It’s Not the Museum of Modern Art – It’s a Church

The Midwest MOMA?

In many of my travels and conversations with Christian educators, the topic of the “big box church” competing for their children and youth’s attention usually comes up. How can the “average” church engage families when there is something more exciting in town? And they’re not talking about Sunday morning soccer or tee-ball. How can a congregation “compete” with a church that can pull out all the stops for the Gospel mixed with entertainment?

North Beach

Tour the campus. At North Beach, students cross over the bridge between 2 orange palm trees through the glass entry where they check in and hang out and visit while announcements are shared over huge flat-screen TVs overhead.  Or they can gather in the Kowabunga Kafe for a snack, the Mezzanine that is lined with arcade games, pool tables and air hockey. The Hang Ten Room is another sitting area, or the Fire Pit and Pods are open for community building. These pre-staging areas all lead to the Main Area, where the Stage is located and the service takes place. (Northview Church)

About a month ago I was in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis to lead some workshops for Christian educators. The participants didn’t bring up this subject – I did. And later that day, my host, Debra Kissinger drove me around the neighborhood of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church (a brand-new complex of immense size itself) in Carmel, Indiana to see what was popping up in town. It wasn’t Home Depot, Walmart, or IKEA. It was the megachurch – and I’d never seen so many in such a short 3-mile radius. My jaw continually dropped as we rounded each corner. How does a community sustain this many huge churches?

Joel Osteen draws the largest weekly church crowd in America – 30,000, at three services. Rick Warren counsels pastors and political leaders in many countries (and has the bestselling nonfiction book in US history). Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Association mentors more than 11,000 churches. These high-profile pastors are helping shape a religious phenomenon that is growing in a neighborhood near you – the megachurch. Defined as a non-Catholic congregation with at least 2,000 attendees, on a typical weekend, the largest megachurch hosts roughly 30,000 people, with a 300-member choir and a 10-piece band.

We're not at the Mall

As we drove from site to site (with the theme song of Mission Impossible thumping through my brain) we stealthily wove our way in and out of parking lots as members began the steady stream into the amphitheater-style buildings for Saturday evening worship at 5:00pm. Debra drove as I hopped out to take a quick snapshot. The parking lots were filling, just as they do in my hometown on a Saturday night at the megaplex. I was incredulous. What’s the big draw? Anonymity? Good coffee? A live band? A charismatic leader? Comfy seats? Easy answers? Gospel-Lite? The assurance of going to heaven?

Megachurch memberships generally explode within a two- to five-year period, becoming overnight successes. This can serve as a powerful attraction to one who is contemplating which local church to attend. As one member commented, “You hit a certain size and you can become self-generating. You attract people by your sheer size. People know that you are on TV and that this is that big place…There is a sense of something going on here…and size itself begats [sic] more growth” (Hartford Institute for Religion Research).

Door to Door Service

Upon entering this particular church, you would see why it is so attractive to the average person. In the foyer, you are immediately greeted by five 50-inch plasma-screen televisions, a bookstore and a café with a Starbucks trained staff. Those who enjoy Krispy Kreme doughnuts will be happy to know that these are served at every service. For the children, there are numerous Xboxes available to hold their attention (ten for fifth- and sixth-graders alone). And don’t want to walk across the football-size parking lot to the main entrance? No problem – there’s a little shuttle bus to bring you door-to-door.

The website is a portal into the pulse of the church. Podcasts of sermons. A special section for newcomers with service times, information, directions, FAQs and how to plan your visit. The latest message, “Healthy Family – Contemplative Family,” click here. VBS programs at Grace Kids Camp, click here. “Serving Central” offers a volunteer database to find a ministry to serve using your gifts and talents, click here. And it’s never too early to sign-up for our next baptism service, click here (Grace Community Church)

It's not IKEA

What do these churches have that many of our “traditional” churches lack? Besides all of the above for the most part, they cater to those who are seeking answers and are looking for community. And they make it easy. They ask for a commitment, including one’s stewardship of time, talent and treasure. And I believe they tap into the culture we live in today of wanting customized service, ease of access, the latest technology. Being a person who loves her liturgical tradition and the open-mindedness of not leaving one’s mind at the door, I wonder what us “mainliners” can learn from the Big Box Church.

Your thoughts?

Virtually all these megachurches have a conservative theology, even those within mainline denominations.  A large number are nondenominational but the majority are affiliated with a denomination. The groups in the table below account for 80% of all megachurches:

A lush campus with fountains

Nondenominational 34%

Southern Baptist 16%
Baptist, unspecified 10%
Assemblies of God 6%
United Methodist 5%
Calvary Chapel 4.4%
Christian 4.2%
In terms of theology of the congregation, the label that 403 megachurches, surveyed in 2005, selected to best fit their membership’s orientation were as follows:
Evangelical 56%
Charismatic 8%
Pentecostal 8%
Moderate 7%
Traditional 5%
Seeker 7%
Fundamentalist 2%
Other 7%

* Statistics are from The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2005. Hartford Seminary

Update: An article posted on USA Todays’ Faith & Reason blog page adds to the conversation. When it comes to worship, does size count?
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