25 of 100 Largest Congregations Are in California, Survey Shows


The survey ranking Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa as the nation’s third-largest Protestant church by Sunday attendance also found that 25 of the top 100 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.

On an average Sunday, 12,000 attend Calvary Chapel, 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.

Vaughan has tracked the largest congregations for several years. He noted that another Orange County church is one of the fastest growing, Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, a Southern Baptist church pastored by the Rev. Rick Warren. Vaughan said it went from 1,710 churchgoers in 1987 to 3,055 in 1988, and to 4,000 last year, placing it in a tie for 62nd place on the list.

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 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,” Gibbs said.

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,” MacArthur said 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.


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.