Inside the economies of these popular megachurches
No matter how you feel about them, megachurches have a complicated financial structure that makes for a fascinating look. Its celebrity pastors achieve six-figure salaries, worshippers are willing to drop loads of cash for events and its buildings drip in opulence that likely cost a pretty penny. How are they able to afford these extravagances?
We put together an inside look at the little-known facts of megachurch finances, outside business ventures, congregation numbers, and more. The one that might surprise you the most is Lakewood Church — the biggest megachurch in the US led by Joel Osteen… Read on to find out more.
Justin Bieber attends this megachurch
Pastor Carl Lentz helped Canadian pop star Justin Bieber get in touch with his Christian faith, according to Premier Christianity. The tattooed pastor leads a mostly young congregation through worship at Hillsong Church NYC in New York City, New York. Located near Penn Station in Midtown, Lentz’s worship service often features lots of music.
According to PEOPLE, other celebs have been seen at Hillsong’s services. Selena Gomez, Chris Pratt, Hailey Baldwin, Bono, the Kardashians, and more have all dropped in to sing God’s praises. The nightclub-like atmosphere of its services and products like albums, DVDs, and books equaled nearly $100 million in revenue in 2014.
NEXT: This megachurch finds its congregants online.
20,823 believers watch Pastor Craig Groeschel online
Life Church has about 13 US locations but also has a massive online audience. Watch live as Pastor Craig Groeschel preaches the will of the Lord either at home or at thousands of “start-up” churches. With its many video and streaming services, Life Church is the epitome of megachurch-multimedia Evangelism.
Started in 1996 by Groeschel, the church has grown to having 3,000 people from 140 countries tune in throughout the week. Its videos are produced at a virtual campus with a so-called “online pastor.” Seems convenient if you can’t make it out to church every week!
NEXT: This former megachurch employee tells VICE what it’s like to work in one.
This former megachurch employee says he only made $400 a week
Rob Fee wrote in VICE that megachurches look like well-oiled machines on the surface but often there’s turmoil underneath. Fee started volunteering at a giant megachurch then eventually got hired on. He started to see many fired constantly due to “budget issues.” Many staffers, including Fee, made just a mere $400 a week
Meanwhile, the pastor lived in a multi-million dollar home. Fee was fired when he was expecting a child. “I can only hope that people who run churches as if they’re their personal bank accounts, tossing people aside, realize the error in their ways,” says Fee.
NEXT: Over $200K was spent to market this pastor’s book.
Apparently, you can pay your way onto a best seller’s list
Mars Hill Church was plagued by multiple scandals, eventually leading to its demise in 2015. One of those controversies was the $210,000 marketing plan to get Pastor Mark Driscoll’s book to the New York Times Best Seller’s list. Despite it all, this plan seemed to work because it made it to the number 1 position.
Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together was a popular book until word got out about its intense marketing strategy and budget. One of these tactics was published in World magazine: Mars Hill paid marketing firm ResultSource $25,000 to manipulate sales numbers.
NEXT: Trend Chaser tells us what megachurches are like from employees’ points of view.
Here’s what it’s like in a megachurch
Trend Chaser writes that megachurches have a lot of advantages, like plenty of services to choose from and different groups to join. However, these churches aren’t for everyone according to past employees. Trend Chaser says so many people attending megachurches make it prone to drama and cliques forming. If you’re shy, it might be difficult to make friends.
“Yup, even churches can have the ‘cool kids,’” says Trend Chaser. “This can be difficult for people who get anxious at social gatherings.” Members that are outgoing will get noticed more easily in megachurches rather than shy people. They might get scared off.
NEXT: Get prayers on demand.
We got video on demand, why not prayer?
The New Birth Missionary Baptist Church offers congregates an option to listen to recordings of prayers. On the go? Pop a prayer tape in your tape deck and listen to it on the way to work. Sick in bed and can’t make church? Just listen to your prayers at home.
The megachurch, based in unincorporated DeKalb County in Georgia, calls in about 15,000 people. Notably, it was chosen to host the funeral of rapper and TLC alum Lisa Left Eye Lopes. She was killed in a car accident in La Ceiba, Honduras in 2002.
NEXT: This church’s budget is $55 million.
Megachurches’ budgets are massive
Pastor Dr. Ed Young of the Second Baptist Church in Houston leads a congregation of over 63,000 people. Based in Houston, Texas, Second Baptist was originally started in 1927 as part of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. When Ed Young became the senior pastor, attendance grew and grew until it became the US’ fifth largest church.
Young increased the congregation from 500 in 1978 to over 63,000 today. Second Baptist keeps increasing its building sizes too — it’s become a self-described “town within a city” with an annual budget of $55 million.
NEXT: There’s more than pews at Second Baptist.
A town within a city indeed
Second Baptist Church Houston is described by pastor Dr. Ed Young as “a town within a city,” and we can see why… its campus has worship facilities, fitness centers, bookstores, information desks, a cafe, a K-12 school, and free automotive repair service — all sponsored by an annual budget of $55 million.
Seems to be a little more than most churches have, no? In February 2006, it said it would use a whopping $84 million to expand its three sites in Houston. It would add more campuses within empty movie theaters. His son is also the pastor of a huge church — more on that below.
NEXT: Read his book — and no, we’re not talking the Bible.
T.D. Jakes wants you to read — his books that is
Bishop T.D. Jakes, who leads The Potter’s House church, is also an accomplished author. He keeps reminding his parishioners of that, too. Jakes encourages his 30,000 members to purchase his books, as well as his daughter’s. You can buy Jakes’ books, including the inspirational looking Soar!, on Potter’s website. He also has books titled Destiny, Instinct, and Let It Go.
Jakes founded the church in 1996. Based in Dallas, Texas, Jakes expanded the church at a cost of $45 million. It was completed in 2000 and by 2010, expanded to four campuses in Dallas, Fort Worth, North Dallas, and Denver.
NEXT: This is the spiritual home of celebrities.
Star-studded worshipers are at West Angeles
West Angeles Church of God in Christ is where you might see stars. Folks of note: Denzel Washington, Stevie Wonder, Magic Johnson, Angela Bassett, and her husband Courtney Vance. The star-studded congregation used to be a lot smaller — West Angeles only had 40 members in 1969 when Pastor Charles Blake took over.
Originally this megachurch was started by Elder Clarence E. Church in 1943. The 5,000 seat church is located in Los Angeles on 3045 Crenshaw Boulevard. It also started the West Angeles Community Development Corporation, which has a mission of practicing social and economic justice.
NEXT: Like father, like son.
Megachurch preaching runs in this family
Edwin Barry “Ed” Young followed in his father’s (Dr. Ed Young) footsteps and began leading his own megachurch in Texas. Originally he worked at Second Southern Baptist as an associate pastor. Young then branched out and started out preaching to 30 families in a rented office complex which became Fellowship Church.
Fellowship now has 20,000 members. Not as many as his dad’s congregation of 63,000 people, but still big. Like most pastors, Young has other business ventures; his books have landed on the Amazon and New York Times Best Seller lists and his services are broadcast on TV.
NEXT: Saddleback practices “reverse tithing.”
Ninety percent of Saddleback’s earnings go back into the church
Saddleback Valley Community Church, located in Lake Forest, California, is notable for many reasons. Pastor Rick Warren’s practice of reverse tithing is one of them. Rick and his wife, Kay Warren give 90 percent of their earnings back to the Orange County church and keep the remaining 10 percent for themselves.
Warren wrote in BeliefNet that giving away the majority of his earnings was easy to determine: “That was actually the easy part, what to do with the money — just give it away because I’m storing up treasures in heaven.”
NEXT: The biggest church in the US is in Texas.
52,000 people per week attend this megachurch
Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, is thought to be the biggest megachurch by experts in the United States. Led by the charismatic Joel Osteen, the church has 52,000 attendees who worship across multiple services weekly. The church holds worship services in a 16,000 plus seat building (the former Compaq Center).
If you’ve turned on your TV on a Sunday morning, you’ve likely come across a Joel Osteen sermon. This non-denominational church broadcasts its sermons to over seven million people weekly across the US and the world. To reach even more congregants, services are held in both English and Spanish several times a week.
NEXT: Worshippers replaced the Houston Rockets.
From an abandoned feed store to an arena
John Osteen (Joel’s dad) co-founded Lakewood with his second wife Dolores in a feed store in 1959. The Compaq Center eventually became the home of Lakewood Church’s massive services. Before the megachurch moved in, the Houston Rockets played there for 60 years. Lakewood gave Compaq $13 million in cash for the first 30 years rent.
When he became the pastor, Joel Osteen used $95 million more for upgrades on the arena-like church to make it feel more intimate. The 650,000 square foot building was given wall to wall carpet under its 14,000 seats, jumbotron screens, twin waterfalls, and other opulent features.
NEXT: You won’t believe how much money Lakewood makes.
Know many places with a $70 million budget?
Lakewood Church’s annual budget in 2008 was a whopping $70 million — that is up from its 2005 budget of $50 million. Its budget and congregation size increased rapidly thanks to Joel Osteen becoming senior pastor in 1999 when his father John died. Major changes began to happen with Lakewood Church.
Lakewood Church’s attendance increased to 30,000 weekly, prompting Osteen to move the church to Compaq Center to accommodate the quickly growing congregation (originally it was at 7317 East Houston Road). In 2003 it signed a lease with Compaq.
NEXT: Lakewood makes a lot of money and so does its pastor.
Six-figure salary for a pastor?!
Joel Osteen seemed like an unlikely leader for one of the biggest megachurches in the US First of all, he didn’t graduate from college, nor did he study divinity (many pastors have advanced degrees in divinity or theology). He always declined when his father asked him to preach as he was terrified of public speaking.
Joel stepped up to lead Lakewood’s clergy when his father died. He started to make up to $200,000 a year but stopped receiving money from the church five years ago. Osteen’s massive take home salary has been criticized by megachurch naysayers.
NEXT: Should pastors be living in $10 million houses?
Unlike Jesus, Osteen is RICH
Osteen gave up his $200,000 annual salary from Lakewood Church five years ago and instead relies on royalties from his seven books. Despite this, his 2017 net worth was reported to be between $40 to $60 million. He lives in a 17,000 square foot home located on 1.86 acres and worth over $10 million.
Some questioned whether or not a pastor should be making this much money as, traditionally, many religious figures lead a minimalist lifestyle. Osteen was further lambasted for not initially opening up Lakewood Church to aid hurricane victims in Houston in 2017.
NEXT: Lakewood broadcasts the word of God.
Lakewood’s TV production rivals most Hollywood television shows
Production quality for megachurches often rivals Beyoncé and Jay Z concerts. Its television broadcasts mirror the high production of network shows like The X Factor. Perhaps due to their attention to detail, millions of people across the world watch megachurch TV shows and drop lots of money to attend their special events.
During Osteen’s sermons, the former 16,000-seat Compaq Center basically becomes a live TV studio. Cameras on large boom arms swing back and forth capturing the pastor’s every move. The staging, lighting and sound production feel like something from American Idol.
NEXT: Does God wish for us to prosper financially?
Critics take issue with this Osteen teaching
Interestingly, Osteen preaches “prosperity theology,” a nontraditional interpretation of the Bible in which God wants believers to prosper financially. The pastor argues that donating to the church will fulfill that goal. As you can imagine, this theory is often criticized by the public, especially when Lakewood didn’t aid Hurricane Harvey victims right away.
Laura Turner in Buzzfeed argued that prosperity theology is rife with hypocrisy. For some, the belief represents the worst of American-style capitalism, religion and politics writes Tara Isabella Burton in Vox.
NEXT: Lakewood might be the biggest in the US, but this is the biggest church in the world.
The most mega megachurch is in South Korea
The megachurch phenomenon has not only spread like wildfire across the US but reached other countries across the globe. The biggest megachurch in the world, according to various sources, is in South Korea — Yoido Full Gospel Church. As of 2007, this Assemblies of God church has over 830,000 members!
Yoido is located in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and was founded by David Yonggi Cho and Choi Ja-shil in 1958. The two (a son-in-law and mother-in-law team) aggressively started growing their congregation through door knocking and community outreach.
NEXT: Yoido was willing to let women lead — a rarity in both megachurch and Korean cultures.
Women are leaders at Yoido Full Gospel Church
Co-founder David Yonggi Cho firmly believes that women should hold leadership positions at Yoido Full Gospel Church. This was at odds with Korean culture at the time and is still a rarity in megachurch culture today. Few women are pastors — most notably Joel Osteen’s wife, Victoria Osteen, is a pastor at Lakewood Church.
Yoido had an interesting way of division — throughout Seoul, Cho set up various worship centers called “cells” that would meet for services. Women began taking on positions as cell leaders, guiding parishioners through weekday service. A women’s fellowship was started in 1960.
NEXT: How Yoido’s membership grew throughout the years.
You don’t get 800k plus members overnight
Since Yoido Full Gospel Church started in 1958, co-founders David Yonggi Cho and Choi Ja-shil have been intensely trying to grow their congregation. Through knocking on doors, community service, outreach, and other grassroots tactics, Cho and Ja-shil have rapidly increased Yoido’s membership. Yoido Full Gospel Church’s rate of growth is absolutely stunning.
In just two years, Yoido managed to double its congregation to about 50,000 in 1977. They expanded their auditorium for worship to 12,000 seats, but even that was not enough to accommodate the massive — and ever-growing — Sunday service crowd.
NEXT: This might be the first megachurch in the US.
The first US megachurch went bankrupt
The 2,890 seat Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California is often identified as the first megachurch in the history of the US according to divinity scholar, Warren Bird. The Garden Grove Community Church, which was founded by Robert H. Schuller in 1955, worshiped at the Crystal Cathedral. Crystal didn’t reach 2,000 members until the 1970s. When the current building was completed in 1981, it was touted as “the largest glass building in the world.”
In 2010, the megachurch declared bankruptcy. After the bankruptcy declaration, Crystal Cathedral’s facility was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. It was later renamed Shepherd’s Grove. The Evangelical church is now led by Schuller’s grandson, Bobby Schuller.
NEXT: Another early megachurch also had money problems.
No money? No megachurch.
Cathedral of Tomorrow in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio is also cited as one of the first megachurches established in the United States, according to Bird’s research. This was one of three largely attended churches found in the Ohio area. Led by Rex Humbard, the 5,400-seat church was built in 1958.
It lasted until about the 1980s when it was plagued by lawsuits and attendance decline. Its facility, consisting of a place of worship and TV studio, was sold to televangelist Ernest Angley in 1994. Now it’s known as Grace Cathedral but it no longer has megachurch status.
NEXT: Sunday school was popular at this megachurch.
Sunday school > worship
Another early megachurch cited by researcher Warren Bird is Akron Baptist Temple started by Dallas Billington in 1934. It started as a Sunday school originally, says Bird, and drew more people in this way even when worship was offered. Drawing worshipers in via Sunday school was common in the 1960s.
However, its worship attendance began exceeding 4,000 on the reg in the 1950s. Akron Baptist Temple lost its megachurch status and was then sold to The Word Church. The facility includes many amenities like a gym, a nursery, and a “teen sanctuary.”
NEXT: This early megachurch had one of the largest Black congregations.
A charismatic pastor usually brings in the followers
As far as the largest population of Black congregants at a megachurch goes, one of the earliest and most prominent was Philadelphia’s Tindley Temple, a Methodist church. This was one of the largest churches in the US in the 1900s, says Warren Bird. Several thousand worshipers came to the church at one point.
Its growing population of worshipers was thought to be, in part, because of its very charismatic pastor, Reverend Charles Tindley. Inspirational gospel hymns were sung here, including the beautiful “We Shall Overcome.” Today Tindley Temple is no longer considered a megachurch.
NEXT: This megachurch has maintained its attendance for decades!
The Moody Church of Chicago has consistently maintained megachurch status
The common trend has been that early megachurches often lose their megachurch status or are sold. Not The Moody Church of Chicago — it bears the distinction of being the oldest church to break a 2,000 person attendance rate back in the day AND to maintain that attendance rate into modern times.
Originally called Chicago Avenue Church, it was founded in 1876 and led by Evangelist D.L. Moody. Its building could hold up to 10,000 believers and it was often overflowing. That changed when Moody died — the church moved to a 4,000 seat location.
NEXT: Megachurches make more dough than most businesses.
US megachurches make an average of $6.5 million
The megachurch is its own breed. Like traditional churches, they hold worship services and community events, but they do it on a much larger scale. Often preaching conservative or Evangelical Christian beliefs, megachurches are defined as having 2,000 plus people attending service per week. They’ve risen in popularity, both across the nation and worldwide.
Megachurches have the potential to be very successful financially. Six million people in the US attended megachurches in 2011, according to a survey by the Harvard Institute of Religion Research. The same researchers determined that the average profit of these churches is about $6.5 million!
NEXT: Megachurches tend to divide up their profits this way.
Fifty percent of church profits are spent on salaries
A Megachurch typically spends about half its revenue on salaries, according to research by Scott Thumma, a religion professor at Hartford Seminary. The rest of its money typically is divided evenly between missions and buildings — nine out of 10 megachurches have doubled in size from 2000 to 2007.
Head pastors make the most dough. Christian Post says their salaries range from $83,064 to $99,689 depending on the years of experience under their belt. However, it’s been reported that a pastor from a Texas church made $200,000 — that’s Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church.
NEXT: Megachurch congregations are different from regular churches.
Twenty-six percent of megachurch congregations earn this much
Megachurch-goers are slightly different than traditional church attendees. For example, they are a little bit more well off and younger, according to research by Thumma and Warren Bird of Hartford Seminary. Twenty-six percent of megachurch families earn more than $100,000 a year. At traditional churches, 15 percent of families earn this much money annually.
The average age of worshippers at megachurches is about 40 years old. That’s about 13 years younger than the attendees at traditional churches. Besides a younger demographic, folks that attend megachurches are typically single and aren’t new to church-going.
NEXT: Critics are concerned about all the money flowing through churches.
They call them “McChurches”
Attend any megachurch worship service and you’ll probably see a sea of smiling faces. Outside the church, however, critics aren’t as keen. Because of megachurches’ opulence, the high salaries of its pastors, and the sale of books, DVDs and other products, some claim the churches pander consumerism. This obscures its religious aspects, critics argue.
You might hear the term “McChurch” to describe megachurches as places of entertainment, rather than worship. This is supported by the fact that their pastors don’t only preach, but also serve as CEOs. “This pressure molds the pastor into something more akin to a CEO of a large corporation than a wise rabbi,” says Tim Suttle in HuffPo.
Continuing our world trip to the largest churches, it’s hard to ignore Calvary Temple, located in Hyderabad, India. It has over 350,000 attendees every week! Led by Dr. P. Satish Kumar, this church brings in so many people that it has to have eight separate locations for everyone to go and worship.
Since 2012, they’ve been constructing enormous auditoriums for worshippers to use, some of which can seat over 50,000 people. They even have their own college that provides theological instruction for students who choose to attend.
Graha Bethany Nginden
In Surabaya, Indonesia, Graha Bethany Nginden attracts over 140,000 people every week to Aswin Tanuseputra’s sermons. It was originally founded in the 1970s by his father, thus proving once again that nepotism is the reigning champion within megachurches. In 2012, Abraham Alex Tanuseputra passed the torch to his son.
Graha Bethany Nginden does value giving back to the community, though, which is why they started Bethany Care. Bethany Care is a health center for underprivileged people and often works with the Red Cross to provide medical services.
Deeper Christian Life Ministry
Moving away from India and into Lagos, Nigeria, we find the Deeper Christian Life Ministry. Pastor William Folorunso Kumuyi oversees the nearly 70,000 weekly congregants and helps them feel closer to God. Originally, he taught mathematics professionally and had a side Bible group of around 15 people.
It is a true testament to his charisma that he’s grown that small group hundreds of times over since 1973. In fact, there are even branches of his ministry that have expanded outside of his country to the UK and America!
Also hailing from Lagos, Nigeria is Faith Tabernacle with Dr. David Oyedepo overseeing the activities. He manages to entice 50,000 people to worship every week, even during the global pandemic which is no small thing. He always knew that his faith would guide him though, after having a vision as a young man of leading his church.
His church branched out into Living Faith Church Worldwide which now has services in 65 different countries all around the world.
Our compliments on the name of this megachurch. Victory is located in Manilla, Philippines, and provides services for over 65,000 people every week. It was started in 1984 by some American college students who were visiting on a field trip. Now, they have more than 15 different locations that hold nearly 100 separate services every week.
In addition to the larger formal services, they employ 10,000 leaders to minister to small groups on a less formal scale, hoping to continue to spread the word throughout their country.
Located in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Lagoinha Church proudly boasts a weekly attendance rate of 50,000 people. Currently led by Márcio Valadão, this church has internet podcasts, TV broadcasts, and even their own radio station so that congregants can tune in whenever they want, even if they can’t physically go to church.
This strategy has really set megachurches apart, especially during the past year. With COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, pastors turned more and more towards remote broadcasting to ensure the safety of their attendees.
Christ’s Commission Fellowship
Okay, before we get into it we just wanted to point out that the word commission is a strange one in this context. It makes it sound like Christ is employing the leaders and they work on commission. Or is that just us?
This megachurch also operates out of the Philipines and has nearly as many members as the previous entry on our list. Dr. Peter Tan-Chi founded it in 1982 and, originally, its congregants were mostly businessmen and their families. In 2019, they broke into the music industry and released their first album called Majesty.
Church of the Highlands
Back to the good old US of A, the Church of the Highlands operates out of Birmingham, Alabama. Senior Pastor Chris Hodges is a very successful man who brings in over 40,000 congregants every week. He started the church in 2001 with a much smaller size, but has steadily increased attendance every year for the past two decades.
They have also founded their own college for students, offering more than just theological courses for study, as well as sports teams for competitive students.