Many of the biggest churches, or megachurches, in the United States are located in the South or Southwest, an area often referred to as the Sun Belt. The presence of these churches in this region is driven by population growth, the number of conservative Protestants, particular zoning regulations, and the role of oil wealth in states such as Texas and Oklahoma.
In October, 24/7 Wall St. compiled a list of America’s 25 largest churches, based on average weekly attendees. Many of these so-called megachurches — Protestant Christian congregations with regular attendance of more than 2,000 people at all worship sites — are located in states such as Texas and Florida, and many are found in fast-growing suburbs of cities such as Dallas and Houston.
The very largest of these churches draws more than 30,000 to worship each weekend, according to the 2015 Megachurch Survey by Hartford Institute for Religion Research and Leadership Network.
Many denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and Independent Christian Churches, were represented on the 24/7 Wall St. list. However, the nation’s largest churches are mostly independent and nondenominational. Forty percent of the more than 1,500 megachurches in North America and a majority of the 100 biggest churches are unaffiliated denominations.
Dr. Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at the School of Theology at Boston University, noted several correlations in the megachurch trend. “The prevalence of evangelicals in the Sun Belt is probably the most important (trend),’’ said Ammerman by email. “The suburban development of the Sun Belt corresponded with the period in which megachurches developed. The churches essentially followed the population and the highways to convenient crossroads locations in a car-driven culture.’’
Texas is home to five of the 10 fastest-growing cities with more than 50,000 people, according to the latest U.S. Census population estimates. Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston are ranked sixth through eighth in terms of population growth.
Dr. David Eagle, a research associate at the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research at Duke University, has written about the phenomenon of megachurches, including his article “Historicizing the Megachurch” for the Journal of Social History. Eagle said the proportion of the population that is conservative Protestant is a factor that contributes to the presence of a megachurch in a particular region.“Megachurches rely on [conservative Protestant] people as their core customers,’’ he said. “Seattle has fewer megachurches than Charlotte, even though the cities are of similar size.”
Eagle added that zoning laws also play a part in the growth of these big churches. “It’s no accident that Houston and Dallas, which have very lax zoning laws, have lots of megachurches,” he said. “It is comparatively easier to set up shop as a megachurch in these locations.”
Oil wealth in Texas and Oklahoma has also played a role in the megachurch expansion, according to Eagle. “Megachurches require significant financial backing,” he said. “The presence of wealthy conservative Protestants in a particular locale plays a role in the location of megachurches. The oil wealth in Oklahoma and Texas must have something to do with the presence of lots of megachurches.”