Megachurches as spectator religion: Using social network theory and free -rider theory to understand the spiritual vitality of America's largest -attendance churches

Warren Bird, Fordham University


Critics of Protestant megachurches in the United States have described megachurches as "religion lite," "undemanding," and as using a "dumbing down" approach that makes the Christian faith "two miles long and one inch deep." Drawing on two different social theories---the "weak ties" aspect of social network analysis and the "free rider" dimension of rational choice theory---the dissertation empirically evaluates megachurch criticisms and grounds them in social theory. Megachurches are defined as having an average weekly worship attendance of 2,000 and higher. Spectator religion is defined as when people attend the worship service but are non-participants in other ways. The quantitative portion of the research does secondary analysis of the Faith Communities Today 2000 (FACT2000) study, the largest survey to date of congregations in the United States. It was coordinated by Hartford Institute for Religion Research, The survey takes a key informant approach. It measures and weights 280 variables for 11,301 Protestant responses. The quantitative analysis is supported by interviews conducted at four megachurches in 2006. Two hypotheses are tested. According to H1, "weak ties" theory predicts that participation beyond worship attendance will be comparatively higher in megachurches than in non-megachurches. All tests conducted support this hypothesis. According to H2, which involves a three-variable statistical interaction, "free riding" is hypothesized to be higher in megachurches than in non-megachurches when expectations are low, but lower when expectations are higher. Of the four possible tests of this theory only one is consistent with the claims made by the theory. Therefore free rider theory does not satisfactorily explain or predict the relationship between church size and the level of participation in the life of the church. Controlling for variables of region of the country was not a statistically significant factor in altering the relationship between size and participation. Nor was race or section of town. However controlling for theology does have a positive effect on participation opportunities, but it doesn't eviscerate the effect of size on participation. The qualitative findings explore how some people who attend megachurch worship services have moved from being a free rider to a status of active participant.

Subject Area

Religion|Religious education|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Bird, Warren, "Megachurches as spectator religion: Using social network theory and free -rider theory to understand the spiritual vitality of America's largest -attendance churches" (2007). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3255038.