Inside the gigantic Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, international flags decorate the walls. They are supposed to show that the house of worship accommodates more than an ordinary church – it is the world's largest megachurch.
With more than 800,000 members, the Seoul-based community is at the forefront of a global phenomenon. Often located in stadium-like venues, these churches attract at least 2,000 believers every week, and can grow to attract tens of thousands of people. And while the United States may have started the trend, the future of megachurches may lie in the rest of the world.
Based on data from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and from the Christian nonprofit organization Leadership Network, WorldViews visualized this global and diverse movement. We used the most common definition of megachurches, which describes them as having "2,000 or more persons in attendance at weekly worship, a charismatic, authoritative senior minister, a 7 day a week community," and other features which you can find in detail here.
Why global megachurches are bigger than U.S. megachurches
Despite American roots that reach back to the 19th century, megachurches abroad now have a higher average attendance, even though the vast majority of megachurches are still in the United States. While there are 230 to 500 such churches elsewhere in the world, the Hartford Institute estimates that there are about three times more megachurches in the United States.
In the United States, the median weekly attendance is about 2,750, while the median weekly in world megachurches is nearly 6,000. One factor that could explain the larger sizes on other continents is a lack of alternatives for believers.
"Outside the United States, it takes a large amount of charisma and capital to create a megachurch," said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute. In the United States, however, competition among megachurches is fierce because it is easier to establish such communities. "It is harder to be massive here in U.S.," Thumma added, citing zoning laws, safety inspections, construction and property costs.
Nevertheless, he believes that smaller megachurches do not lag behind in an international comparison. "I was just at four megachurches within a few miles of each other in Atlanta, and each of these cater to a slightly different audience," Thumma said.
The differences between U.S. and global megachurches can even be noticed on satellite images. Abroad, megachurches are often constructed in the centers of cities, where they are accessed by foot, subway, bus or cab. In the United States, community members usually access the churches by car. To provide the necessary parking lots, U.S. megachurches are often in suburban areas.
Non-U.S. worship buildings are constructed vertically due to limited urban plots of land, whereas larger American churches are spread out horizontally.
According to Thumma and his research colleagues, the different locations are also reflected in the members' profiles: Whereas the average U.S. megachurch member has a middle or upper class background, this is less true abroad.
With the exception of Chicago, the cities with most megachurches in the U.S. are in the south or west of the country. Texas stands out in particular with four cities (San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Austin) having more than 11 megachurches respectively. Houston and Dallas are also in the top 10 of the world's cities with the most megachurch attendants.
Compared to ordinary, smaller religious communities, U.S. megachurches offer a variety of services such as financial counseling or education, day care, preschool or after-school programs and initiatives focused on employment and job placement.
Despite differences between U.S. and global megachurches, the idea of providing services to members has been widely copied.
Why foreign megachurches will define the movement's future
Attendance is high in western and eastern Africa: At least 25 of the region's churches are in Nigeria. The country's population is set to reach about 900 million by 2100, likely contributing to a further growth in Protestant believers. In demographically shrinking Europe, Protestant megachurches already seem to be fairly absent from the south of the continent where Catholicism is predominant. The sizes of northern European megachurches lag far behind when compared to those in Africa, Asia and South America
One mostly blank spot on the map is China, the world's largest country. A recent survey of 65 countries, conducted by Gallup International and the WI Network of Market Research, showed that China was one of the world's least religious nations, by far.
Although reasons for the surge in global megachurches differ, urbanization and economic growth have played a significant role in countries such as South Korea. "The megachurch model helped acclimate thousands of displaced rural migrants into a community and urban reality following the Korean war and rapid modernization," said Thumma, who has spent about 25 years researching the topic.
Will the movement last?
"The spread of the megachurch model will continue in the developing regions of the globe," Thumma explained. "I expect the most rapid growth to be in Asian countries as they continue to develop and populations concentrate in massive urban areas from rural communities." Such developments could be especially groundbreaking in China, which has so far restricted the growth of religious assemblies or communities.