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August 4, 2005 12:22 PM   Subscribe

The Latest in MegaChurches. I have never been to a big creepy megachurch. This is my first confession. I have never been to, say, Lakewood Church in Houston, the biggest glossiest megachurch of all, which just dumped a staggering $75 million to renovate the former stadium for the Houston Rockets and turn it into a massive pulsing swaying arm-raisin' eye-glazed weirdly repressed House o' Jesus. I have never been to World Changers in Georgia or New Birth Missionary Baptist in Texas or Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa or the Potter's House in Dallas or the Phoenix First Assembly of God, et al., all of which claim well over 15,000 regional followers (some 20,000 or even 30,000) and most of which operate much more like careening multitentacled corporations than humble homes of spiritual connection and love. But, you know, quibbling.
posted by The Jesse Helms (58 comments total)

I live just down the road from Lakewood's "Central Campus", AKA the old Summit in which the Houston Rockets used to play. When it opened for its first Sunday services a few weeks ago, traffic was so bad it nearly closed down several city blocks in each direction. Bah.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:28 PM on August 4, 2005

The traffic gets worse when the the Jersey City Jews come to play the Costa Mesa Messiahs.

Gimme 5-1 on the Israelites.
posted by dr_dank at 12:50 PM on August 4, 2005

This is like Wal-Mart with Jayzus mixed in. Creepy!
posted by wakko at 1:01 PM on August 4, 2005

> nearly naked virgin car-wash fund-raisers

Sadly enough, the sfgate article doesn't offer any links on these.
posted by NewBornHippy at 1:05 PM on August 4, 2005

Wow. I'm mesmerized by the flash intro to the New Birth Missionary Baptist page. I think I'll go watch it again.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 1:10 PM on August 4, 2005

Jesus Christ.
posted by disgruntled at 1:11 PM on August 4, 2005

Those are some strong adjectives for someone who has never been to a megachurch. Vivid imagination, maybe?

Without using words like pulsing swaying arm-raisin' eye-glazed weirdly repressed, can anyone explain why this is supposed to be "creepy" or "frightening"?
posted by 4easypayments at 1:17 PM on August 4, 2005

Manger Shmanger.
posted by bardic at 1:23 PM on August 4, 2005

Article Summary: I've never been to a megachurch, but I just know that they're bad. After all, there are a lot of them, and they dare to write books and publish music that involves a religion I don't like! Run! Teh evil Xtians are coming!
posted by unreason at 1:24 PM on August 4, 2005

This should be fun.

*takes out marshmallows, graham crackers, chocolate, and peanut butter -- finds a stick -- waits for the flames*
posted by papercake at 1:25 PM on August 4, 2005

*takes out marshmallows, graham crackers, chocolate, and peanut butter -- finds a stick -- waits for the flames*
posted by papercake at 4:25 PM EST on August 4 [!]

What, no pancakes? :)
posted by unreason at 1:27 PM on August 4, 2005

Run! Teh evil Xtians are coming!

Yes, they are, and Morford's account is borne out over and over again by a) my personal experience of Xtian acquaintences and b) journalists who have done the legwork and been to the churches. I refer you to Bill McKibben's work in Harpers recently for one good example.

posted by everichon at 1:29 PM on August 4, 2005

I don't know if this helps, but the best analogy for understanding how they work is to think of a mid-size public university. While there is a quality of massiveness about them, their greatest appeal is the parodixcal one: from a huge accumulation of people you can form an almost infinite variety of small groups which pursue common interests.

Think of the Sunday service as a pep rally, or a basketball game, where the basic traditions and school spirit are transmitted -- but the 5 other professional couples in their 30s with whom you have Wednesday Bible study as a your dorm floor, and the 20 other families who together with you form and support the 6-year-old boys soccer team as your English seminar.

It is quite common for people who belong to mega churches to compare the community and intimacy they find there very favorably to that of the 100-family congregations to which they previously belonged.
posted by MattD at 1:31 PM on August 4, 2005

acquaintances! Gah! See what these evil people are doing to my spelling?!
posted by everichon at 1:31 PM on August 4, 2005

Thou shall have no god before me, unless of course, it's a big ass stadium with the latest in sound and lighting systems.


I've always been a big fan of the "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him" school of non-symbolic worship. The mega-churches play on peoples tendencies towards mass-hysteria/hypnosis rather than leading people toward a rational understanding of faith.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:31 PM on August 4, 2005

There's something oddly appropriate about Americans SuperSizing their Jesus.
posted by basicchannel at 1:32 PM on August 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

When I see giant, monster congregations like these, I start worrying about mob-mentality and brainwashing. The technological dog and pony show just doesn't seem right. Whether fair or not, the not-so-Christian doings of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, etc. come to mind.
posted by dindin at 1:33 PM on August 4, 2005

unreason writes "What, no pancakes? :)"

There you go.
posted by clevershark at 1:34 PM on August 4, 2005

> Wow. I'm mesmerized by the flash intro to the New Birth Missionary Baptist page. I think I'll go watch it again.

That's the Church of Flash Christ.
posted by NewBornHippy at 1:40 PM on August 4, 2005

I've never been to a megachurch either, yet I too regard them as "creepy" and "frightening." Perhaps it's because not one of them has ever come across as liberally enlightened. It's places like this that host the rallies that Tom Delay speaks to, and that is both creepy and frightening.
posted by ancientgower at 1:42 PM on August 4, 2005

Wow. I'm shocked that Willow Creek Community Church wasn't mentioned. It's the one I'm closest to out here in the Chicago area. They seem to be one of the churches that helped jumpstart the trend, spinning off a secondary nonprofit organization to help advise and assist other churches wantint to follow the same growth model. (Disclaimer: I worked as that organization's webmaster for about two years back in 2000...)

They were one of the first churches to offer a built-in food court. On the flip side, they also have an interesting outreach program wherein dozens of local mechanics volunteer to fix up old cars and give them to single mothers who need transportation.
posted by verb at 1:47 PM on August 4, 2005

Look down on me, sweet Jesus. (Section 7 Row 8 Seat 12)
posted by hal9k at 1:52 PM on August 4, 2005

That was vicious. I love it.

Folks, 60,000 people is not a "community." That's a city.
posted by fungible at 1:53 PM on August 4, 2005

So what's new? Notre Dame de Paris was a megachurch once upon a time. And part of a church that had most of the features of a state, not just a city.
posted by jfuller at 2:20 PM on August 4, 2005

"If Christ came back and saw what was being done in his name etc., etc..."
posted by jaronson at 2:23 PM on August 4, 2005

Praise the Lord and Pass the Popcorn: In another bizarre trend, churches are renting out multiplex theaters for their Sunday morning services, and theater owners are snatching up the extra profits faster than you can say Passion of the Christ.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 2:29 PM on August 4, 2005

Unitarian for religious tolerance here, for what it's worth. I just wished it worked in both directions more often.
posted by Toecutter at 2:37 PM on August 4, 2005

I grew up going to a church that some might call a mega-church and watched the process start. It had always been the biggest Baptist church in town, but over the past hundred years it had dealt with growth by spinning off sister congregations when the attendance got over a couple hundred every week. Then, sometime in the early 80s, a decision was made that it would grow, and grow big. So a fitness center was built across the street, two wings were shot out, and surrounding property started being purchased. By the time I was in high school the weekly attendance was in the 2-3,000 range every Sunday, and now it is well more than that.

The community aspects of church there were dealt with by extensive subdividing. Instead of one Sunday service, now there are four. Instead of adult Sunday School and children's Sunday School, the adults have dozens of classes and the children are divided by grade and in some cases, by "unit".

As for why it happens, from the church leadership's perspective, the advantages are obvious. The more people are in the congregation, the less real opposition to policies is heard; decisions (at least in my experience) were done by acclamation and there was never much of a discussion about major campaigns being launched. Moreover, there is a lot of money that can be made and leveraged with a congregation that size; investments are of that critical mass level that generates money on their own, real estate investments create cashflow, and construction projects are essentially ongoing, and since the church invariably used its membership for the contracting, there is a certain feel of mutual back scratching that happens. And of course, there's quite a bit of private prestige for the ministers, who can point to their huge successful church as proof that God has blessed them.

Of course, there always were some dissenters; people like those in my family, and many of their friends, who argued that becoming so huge would cost the church its soul, and missing the concept of actually knowing everyone that went to your church. They've been pretty sad about not knowing the church that they had attended (in my grandparents' case) for over sixty years, and it was a hard decision they made to leave the church and go to someplace that matched their beliefs and desire for that community they thought they had.

Such churches do not arise from the ether, and their accretion is not without costs to their membership and to the character of American Christianity. My suspicion is that the members that flock to such churches do it precisely because there isn't the same sort of community; it's easier to go there than it is to attend at a church where everyone knows you. This is the same phenomenon that leads to people not ever talking to their neighbors or visiting their families. It assuages guilt without requiring much effort. I do wonder, however, what the end result will be to this phenomenon. Somehow I suspect that after a few IRS investigations or maybe some sex scandals, the gleam will come off these things and real Christians will go back to real churches. But that may take a while.
posted by norm at 2:39 PM on August 4, 2005

doctor_negative said:
The mega-churches play on peoples tendencies towards mass-hysteria/hypnosis rather than leading people toward a rational understanding of faith.
Exactly. That's how it was when I was (forced to be) a part of a big church, with about 300 members, maybe more. What a big bunch of fakes, too. This was Way of the Cross church in Blaine, MN. Yuck.
posted by brighteyes at 2:51 PM on August 4, 2005

Whoa, and here I thought all these years that to be a journalist you had to actually GO to the places you write about. Forget this local stuff - from now on I'm "reporting" from the Middle East, from Asia - maybe from space!
posted by piers at 2:56 PM on August 4, 2005

I refer you to Bill McKibben's work in Harpers recently for one good example.

The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong, by Bill McKibben

Related from Harper's:posted by kirkaracha at 3:00 PM on August 4, 2005

I have attended a large church - Cincinnati Vineyard. I'm not sure it'd be considered a mega-church, but they have over 6000 people come through their doors in a weekend. My wife and I started going there after some time of not attending church. We both came out of evangelical-charismatic church backgrounds where we both had been hurt and become disillusioned. Cincinnati Vineyard was a breath of fresh air.

We started going and kept going for almost 3 years before moving away. It is definately a church where you can go and disappear into the crowd. But it's also a church where you can go one weekend and find a place to be, people to meet with, classes to go to, places to serve. One reason we really liked it was because it didn't matter who you are, or what you were doing, you were accepted, from kids who hadn't been home after a rave, to drunks stumbling in after an all-night binge.

They're foundation is serving the community. From giving away newspapers and hot-chocolate, to financial counseling and job training. They also have a huge food bank available for needy people. I'm not sure how other mega-churches are. This is only my experience with one. Theey don't frighten me or give me the hibbee-jibbees, but I'm sure they're all different. It's easy to lump them all togeteher as snake-handlers.
posted by TuxHeDoh at 3:01 PM on August 4, 2005

I pass the Potters House almost everyday on the highway. There's always cars in the parking lot.
posted by puke & cry at 3:07 PM on August 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

It's rather reminescent of ol' mass worship of the Unification Church (Moonies).

Didn't Christ and/or the Early Church state that small congregations are the only acceptable way to worship? Wouldn't surprise me: Christians seem to get nearly everything wrong about their religion.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:19 PM on August 4, 2005

My office is one block from Lakewood's new digs. I can't get in or out on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday nights without a street cop to whistle me across the road, and Sundays? Forget it. The hotel next door just DOUBLED their weekend rates, they're making so much $$ on people coming in from out of town. The people who attend are really nice, but man, it's messin with my world.

(Plus I always laugh about the times I saw shows there, the Dead in particular stand out. Everybody has to get high on something, I suppose, and at least the trash they leave in our parking lot isn't beer bottles.)
posted by pomegranate at 3:21 PM on August 4, 2005

Are there any Catholic megachurches, or megamosques or megagogues or whatnot, or is this strictly a Protestant thing?
posted by box at 3:50 PM on August 4, 2005

I've never heard of a Catholic megachurch. Many Catholics are part of ethnic communities - Irish and Italian, particularly - and there's a lot of emphasis on neighborhood and community that wouldn't work well with a megachurch. Additionally, there's a lot more ritual and tradition involved in a Catholic Mass - it doesn't seem to me that the Mass would mix very well with the kind of theatrical presentation that is, by many accounts, popular at megachurchs. This isn't to say some Catholics haven't tried some similar strategies - a youth program known as Life Teen which tends to involve 'rock' hymns and a lot more hand raising and hand-holding than is the norm is becoming more widespread. However, most Catholics that I know regard that kind of Mass with some amount of distaste, either due to its undignified nature or the fact that that style of worship is generally considered to be Protestant.
posted by ubersturm at 4:59 PM on August 4, 2005

The biggest US synagogue I can think of is Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. They have about 3,000 families (approx. 10,000 people total), most of whom only turn up two days a year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, plus the occasional Bar Mitzvah. But they're definitely not the norm. (Plus, they practice a sui generis brand of ultra-Reform upper class Judaism--actually, quite a bit like Protestantism, now that I think of it...)

There are even jokes out there about how Judaism's snobbery doesn't lend itself well to the mega-synagogue model...
A Jew is rescued from a desert island where he has been marooned for five years. His rescuers are amazed at how well he has survived and at the has buildings he constructed on the island: a house, a root cellar, a barn, and two buildings that the rescuers don't recognize.

"What is that building?" asks one of the rescuers.

"Oh, that's my synagogue," says the Jew. "That's where I prayed for God to send a rescuer."

"Oh. But what's what that building over there?" says the rescuer, pointing to the last remaining structure.

"That's a synagogue too," said the Jew with a sniff. "But I wouldn't be caught dead in that one."
posted by Asparagirl at 4:59 PM on August 4, 2005

Odd. I've only heard the protestant version of that joke, where the setup is almost identical but the punchline is "That's the church I used to go to".
posted by Gary at 5:20 PM on August 4, 2005

There's something oddly appropriate about Americans SuperSizing their Jesus.

Hilarious, and very apt. I haven't heard of any supersized church in Canada — nothing more than four or five hundred people.
posted by orange swan at 5:26 PM on August 4, 2005

Recalling a book -- perhaps by Umberto Eco -- of a semiotic analysis of America, I think of plastic flamingos, castles moved from Europe, fake Venitian towns, and the various other synthetic forms of reality that seem to be all the rage in that nation... and somehow, a big plasticky church filled with plasticky people praising some plasticky preacher seems absolutely appropriate.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:09 PM on August 4, 2005

A Catholic Megachurch.

Well, it's not even close to a megachurch in terms of members or attendees. Still, it's really impressive. Sad, but impressive.
posted by deadcowdan at 6:23 PM on August 4, 2005

Orange swan -- that's because there are only four or five hundred people in Canada. Sorry, couldn't resist :).
posted by Toecutter at 6:34 PM on August 4, 2005

Toecutter writes "that's because there are only four or five hundred people in Canada."

Not true! We're at least twice as many!
posted by clevershark at 6:51 PM on August 4, 2005

I've not been to church in years, but hearing about megachurches makes me miss the one I attended with my Grandma when she was still alive. No more than 30 people or so every Sunday, in a tiny country town.
posted by mrbill at 8:06 PM on August 4, 2005

Megachurches are not limited to the United States. According to the Jeff Sharlet article referenced above, the "cell group" structure that has enabled the growth of evangelism in the last twenty years originated in South Korea. South Korea has several well-known megachurches, the largest of which is the Yoido Full Gospel Church, numbering 780,000 members, according to Wikipedia.
posted by soiled cowboy at 8:54 PM on August 4, 2005

While I'm not a fan of megachurches, it does seem like the author of that article is a fan of pulling things out of his ass. At least, I'd like to see anything that would support people at megachurches being poor and white -- since "megachurch" is a flexible difference, I'm sure you could make some, but it seems wrong to me. The descriptions seem drawn equally from the technology-rich churches of Rich White Folks and from African-American congregations which epitomize the fundamentalist and charismatic traditions in America. I know it's popular to laugh at poor white people, but damn...
posted by dagnyscott at 9:27 PM on August 4, 2005

I haven't heard of any supersized church in Canada — nothing more than four or five hundred people.

The church I grew up in was at 1000 people when I left, about 7 years ago. That was in a city of 22 000. I'm sure Toronto must have bigger churches than that. Ah yes, The Meeting House was at 1000 in 2000, and I'm pretty sure they've continued to grow. Not anywhere near South Korean mega-church style, but certainly more than 500 people. What was the Toronto Vineyard/Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship up to at the peak of the "Toronto Blessing"? How many people in the Peoples Church? With all the self-congratulating I remember about church size, why can't I find these numbers?
posted by heatherann at 9:57 PM on August 4, 2005

Think of the Sunday service as a pep rally, or a basketball game....

Or gee whiz, fans screaming hoarse on American Nascar Sundays.

Or the sublime catechism of Amway sales conventions. You know, the proper organization chart between man and God.

The numinous quivers.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 10:27 PM on August 4, 2005

leading people toward a rational understanding of faith.

Faith is rational? When did that happen?
posted by meehawl at 3:37 AM on August 5, 2005

I know it's popular to laugh at poor white people, but damn...

In my experience the mega church phenomenon is aimed at a particular middle and upper middle class demographic. The Jesus of Suburbia, as Green Day terms it.
posted by norm at 5:41 AM on August 5, 2005

Re: Catholic megachurches

I think Catholic dioceses are managed from the top down in a chain of command, not by the individual congregations. So the local bishop would have to want to create a megachurch for there to be one. Instead of doing that, they choose to create new churches -- it happened in our town once enough farms turned into subdivisions.
posted by smackfu at 7:38 AM on August 5, 2005

I love Mark Morford. Thanks for the link the jesse helms!
posted by nofundy at 9:31 AM on August 5, 2005

Suburban Jesus, eh?

Must be completely innocuous. No challenging ideas there. Jesus the rebel, the righteous, the overthrower-of-moneychangers, the leper-hugging, the man who wanted to completely humanize mankind... not such a big seller to the safely-ensconced upper middle class. Too dangerous. Too radical. Too demanding.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:31 AM on August 5, 2005

Hey, I'm a suburbanite.
Looking at all those people, in such a big space, in a stadium like setting with a large bowl-like shape, my first thought was... fuel/air bomb.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:37 PM on August 5, 2005

Hmmm. That would make one helluva terrorist act. Nuking a stadium of Christian religionists would certainly start the religious war to end all religious wars.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:10 PM on August 5, 2005

Are there any Catholic megachurches

Not in the same fitness club/auto shop/food court sense of the churches in the FPP, but Catholics in the USA are starting to build larger churches so that dwindling numbers of priests can serve communion to large numbers of parishoners without having to schedule 8 Masses/weekend.
posted by straight at 10:01 PM on August 5, 2005

We have a magnet on the fridge:

Jesus Is Cool,
but some of his followers give me the creeps.
posted by Bradley at 8:26 AM on August 6, 2005

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