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Megachurches attract youth members

David Horner, the senior pastor of Providence Baptist church, gives the 38th year anniversary sermon Sunday.
David Horner, the senior pastor of Providence Baptist church, gives the 38th year anniversary sermon Sunday.

The building towers over its sprawling parking lot, its windowless slabs of off-white concrete giving it the authoritative look of a government building.

People of all ages trickle into the building seven days a week, sometimes in large crowds. Outside the six floors of the main structure are a number of signs guiding visitors to other parts of the surrounding campus, including a satellite building and a large courtyard.

But this isn’t any kind of government, school or office building — it’s Raleigh’s Providence Baptist Church, one of many megachurches in the Triangle.

Findings from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research show these churches attract younger participants to their congregations — more so than many other, smaller churches. That includes college students, who tend to drop out of church for at least part of their college careers, research says.

A megachurch is defined as a church hosting more than 2,000 congregants for Sunday worship, offering some kind of programming seven days a week and maintaining a complex organizational structure that houses several different social and outreach ministries, according to the Hartford Institute.

Most megachurch congregations are predominantly white, and a majority are denominationally evangelical.

Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute and a specialist in megachurch research, said megachurches are a relatively recent phenomenon and usually come about in one of two ways.

“There are some that have been congregations for decades, or even a century, and then something happens. They get a new pastor, or the town grows out to where they are, and all of a sudden, they become a couple thousand rather than a couple hundred,” he said.

“There are others that are intentionally planted with a young pastor, and seemingly overnight — say within a year or two — they go from nobody to a couple thousand.”

Providence, established in 1978, attracts thousands of congregants each week and offers three separate services each Sunday, in addition to small-group “Life Classes” throughout the week. To the right of the church is a separate building with its own parking lot, which houses Providence’s college ministry.

Walking into the church on a Sunday morning, you’d see “Guest Services” spelled out in giant, silver metal letters over an information kiosk, like a hotel’s front desk. To the left of the guest desk is a glossy, blown-up wall map and directory of the church campus, and farther left is the miniature “Providence Cafe,” which offers congregants a free cup of joe with all the fixings.

Near the cafe are the church library and a fellowship hall, and back toward the front is the worship space, complete with a sound booth, a stage covered with musical instruments and four separate video screens for watching the Sunday service.

Thumma said a big reason megachurches can get more youth through their doors is their size and the resources the size creates.

“A typical congregation of 75 people may have a handful of young adults. Unless they’re near a university or a military base, there’s a good chance that there’s only a few young adults, and they’re not going to do a whole lot of youth programming,” he said.

“That’s not the case for very large megachurches. They have staff specifically assigned to the needs of young adults, and they’re going to have a contemporary style of worship that is more appealing to millennials and Generation X.”

When megachurches crop up, Thumma said, they generate buzz in their communities because, as megachurches are relatively new, they don’t fit the mold of a traditional church.

“Oftentimes with young adults, partly because the culture we live in isn’t readily conducive to the traditional styles of worship, there’s a disconnect,” he said.

But megachurches don’t create that disconnect, he said.

“When folks that are perhaps spiritual or interested in the church hear that there’s something different going on over here, they go, ‘Thank goodness, this isn’t my parents’ religion,’” he said. “I think there is an attraction there.”

At Providence, young volunteers run a carpool that picks North Carolina State University students up at 8:45 a.m. each Sunday at their student union. After regular church service, college students can attend an 11 a.m. college ministry meeting at the satellite building, where a large hall holds dozens of set-up round tables.

The atmosphere in the hall is loud and relaxed on Sundays as students munch on free jelly-filled doughnuts with juice and coffee, mingling with other students and members of their small groups while pop music plays over the loudspeakers.

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Ivy Briggs, an N.C. State junior who has attended Providence for three years, said most of her friends go to church, so it’s a place she can go to socialize and be part of a community of Christians with others her age.

“It’s a multigenerational church,” she said. “They do a good job of making sure you’re supported in every phase of life.”

Thomas West, college pastor at Providence, said the church’s size is both a blessing and a curse, since staff must work hard to make young students feel like they’re part of a tight-knit community within the massive congregation.

“We do work really hard to feel small,” he said.

With its separate ministries for kids of all ages and its small groups outside regular worship for personal study and discussion, West said Providence does a good job of achieving that goal, a quality that initially drew him to the church when he moved to North Carolina from Alabama.

“I just wanted to be around a multigenerational church, full of people from all different walks of life — white-collar, blue-collar, stay-at-home moms, people from the city,” he said. “That’s the kind of community that I long for, so that attracted me here.”

West is 30 years old and just announced the gender of his second child with his wife, Elizabeth. When he preaches, he talks about biblical morals like the traditional roles for men and women and the importance of accepting the Bible as true — but he also throws in jokes about snapbacks and footie pajamas, Facebook and Instagram.

West speaks passionately, but with a casual, friendly tone. One Sunday in September, he preached to the college ministry group, comprising roughly 200 students, about valuing Scripture over secular traditions.

“Jesus is about to go off on that this morning!” West said, to scattered laughter from the crowd.

Megachurches like Providence, Thumma said, often have extremely engaging church leadership — the kind of people with personalities a large congregation can get behind.

Strong leadership and programming are crucial because megachurches experience so much turnover, he said.

“The larger a congregation is, the harder it is to identify who’s visitors, who drifts away from the church,” he said.

“Part of the reason they emphasize having small groups, getting plugged into ministries and being engaged is they realize the challenge is: How do we create intimacy and community so people stay? They don’t want people to just come and be spectators.”

The scene on Sundays at Providence does make the church feel huge: A full choir, several guitarists and a solo vocalist all gather on the stage during the musical parts of the service, and song lyrics run along the bottom of the four video screens above the stage.

During the sermon itself, captions on the screen summarize the pastor’s main points. When the service is over, announcements appear in a professionally designed slideshow.

All this is the result of collaborative work by the church’s worship, communications, media and pastoral departments, said David Woodall, the church’s media director.

Each week, the teams do a run-thru to check that music, sound and graphics work together for a seamless Sunday presentation, he said.

Despite all the organization and programming, Thumma said, megachurches still have somewhat of a dilemma: turnover.

“In the long run, people will probably be less likely to stay long-term at megachurches, partly because it’s just a massive dynamic,” he said.

But Thumma said what he’s found in his research is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for congregants to leave megachurches after a relatively short time.

“I see (megachurches) almost as a kind of recharging or revitalizing, as if they were the big Christian revival tents of the past,” he said. “The individual might be disillusioned with their small church and go into a megachurch, and there’s all this stuff happening — missions, ministries, programs — and they get excited about their faith again.”