This week's cover story, "The Prodigal Pastor," focuses on Gil Jones, a dynamic preacher who built two modest, youth-oriented "seeker" churches into thriving megachurch operations, then abruptly stepped down amid complaints about his relationships with women in his congregation -- and is now embroiled in similar controversies at his latest venture, the Village. Jones's maverick ministry raises questions about the leadership structure of independent, so-called seeker churches, and more basic questions as well -- like what constitutes a megachurch, anyway?
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which has compiled an impressive database of more than 1,500 megachurches across the United States, defines a megachurch as any Protestant house of worship with a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more.
The group doesn't try to count large Catholic churches, for various reasons, but it's found many similarities among the large Protestant operations. They tend to be theologically conservative, for example, and evangelical in outlook, with a heavy concentration in the Sunbelt.
They're also a growing phenomenon. Most American churchgoers still belong to small, staid congregations of a couple hundred people or so. But such homey arrangements are seeing a steady erosion of membership, while the big-box stores -- especially large, nondenominational churches that feature a charismatic leader, podcasts, lots of social media and live music and other contemporary worship innovations -- are in the ascendancy.
Hartford lists 32 Colorado megachurches in its database. Pathways, the church Jones led from 2009 until late last year, had a weekly attendance in the 1,500-2,000 range at its high point -- but it doesn't make the list. However, there are seven churches in the state with average weekly attendance of 5,000 or more, according to the database.
Here they are -- in ascending order, of course:
7. Faith Bible Chapel.
Pastor: George Morrison
Average weekly attendance: 5,000
Location: Colorado Springs
Pastor: Matt Heard
Average weekly attendance: 5,500
5. Timberline Church.
Location: Fort Collins
Pastor: Dary Northrop
Assembly of God
Average weekly attendance: 6,022
4. Cherry Hills Community Church.
Location: Highlands Ranch
Pastor: James Dixon
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Average weekly attendance: 6,250
3. Potter's House Church of Denver.
Pastor: Chris Hill
Average weekly attendance: 7,800
2. New Life Church.
Location: Colorado Springs
Pastor: Brady Boyd
Average weekly attendance: 12,000
1. Flatirons Community Church.
Pastor: Jim Burgen
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Nondenominational (database lists as "Evangelical")
Average weekly attendance: 13,621
More from our News archive circa March 2012: "Meet Peter Tebow, Tim's older brother, ministry leader and local church star."