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Megachurch bubble bursting soon?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The past three decades have been boom times for big churches. In the 1970s, only a handful of churches drew more than 2,000 people on Sundays. Now they number in the thousands.

But the collapse of the Crystal Cathedral near Los Angeles, which is being sold to pay off more than $40 million in debt, has prompted fears that the megachurch bubble may be about to burst.

Most megachurches — which earn that label around the 2,000-attendance level — are led by baby boomer pastors who soon will hit retirement age and without suitable replacements in the pipeline. And some fear the big-box worship centers with lots of individual programs no longer appeal to younger generations.

Skye Jethani, a senior editor of Leadership, a prominent evangelical magazine for pastors, compared megachurches to the real estate market of a few years ago.

"If you asked people back in 2007 if the housing market was doing well, people would have said yes," he said.

Jethani said megachurches have become so big that their economics are unsustainable. They often have multimillion-dollar mortgages and hundreds of staff members. That works while a church is growing.

But churches often shrink when a longtime minister leaves, Jethani said.

Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and co-author of "Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches," said all churches are vulnerable when they switch pastors or when their demographics change.

Good megachurches will adapt, he said. Bad ones will struggle.

He said people have predicted the end of megachurches for years. But like the big-box retailers they often resemble, Thumma believes, megachurches are here to stay.

"They are willing to adapt to changes in American society — which is why they got big in the first place," he said.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., which draws about 20,000 on weekends, said he's not worried about megachurches disappearing. "The truth is that the next generation of churches is going to be even larger than my generation's churches," he said. New technology — such as high-quality, inexpensive videoconferencing — allows churches to meet in many locations at the same time. So a church can attracts tens of thousands of people without building a huge facility. That means a church won't be tied to a massive building, he said. "The next generation never fills the temples of the past," Warren said.

Warren already appointed younger leaders to help run his church. But he said that the transitions between senior pastors can make or break a church's future.

"One of the strengths of large churches is that pastors stay a long time," he said. "But sometimes the pastor stays too long."

Two things are clear about megachurches: New ones pop up on a regular basis, and the list of biggest churches is always changing. Outreach Magazine has published a yearly list of the biggest churches in America since 2004.

Only eight of the top 25 in 2004 are still in the top 25 this year. There also has been a big-box-style trend of consolidation when it comes to churches.

While most churches are small — fewer than 100 attendees — most people go to big churches.

For example, only 4.37 percent of Southern Baptist churches draw more than 500 people on Sundays. But about 35 percent of Southern Baptists go to those churches, including 12.6 percent who go to churches that draw more than 2,000, said Thom Rainer, president of Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources.

Rainer, who studied church growth patterns for more than 15 years, said megachurches have a lifecycle like that of other churches: They grow at first, then stall out and decline, and then sometimes recover.

Bigger churches mean bigger messes when a church fails. And the struggles of megachurches often make headlines.

The Rev. Mike Glenn of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn., is mentoring a couple of younger ministers on his staff who fill in when he can't preach. He's also working to clear the church's debt so a new leader doesn't inherit it.

"It's really key for the lead pastor to get his ego out of the way," Glenn said.

That kind of planning ahead may help churches avoid a crisis in the future, said Sheila Strobel Smith, a megachurch researcher from Minneapolis who studied pastoral change at megachurches for her doctoral dissertation.

She studied the top 50 largest Protestant churches for her dissertation. Only four had changed ministers since hitting the megachurch level, and one was the Crystal Cathedral.

It was defined by its "Hour of Power" television broadcast, hosted by the Rev. Robert Schuller. When the church began to shrink, Schuller was unwilling to change, she said. Now there's a plan to sell the building to a local Catholic diocese.

"It was very clear in 2005 that they were really, really in trouble," Smith said. "The last six years have been awful."

She said there is no excuse for megachurches waiting until it's too late to plan for the future.

"Leaving this to chance is inexcusable," she said. "We owe it to the God-fearing people in the pews to not create a crisis or create a situation where they lose faith."