A survey ranking the nation’s 100 Protestant churches with the biggest Sunday attendance found that 25 are in California, a state better known for secular pleasures than old-time religion.
The California churches, 20 of which are in Southern California, generally teach a literal Bible, are theologically and socially conservative, focus on the family, have a dynamic pastor and are not aligned with a mainline denomination.
Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa ranks third nationally with 12,000 attending services on an average Sunday, according to the survey by the International Mega-Church Research Center in Bolivar, Mo. Affiliated churches in Riverside, Downey, San Diego, West Covina, Albuquerque, N.M., and Jacksonville, Ore., also rank in the top two-thirds of the list.
“They are one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast,” John N. Vaughan, who heads the research center at Southwest Baptist University, said about the Calvary churches.
Ranked No. 1 nationally is First Baptist Church of Hammond, Ind., with 20,000 churchgoers. Second-ranked with 14,605 churchgoers is Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. The Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., with 11,000 in attendance, ranked fourth. Texas was the second-highest state with 14 churches on the list.
Polls have shown that church affiliation is relatively low in California compared to other states. However, church experts say that means relatively large numbers of people, often willing to drive long distances, are potential converts for evangelistic, multi-activity churches.
“California has a growing population and a large church is like a stronghold for reinforcing values when there are assaults on the family,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan’s ratings will appear in “The Almanac of the Christian World,” to be published late this month by Tyndale House, Wheaton, Ill.
The biggest surprise in the survey, which was based on attendance figures from last year, was the high ranking of the seven Calvary Chapel churches under the leadership of Pastor (as he prefers to be called) Chuck Smith, Vaughan said.
Unlike the 33rd-ranked, highly visible Crystal Cathedral pastored by the Rev. Robert Schuller, Calvary Chapel avoids the public arena and Smith eschews publicity. But Smith’s music ministry and informal approach to a younger generation in the 1970s and 1980s has paid quiet dividends.
“Smith’s style is so casual, laid-back, so California,” said Columbia University historian Randall Balmer, author of a book on what he calls the evangelical subculture in America.
The success of many of the “super churches” is linked to the popularity of the pastor, said Eddie Gibbs, a professor at Pasadena’s Fuller Theological Seminary. “In a large, mobile society people are attracted to the brightest star on the horizon,” said Gibbs.
Vaughan acknowledged that his attendance figures for First Baptist Church of Hammond, Ind., are much older than figures for the other churches. But evangelical leaders generally agree that it has the biggest Sunday attendance in the nation.
The evangelical magazine Christianity Today recently reported that its pastor, the Rev. Jack Hyles, has been the target of published charges of moral laxity, doctrinal heresy and financial impropriety. Hyles dismissed the charges as unworthy of response two years ago and has since declined to be interviewed on the subject.
The nondenominational Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, pastored for nearly 22 years by the Rev. John MacArthur, ranks ninth with 8,000 churchgoers. “We give authoritative answers (from the Bible) to questions of the heart (and) we work with families, including classes in marriage and child-raising,” said MacArthur in accounting for the drawing power of the San Fernando Valley church.
Some Roman Catholic parishes in large archdioceses might make the list, but few Catholic officials keep those statistics, Vaughan said. “They can tell you how many members and baptisms they have, but not how many attend weekend Masses,” he said.
BIGGEST PROTESTANT CHURCHES
The 10 biggest Protestant churches in America, ranked by average Sunday attendance:
1. First Baptist Church, Hammond, Ind.: 20,000
2. Willow Creek Community Church, S. Barrington, Ill.: 14,605
3. Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, Calif.: 12,000
4. Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va.: 11,000
5. First Assembly of God, Phoenix: 10,000
6. North Phoenix Baptist Church, Phoenix: 9,500
7. Chapel in University Park, Akron, Ohio: 8,700
8. Second Baptist Church, Houston: 8,500
9. Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, Calif.: 8,000
10. Mt. Paran Church of God, Atlanta: 7,850
The 10 biggest Protestant churches in California, ranked by average Sunday attendance:
1. Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa: 12,000
2. Grace Community Church, Sun Valley: 8,000
3. Harvest Christian Fellowship, Riverside: 7,700
4. Calvary Chapel, Downey: 7,500
5. Calvary Chapel, Santa Ana (tie): 6,000
- Capital Christian Center, Sacramento (tie): 6,000
- Crenshaw Christian Center, Los Angeles (tie): 6,000
- First Evangelical Free Church, Fullerton (tie): 6,000
9. Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove: 5,438
10. Church on the Way, Van Nuys: 5,347 Source: John N. Vaughan, International Mega-Church Research Center, Bolivar, Mo.