Originally drafted July 19, 2022 and last tended May 16, 2023 by Matt McElwee.
(See Revision History).

  • Certainty:


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    Have done considerable research on the defining natures of both Evangelicalism and the megachurch movement. This is a term I have used in my personal vocabulary for over three years, and am now attempting to thoroughly define it and create a reference work for future use.

Attempts to define a subset of the Evangelical movement primarily characterized by their affiliation with the broader mega church movement, whether or not they would be considered a megachurch in terms of demography. This essay will seek to identify demographic, theological, historical, and ecclesiological (including both a theology of the church and church polity) characteristics which help to define the movement.

Something I have noticed is a shift in the nature of a particular type of church within the broader Evangelical movement. This type of church is difficult to define, and terms that have been used to define it are many times used as pejoratives. Further, some terms overlap and other terms describe some churches but not most churches within this subset of Evangelicalism.

The church that I am thinking about might have at one time been described as having a "church growth" mindset. Perhaps it would be called "seeker-sensitive" or "experiential." It might be classified under the banner of neo-charismatic, with strong Baptist overtones.

In simple terms, I'm thinking of megachurches, or churches that act like they are (or will soon become) a megachurch.

The challenge with these churches in general is that they largely defy definition. Evangelicalism is a difficult enough word to define. Since the 2016 presidential election, the public imagination around evangelicalism is largely associated with a voting block.

But within studies of church trends, Evangelicalism occupies a unique space within the church. Evangelicalism transcends denominational boundaries, even in places where important elements of doctrinal belief are not shared. Consider for instance the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which holds a view of infant baptism under the classical doctrine of covenant theology. Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Church (SBC) is an inheritor of the anabaptists, believing that only adult (or believer's) baptism is licit. Yet both would be defined and (importantly) self-identify as Evangelical.

Within the big tent1 of Evangelicalism, you will find complimentarians and egalitarians, paedobaptists and believers baptists, charismatics and cessationists, Calvinists and Arminians.

But further within the big tent of Evangelicalism, in a phenomenon that further cuts across theological and denominational divides is a movement of megachurches.2 The association of megachurches as an Evangelical phenomenon is not new. However, what I have observed is the ways in which the megachurch movement has impacted a wide-variety of Evangelical churches in their ecclesiologies and strategies to the point where though they could not be defined as a megachurch on the basis of their size, they think and act like megachurches do.

I will define these churches as "megavangelical." In this essay I will seek to clearly define what I see as a subset of a variety of movements and attempt to discover a space and phenomenon which defines a growing church movement.

To do this, I will begin by defining the term Evangangelicalism as it is used within the movement by its dominant internal voices. I will then seek to define the megachurch movement, especially as far as what constitutes a megachurch and what are shared characteristics among them.

Evangelicalism Defined

Evangelicalism is classically defined by what has been called the Bebbington quadrilateral. These are discreet set of four characteristics first defined by David Bebbington in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain3:

  1. Conversionism - As Bebbington describes it, this is focused chiefly on the conversion of the individual. This is two-fold. On one hand, a person would define themselves as an Evangelical on the basis of their so-called conversion experience. On the other hand, a church or minister might be defined as being Evangelical by being focused on converting souls – especially through the sermon.
  2. Activism - Largely this is focused on the activity of the church. It is not merely settled in prayer and preaching, but works out its spirituality through Evangelism, missions work, and other social-good activities.
  3. Biblicism - This is not only a high view of the Christian Scriptures which often are defined on the basis of their "inspiriation" and "inerrancy,"4 but a sense that the Christian Scriptures are the sole source of inspiration and spiritual knowledge.
  4. Crucicentrism - This final characteristic centers the message of the Gospel on the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

These set of distinctions have proven to be quite useful. Many who see themselves in the lineage of Wesley and Edwards – even perhaps Graham – but feel displaced by political attachments associated with Evangelicalism in the popular imagination have clung to them.

The National Association of Evangelicals for instance has fully affirmed Bebbington's definition of Evangelicalism.5 They have then added further clarification for the purposes of research, suggesting that individuals who define themselves as Evangelical (for the sake of research and demography) must affirm the following statements:

  1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Overall, this defines a useful subsection of American Protestantism.6


  1. I first encountered the language of "big tent" to describe the Evangelical movement in the late 20th century by Phil Vischer. He has used this language in various times and places, although his video on What is an "Evangelical?" is the most concise and usefully relevant.

  2. I will focus the term megavangelical, and therefore this essay to only focus on White Evangelicalism. The Black church in America does have large churches, but they are relatively distinct. Kate Bowler has done excellent work on the distinction in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

  3. Bebbington, D. W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, p. 5-17.

  4. I have alluded elsewhere to my preferred definition here being "inspired, truthful, and authoritative." I find this to avoid the problems associated with both the words inerrant and infallible.

  5. National Association of Evangelicals. What is an Evangelical?.

  6. It's worth acknowledging that at this time my understanding of the modern state of Evangelicalism in Great Britain. This is an important area of study, but is outside the scope of this essay, as this is focused on a subset within American Evangelicalism, and though the phenomenon of what I will define as "megavangelicalism" has been spread about the world, that spreading is something more of a colonization and is distinctly American.