“Many small churches either have disappeared around the megachurch … or they’ve created their own mission … and have figured out a way to offer alternatives to what the megachurch offers. [They’ve] made sort of their peace with the big kid on the block,” says Thumma. At the same time, megachurches that have adopted the multisite model “are essentially diversifying, fracturing into smaller pieces so that they can cover a whole city rather than make all of the people drive to one location,” he says.
Something clicked for Marlena Bhame when she first stepped into Liquid Church about four years ago. She’d been searching for something more spiritually dynamic and meaningful than the faith tradition she’d grown up in, or the various others she had tried out over the years.
When Bhame, who was raised in the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance tradition, arrived at the church in Parsippany, N.J., she was immediately struck by a feeling of belonging. The congregation mostly looked like her — a lot of millennials and Gen Z — and everyone seemed enthusiastic about being there.
“I was blown away by the amount of young people,” she says.
Liquid Church has helped Bhame, 28, and others like her find meaning even as many in her generation have turned away from organized religion. It is one of about 1,800 “megachurches” in the United States — defined as having 2,000 or more members. At a time when empty pews are forcing churches across the country to shutter, these mostly nondenominational houses of worship are largely bucking that trend — attracting younger, more vibrant and more diverse congregations.
The average Christian congregation in the U.S. is in precipitous decline, with just 65 members, about a third of whom are age 65 or older, according to a 2020 pre-pandemic survey. By contrast, a separate 2020 study found that three-quarters of megachurches were growing, many at a rapid clip.
Experts say these trends have continued since the start of the pandemic. Liquid Church claims 6,000 members, 84% of whom are under the age of 55, with most younger than 35. About a quarter of members are Hispanic/Latino, 13% Asian and 8% Black.
Like Bhame, David and Katherine Ramirez bounced around different churches before landing at Liquid. The couple both grew up in the Pentecostal tradition, but when they decided to marry, they went looking for a new church.
“I can say that for me, the deciding factor was just the fact that there were people in my age group,” David says.
The Liquid Church’s core beliefs, “Grace wins” and “Truth is relevant,” are capped by a less theological component: “Church is fun.”
“It’s one of the pillars,” says Katherine. “That’s just the culture in the church. So everyone’s kind of onboard with that.”
Church barbecues, pizza and movie nights are all part of the mix. On Sundays, “it’s loud. … it’s casual. People can wear flip-flops and drink coffee,” says Pastor Tim Lucas, who founded Liquid Church in 2007.
“We’re at the gates of Manhattan,” he says. “People can go in and see Hamilton or Billy Joel at [Madison Square] Garden. We’re not competing with the world. What we are trying to do is … put the timeless message of Jesus into new wineskins.”
Liquid Church also steers clear of politics, he says. That’s common in most megachurches because they are more diverse, according to Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “The vast majority of them have nothing to do with politics,” he says.
“You need a building, we need a pastor”
For the last several years, Liquid Church has been one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation, and a big part of its success has come through assimilating smaller, more traditional congregations. Four of its seven campuses — all in New Jersey — have come through these mergers.
This “multisite” model has been adopted by about 70% of megachurches across the country, according to Lifeway Research, a church consultancy. In it, the main church beams its Sunday sermon to branch campuses, where it is projected onto huge LED screens. Each of the satellite churches has its own pastor, live music and worship services.
“It’s like a marriage,” explains Lucas. “An older congregation with a rich history but a declining population joins forces with a younger church like Liquid, with fresh energy and vision and volunteers. You basically bring them together and rebirth the church.”