Students Study the Megachurch
January 13, 2005
The January Interim term at Calvin College sees students take one class for three weeks, often at off-campus locales such as South Africa, Scandinavia and Greece.
Students in Calvin sociologist Kevin Dougherty's Interim class are going to church.
Dougherty is teaching "The Megachurch," a three-week study of how the size of an outsized congregation impacts that congregation.
"As commonly defined by sociologists, the megachurch is a congregation in which 2,000 (people) or more worship in a weekend," Dougherty says.
Emerging in the 1970s, US. megachurches now number almost 800.
Most often found in southern and western states, they are predominately suburban, white, Protestant, married, college-educated congregations.
The greater Grand Rapids area - "the northern buckle of the Bible belt," says Dougherty is home to four congregations that fit the megachurch formula, making the city an ample research field for the class.
The 16 students enrolled in "The Megachurch" have divided into teams to gather research at Grand Rapids-area Calvary Church, Sunshine Community Church, Resurrection Life Church and Mars Hill Church.
What his students will find in a megachurch, Dougherty believes, is an organization tailored to the postmodern mindset, an organization that provides a full range of services to its congregants.
Much like superstores that stock groceries on one aisle and hardware on another, Dougherty says megachurches cater to the parishioner's every emotional, spiritual and social need by preaching a gospel that combines orthodoxy and therapy, while hosting a variety clubs.
Dougherty also is eager to see if the research his students do echoes the alarms sounded by religion writers about the megachurch over 30 years of this phenomenon's existence.
For one he wonders if congregation of 2,000 or more people might face problems with congregational relationships, accountability and involvement. Do they become inefficient. Is there a lack of accountability? Does discipleship become more difficult? He hopes the answers to those questions and others will become more clear after the research his class conducts is completed and analyzed.
Dougherty's class has drawn not only sociology majors but students from a range of disciplines, including religion, psychology and history.
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