those individual churches have been set loose to decide their own fates. Some consolidated, and others simply renamed themselves, reorganized, and carried onward. As the church’s website spun it soon after the announcement, “With her final breath, Mars Hill gave birth to 11 newly independent churches where, by God’s grace, the gospel will continue to be preached, his name will be glorified, and thousands will be saved by Jesus.”

When a traditional church closes, members either leave disgruntled or leave in peace. The multisite model means many of them don’t have to leave at all. “If you have a sick tree, give it plenty of pruning and it might come back healthy, right?” said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary and a longtime researcher of the megachurch phenomenon. “Theoretically, you would think it would make it easier if you have a congregation of 10,000, and 5,000 are in multiple locations, to be able to spin those off and make the congregation more able to survive.” In general, the more autonomy each location has in the first place, the likelier it is to survive later upheaval.

Some still question whether Mars Hill had to dissolve at all. Mark Driscoll’s critics were relentless, but he’s never been accused of the most extreme moral violations. Some complex financial questions linger, but they are not what brought the church down. And the pastor had many vocal defenders to the end. (Just before Christmas, Driscoll launched a sleek new website that suggests he’s ready to return to the public stage, though its not clear in exactly what capacity.) So why did the church close, rather than simply oust its leader or pressure him into delivering a more full-throated apology?

“I was quite surprised that it went the direction it did,” Thumma said. “There was absolutely no reason, from what I know about other megachurches, and about momentum, that they couldn’t have easily continued to flourish.” He speculated that there might have been two things going on: that the Mars Hill brand was too entwined with Mark Driscoll the brand to separate from him, and that Driscoll was unwilling to perform the kind of public repentance necessary to make that work.

There’s one final lesson to be drawn from the Mars Hill saga. “The large church closure is an anomaly,” said Thom Rainer, a former church consultant and the author of the 2014 book Autopsy of a Deceased Church. The vast majority of failed churches are small, he said, and they fold because they simply fail to attract enough attendees to stay solvent.

By contrast, large churches often can weather hideously embarrassing scandals and survive. When Colorado pastor Ted Haggard was accused of a relationship with a male escort in 2006, he was immediately ousted from leadership. Today, the nondenominational church he founded, New Life, still attracts thousands of worshipers every week. Eddie Long, a pastor in Georgia, has been accused of both financial impropriety and sexual coercion of several young men—and his church not only survived, but he remains in leadership there. And so on.

The easiest explanation is that the members who remain are willfully blind. But people have deep, sincere loyalties to their churches, and for good reason: Churches often serve as the primary seat of their members’ social and spiritual lives. If a member walks away after a scandal, she is leaving behind much more than a toxic pastor—she’s leaving behind friendships, support groups, routines, weekly entertainment, and babysitting, just to name a few.

That may explain why it has always been shockingly difficult to kill a big church—and the rise of the multisite model may be making it even harder. “These very large congregations have a tremendous amount of momentum,” Thumma said. “Even if you break off a chunk of the boulder rolling down the hill, the momentum will carry it for a long time.”