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date: 23 August 2017

The Spatial Strategies of American Megachurches

Summary and Keywords

The megachurch is one of the most recognizable and characteristic religious spaces in the modern United States. Super-sized, consumer oriented, and blandly contemporary, megachurches have become popularly identified with a host of middlebrow American cultural stereotypes. Yet these congregations have proven themselves to be a leading force in the practice of contemporary evangelicalism, their numbers, average size, and evangelistic reach growing dramatically over the past forty years. Building on nearly a century of experimentation, modern megachurches have hit upon a highly successful formula for attracting and retaining attendants. Through a careful calibration of worship style, sermonic messaging, institutional identity, and programming offerings, their market share has swiftly multiplied. As a result, megachurches now dominate the practice of contemporary Protestantism, setting new standards for how a church should look, sound, and feel and establishing the mantra of “church growth” as the widely adopted aim and purpose of modern ministry.

Spatial strategies have been at the core of these growth efforts. Megachurches draw explicitly from the architectural idioms of contemporary shopping malls, corporate complexes, sports arenas, and television studios as a means of making themselves immediately familiar and inviting for the average congregant. They provide a great array of on-site amenities and specialized interiors to appeal to diverse constituencies who may be searching for different attributes in a church home. Choice is therefore incorporated as a spatial principle, permitting attendants to self-design their worship experience and opt in to the level of commitment they feel prepared to offer. Megachurches also typically take an aggressive posture toward their spatial milieus, treating their immediate environs as an active mission field. They regularly deploy lay volunteers to canvass local neighborhoods and encourage members to network on behalf of the church. They encourage the pursuit of new member growth, even if it comes largely from congregational switching rather than recruitment of the “unchurched.” Megachurches thus tend to dominate the religious ecology of their suburban habitats, outcompeting smaller churches for members and money.

Research on the megachurch subculture has primarily been conducted by sociologists and ethnographers, but a bevy of commentary by theologians, ethicists, historians, and journalists has emerged to supplement that social scientific focus and place the megachurch in wider context. Within that growing literature, four lines of inquiry frequently recur: What defines and differentiates the megachurch? What are the historical and cultural sources for its formulation? What explains its rapid rise to prominence in the modern moment? And what does the rise of the megachurch represent for communities of faith, for both insiders and outsiders to the movement? In the round, the varied answers to these interrogations paint a picture of a hotly contested institution, whose definition, origins, and meaning are debatable. Yet there is little doubt that the spatial strategies of megachurches, so frequently admired, imitated, and condemned, can help us address these questions and therefore merit further exploration and understanding.

Keywords: megachurch, church growth, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, popular culture, secularization

Definitions

Religious resources in the United States are unusually abundant. The American population currently sustains around 345,000 churches—roughly one for every thousand persons—far outstripping the combined number of Starbucks (11,000), McDonald’s (14,000), or Wal-Mart stores (5,000), venues renowned for their seeming ubiquity. Yet this surfeit of congregational supply is far from created equal. According to Duke University’s National Congregations Study, the average American church attracts only around seventy regular participants, even as the largest churches can accumulate weekly audiences in the multiple thousands, even tens of thousands. In even starker terms, the study discovered that about half of all American churchgoers are packed into only the largest 7% of all congregations.1 While this increasing concentration of worshippers into a very small number of large-attendance congregations has affected many Protestant denominations and Catholic dioceses, it is within the American evangelical sector that the disparity has become most noticeable, in the phenomenon known as the “megachurch.”

The term “megachurch” first came into wide use in the late 1980s and 1990s to describe a new breed of evangelical congregation—massive in size, slickly professional, savvy in market appeal—that appeared poised to overtake the American Protestant landscape. The rapid subsequent proliferation of these congregations helped to ensure the utility of this neologism. In the early 1980s, perhaps only a few dozen churches could merit the title. By one recent calculation, the number of domestic megachurches now stands at around 1,600, its audiences comprising some 6 million attendants, or over 10% of all Protestant churchgoers in the United States.2 The precise number of megachurches is difficult to determine, however, given the constantly shifting fates of individual congregations and the reliance on their leadership for accurate estimates of attendance. It also depends on how one defines a megachurch. Some early observers proposed a cutoff of 1,000 or 1,200 weekly attendants, but a more recent scholarly consensus has formed around the 2,000 mark.3 The sociologists Scott Thumma and Dave Travis have offered perhaps the most widely cited and accepted definition of a megachurch as “a Protestant church that averages at least two thousand total attendees in their weekend services,” although in subsequent research it has been acknowledged that the megachurch phenomenon is confined almost entirely to the evangelical and conservative Protestant sector.4 In some ways, 2,000 weekly attendants is an arbitrary cutoff, likely excluding some congregations that would appear to many observers indistinguishable from others easily classed as megachurches. Yet the number establishes a useful baseline—virtually all of the congregations that attract that many attendants face similar organizational challenges and provide comparable institutional solutions.

The singular category of the “megachurch” does tend to obscure the significant diversity within the subculture. Thumma and Travis highlight four distinct “streams” of megachurches:

  1. 1. Old Line/Program–Based megachurches, which often have older founding dates, downtown locations, established denominational connections, and more traditional worship services (~30%).

  2. 2. Charismatic/Pastor–Focused megachurches, which are more likely to be newer, suburban, nondenominational, and liturgically experimental (~25%).

  3. 3. Seeker megachurches, which avoid denominational or confessional ties and embrace modern worship styles to reach new and younger audiences (~30%).

  4. 4. New Wave/Re-envisioned megachurches, which are more likely to be multisite congregations with high tech capability but reject the “seeker” approach in favor of strongly conservative theological emphases (~15%).5

Within each of these categories, one would additionally find a great range of racial, geographical, denominational, and theological differences. There are white, black, Latino, and multiracial megachurch congregations; they can be found in virtually every region of the United States and in a range of urban, suburban, and exurban settings; they have Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Assemblies of God affiliations; and they preach fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and “emerging church” gospels.

This diversity of identity and practice might strain the reality of anything like a common “megachurch” subculture. Yet observers have noticed a number of points of commonality that connect wide swaths of these large-attendance congregations together: emphasis on reaching audiences of the “unchurched,” employment of modern marketing and business techniques, the use of new forms of media and liturgical aesthetics, expansion of the range and timing of services offered, and supplementation of traditional church facilities. Above all, megachurches have become known for forging ecclesiological identities around their size and scale: sprawling campuses, generous budgets, abundant staff, packed calendars. They celebrate their relative bigness as both an accomplishment and a virtue, their crowded sanctuaries and overflowing Sunday schools a testament to pastoral acumen and the Holy Spirit’s presence. What most unites and distinguishes the megachurch subculture, then, is a common faith in the virtues of congregational bigness and an openness to experimentation in the pursuit of it. Megachurches are not simply churches that happen to have become big, but rather churches in which bigness, growth, and expansion are conscious, deliberate goals and in which a great range of evangelistic means are developed and deployed to attract new audiences and target demographics.

Spatial strategies constitute a major strand of this gospel of growth. Even a passing familiarity with contemporary megachurches makes obvious that they occupy, utilize, and interact with their spatial contexts in unique ways. Their exteriors display a distinctive architectural style, chosen for popular appeal and broad reach, which mark them out from their ecclesiastical peers. Megachurch interiors, including the central sanctuary as well as its annexes and adjuncts, likewise have been rethought as spaces that must accommodate and engage congregations of many thousands. To attract such audiences, megachurches expend immense resources on evangelizing their surrounding terrain and broadcasting themselves through radio and television to still larger domains of space. And they mirror the affinities and sensibilities of their local ecosystems even as they also seek to alter and monopolize them. Although hardly uniform in operation or design, the spatial strategies of megachurches consistently pursue a common directive: to attract and maintain as many of the gospel-hungry as possible.

Given this more expansive description and diagnosis of the megachurch mentality, it may be that the definitional concentration on numeric standards appears somewhat incomplete. Indeed, even the identification of the megachurch with conservative Protestantism may soon be shifting. As Stephen Ellingson documents in his study of Lutheran congregations in the San Francisco Bay area, the church growth mindset has begun to “colonize” the spatial aesthetics and worship practices of mainline Protestant congregations.6 More recently, the Catholic diocese of Orange County purchased Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, one of the most recognizable megachurch congregations in the 1980s and ’90s, and is set to reopen it as Christ Cathedral in 2017. Whether the megachurch subculture will be reconceived to include such newcomers remains to be seen, but it is evident that this movement is far from being static or remaining narrowly defined.

Histories

American Protestant churches have always come in a range of spatial forms. Puritan meetinghouses that served as venues for both religious and political functions, Anglican parish churches that preserved the ancient separation of the nave (for the congregation) from the chancel (for the altar and priest), Baptist and Methodist frontier “room” churches that aimed to level all social distinctions—the spatial schemes of Protestant churches have long reflected an array of theological and cultural dynamics. The architectural evolution that gave rise to the modern megachurch is not the only possible narrative of this history, but it is a prominent one. The gradual spatial expansion of churches—in terms of both size and function—has been a long-standing theme across the American Protestant milieu. To chronicle these transformations therefore requires detours through a diverse set of Protestant subcultures, remaining attentive to their various experiments with structural inflation.

In the colonial and early national United States, most Protestants opted for modest church architecture for both theological and practical reasons: the emphasis on preaching (and thus, listening) as the centerpiece of worship as well as the thin distribution of the population legislated against more expansive constructions. With rare exception, American Protestant churches before the Civil War remained small-scale, intimate affairs. Over time, however, new models of churchmanship emerged that helped sanction the first generation of larger church structures. Key to this development was a shift in the conception of ministerial calling from “office” to “profession,” from a vocation structured by ordination to a position and a lifetime of stable appointments to one marked by individual ambition and career mobility.7 Ministers began to choose pastorates or positions for their ability to raise their profile or ascend the occupational ladder. In these calculations there were a number of factors to consider, including the wealth, pedigree, and prominence of a particular church, but also its congregational size. Larger churches provided higher salaries, greater visibility, and more influential connections. They connoted durability and respectability. Above all, crowded, overflowing churches testified to the revival skill and charismatic sway of the preacher, a tangible democratic sign and confirmation of his pastoral gifts. Popular appeal, rather than office or denominational appointment, began to be seen as the premier marker of ministerial success.

The result was a cadre of Gilded Age charismatic ministers who constructed immense, custom-built churches to accommodate their adoring audiences, including such preachers as Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) of the 2,500-seat Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, David Swing (1830–1894) of the 3,000-seat Central Church in Chicago, Thomas DeWitt Talmage (1832–1902) of the 4,000-seat Brooklyn Tabernacle, Russell Conwell (1843–1925) of the 4,500-seat Grace Baptist Temple in Philadelphia, and Len Broughton (1865–1936) of the 4,000-seat Baptist Tabernacle of Atlanta. These “pulpit idols” attracted legions of fans through their unconventional and theatrical preaching as well as their ability to harness the multiplying effects of the emerging mass media, which eagerly syndicated their weekly sermons. Other late-19th-century churches sought to scale up through the deployment of intensive evangelistic schemes learned from professional mass revivalism. J. Wilbur Chapman (1859–1918) of the 3,000-seat Bethany Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, William Bell Riley (1861–1947) of the 2,000-seat First Baptist of Minneapolis, and Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928) of the soon-to-be-christened 3,000-seat Moody Memorial Church of Chicago were only some of the most well-known pastors of large-attendance churches who also maintained careers as itinerant revivalists. They packed in the crowds just as they would at a professional revival through energetic, conversionist preaching. By the end of the century, a discernible cohort of churches had become noted for their size and scale, applauded and admired by many, distrusted and doubted by others, but undeniably successful in their pursuit of congregational increase.

The renewed emphasis on the oratorical expertise of the preacher, along with the need to accommodate greater crowds of attendants, prompted efforts to rethink church architectural designs. As historian Jeanne Halgren Kilde has documented, many congregations during the second half of the 19th century turned to classical principles of amphitheater design for models of how to reshape church interiors to ensure that large audiences could see and hear a central speaker. Instead of box pews arranged on a flat surface with the minister in an elevated pulpit, “auditorium” churches would build curved slip pews radiating out on a gradually rising slope, ensuring unblocked sightlines and acoustical conveyance to the assembled audience. The replacement of pulpits with broad platform stages, “opera”-style seating for the congregation, and marquis lighting soon followed, bringing these churches closer in style to contemporary theaters or concert halls.8 Another architectural innovation wrought by the desire to attract and accommodate crowds was the incorporation of “institutional” church features, such as kitchens, dining rooms, fellowship halls, libraries, gyms, accommodations for games and leisure, sometimes even pools or bowling alleys—what church historians Anne C. Loveland and Otis B. Wheeler term the “multipurpose church.” 9 Urban congregations influenced by the “social gospel” or “applied Christianity” movements went further to construct annexes for the provision of medical services, industrial and vocational training institutes, employment bureaus, and other forms of charitable relief. While these were exceptional cases, by the end of the 19th century the expectations about what a church space minimally required as well as what was maximally permitted to support and sustain its congregational life had expanded considerably.

This ballooning of church functions and dimensions would not remain a consensus for long. As liberal and mainline Protestants in the early decades of the 20th century gradually rethought the conversionist mentality, they drifted away from the evangelistic congregational model and moved toward a more intimate and communal vision of church life with a correspondingly minimalist architecture. Many of their more conservative counterparts, however, continued to champion the imperative of strenuous soul winning—and made it a hallmark of their pastoral theology that the congregation must do its fair share. As a result, by the 1920s the largest churches in the country tended to be firmly in the hands of fundamentalists (like J. Frank Norris’s First Baptist in Fort Worth or Mark Matthews’s First Presbyterian in Seattle), Pentecostals (like Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple in Los Angeles or Raymond Richey’s Houston Evangelistic Temple), Southern Baptists (like George Washington Truett’s First Baptist in Dallas or Robert G. Lee’s Bellevue Baptist in Memphis), or black evangelicals (like Charles Tindley’s East Calvary Methodist in Philadelphia or Lacey Kirk Williams’s Olivet Baptist in Chicago). Over the ensuing decades, conservative and liberal Protestants began to be separated not only by their respective approaches to biblical interpretation, missionary work, and the political order but also by their characteristic attitude toward the local church. To be sure, all Christians viewed the church as a house of worship and communal ties, but increasingly only evangelicals saw them also as potential engines of proselytization and evangelistic growth. American evangelicals, much more than their liberal counterparts, continued to emphasize the urgency of designing religious spaces that could attract mass audiences.

As a result, by mid-century “church growth” had emerged as a topic of considerable interest within American evangelical circles. The Church Growth Institute, the brainchild of former American missionary Donald McGavran, was absorbed in 1965 into Fuller Theological Seminary, the premier nondenominational evangelical school in the country. Shortly thereafter, in 1971, Jerry Falwell co-founded Lynchburg Baptist College (later renamed Liberty University) with his associate Elmer L. Towns, known as the author of the “church growth” handbooks, The Ten Largest Sunday Schools and What Makes Them Grow (1969) and America’s Fastest Growing Churches (1972). Lee Lebsack’s Ten at the Top: How 10 of America’s Largest Assemblies of God Grew (1973) and Eugene Skelton’s 10 Fastest Growing Southern Baptist Sunday Schools (1973) soon followed up with reports on more specific denominational advances. Meanwhile, Robert Schuller, founder of the Garden Grove Community Church (later the Crystal Cathedral), began his Institute for Successful Church Leadership, a program for those who sought to imitate his methods. And all along, evangelicals from a range of denominational and increasingly non-denominational backgrounds continued to busily construct ever-larger congregational experiments, sprawling campuses with state-of-the-art facilities complete with recreation centers, sporting complexes, radio and television broadcast equipment, Christian day schools, and much more. “Church growth” thus became a fixture of the evangelical world, manifested through seminary curricula, institutional examples, and an explosion of advice books, periodicals, conferences, and training institutes.

Into the late 1980s and ’90s, hundreds of congregations found means to swell their memberships, attendance rates, and sanctuary seating plans. Aspirational pastors could look to any number of avatars of the “church growth” mantra for diverse inspiration: the hardline conservatism of Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia; the “seeker-sensitive” worship of Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago; the prosperity gospel messaging of the black neo-Pentecostal preacher Frederick K. C. Price’s Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles; or the informal, dressed-down evangelicalism of Chuck Smith’s network of Calvary Chapel churches. In less than two decades, the number of megachurches had quadrupled from an estimated 250 in 1990 to over 1,200 in 2005 and achieved along the way a remarkable consolidation of evangelical power. By the early 21st century they had become required stops for aspiring politicians eager for grassroots legitimation, launchers of multimillion-dollar music industry powerhouses, major contributors to international philanthropic efforts, and case studies for effective management and marketing at business schools across the country. Megachurches dominate their institutional hierarchies: pastoring a successful large-attendance congregation, for example, is practically a prerequisite for an executive leadership position within the Southern Baptist Convention or the Assemblies of Gods. With the waning public presence of Billy Graham, who Time magazine called “America’s Pastor,” the next most eligible candidates for pastor-in-chief are likely leaders of megachurches, such as T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, or Rick Warren, the only other American pastors to have merited Time cover features in the last two decades.

Nor has the megachurch been confined to the American scene: since at least the 1960s, global evangelical churches have also been sizing up, including such notable entities as Javier Vasquez’s Jotabeche Methodist Pentecostal Church in Santiago, Chile, W. F. Kumuyi’s Deeper Life Bible Church in Lagos, Nigeria, and David Yonggi Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, all of which would eventually claim memberships in the tens of thousands. Capitalizing on their success, many of these congregations formed “mini” denominational networks that can support and supply smaller churches seeking to imitate their remarkable example. This helps explain why some of these congregations, such as the Yoido Full Gospel Church, could claim to have over 500,000 members: by claiming as members those who attended one of then tens of thousands of “cell” churches operated by designated elders or deacons. By this measure, the largest megachurches in the world now exist outside of the United States, spawning domestic “church growth” industries that operate independently of American influence.

As the mainstream press began to take notice of these rapidly expanding and multiplying congregations, the label “megachurch” caught on as a fitting descriptor for the movement, even as it obscured much of the theological and temperamental diversity within it. It obscured, too, the long history of congregational experiments with spatial expansion, of which the modern megachurch was, in many ways, simply the latest chapter. Spatial and functional aggrandizement is a recurring theme in the history of American Protestant church life. While the number of large-attendance churches has indeed risen dramatically in the past three decades, the megachurch of the contemporary moment reflects, if anything, more an intensification of prior patterns than a complete “reinvention” or “revolution.” The megachurch, at once so novel, rests upon much older developments.10

Explanations

Given the long history and present institutional diversity of the megachurch, relying upon a single explanatory frame to account for its contemporary success would underestimate its complexity. A great range of theological, sociological, economic, political, and material contexts could plausibly be cited as grounding for its modern flourishing. Indeed, an early attempt to grapple with the origins of the megachurch by the church consultant Lyle Schaller in Christianity Today provided no less than twenty-four separate enabling factors, ranging from such mundane matters as the increasing acceptance of commuting in suburban America to grander hypotheses about the instinctual psychological appeal of crowds.11 The spatial strategies of megachurches are persistent themes in this burgeoning literature, which can be broadly divided into two complementary strands: internal and external strategies. Internally, megachurches have cultivated religious spaces that mesh uniquely well with the evolving tastes and sensibilities of a large swath of modern Christians, making the church experience comfortable but also rousing. Externally, megachurches have situated themselves in shrewd relation to their wider spatial environment, enhancing their ability to attract new members and monopolize the local religious market. Taken together, these spatial strategies have helped to define and diffuse the megachurch model, transforming the large-attendance church from an exceptional case to an everyday phenomenon.

First, and perhaps most basically, a number of commentators have emphasized that megachurches thrive because they emulate the large-scale spatial norms that now govern daily existence. Homes, schools, grocery stores, office buildings—it would be hard to deny that much of the modern world feels bigger even in its granular dimensions. “Americans have been vaccinated with a complex of bigness,” wrote church growth advocate Elmer L. Towns in 1973. “We live in an age of sprawling shopping centers, conglomerate corporations, and big business.”12 In this telling, the megachurch is the religious counterpart to the oft-noted American preference for spatial expansiveness, compatible with and conforming to popular cultural forms. The cultural critic Sarah Z. Wexler likewise compares the megachurch to such fixtures of the American scene as McMansion homes, big-box stores, labyrinthine malls, and SUVs, evidence of a domestic penchant for “living large.”13 Spatial acquisitiveness may simply be part of the American national character, embedded in its characteristic institutional venues. The megachurch, therefore, succeeds by satisfying a common urge to dream big.

A slightly different version of this argument acknowledges that the sense of legitimacy, authenticity, and excitement that accrues to any object of popular preference or crowd demand is ubiquitous in the modern world. Emile Durkheim’s concept of “collective effervescence,” the emotional energy produced by a group of people acting in ritual unison, is often cited in discussions of the appeal of such mass phenomena as rock concerts, sporting events, and political rallies. A number of commentators have seen similar dynamics at work in the modern megachurch. Surveys of megachurch congregants done by sociologists James K. Wellman Jr., Katie E. Corcoran, and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk reveal that a major draw of these churches lies in their ability to generate intense affective responses, induced by the high-energy music, multisensory stimulation, and enthusiasm of the crowd. In some megachurches, cameras pan the faces of attendants and project images of them singing, smiling, and reacting on large screens at the front of the sanctuary space, heightening the sense of a shared mass experience. “The collective effervescence evoked during the worship service is intensified by the fact that there are thousands of people contributing to it,” the authors explain.14 The capacious sanctuary spaces of megachurches are thus not simply an incidental necessity to accommodate the growing audiences, but an integral part of what makes the congregation attractive in the first place. The vastness of the sanctuary and the immense audiences that fill it produce a unique emotional high unavailable at smaller or more intimate churches.

A third spatial strategy associated with megachurches is their emulation of the ubiquitous consumption industry: ample parking lots, landscaped lawns, hotel lobby atriums, visitor information booths, on-site coffee shops, and well-stocked bookstores. Many of the frequent euphemisms for these congregations—“worship malls,” “full-service churches,” “Wal-Mart religion”—likewise reflect the common belief that megachurches succeed by appropriating the spatial designs of commercial venues. To best their competitors, megachurches routinely add to the typical church profile an array of novel adjuncts, such as restaurants, daycare centers, gyms and swimming pools, and youth recreation complexes. The integration of consumer choice extends even to the worship experience itself: at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, for example, attendants can choose from one of several different thematic worship programs, including reggae, Hawaiian, rock, or traditional. It is perhaps inevitable that religious seekers gravitate toward larger churches that can offer a wider selection of amenities and specialized spaces. As the sociologist Mark Chaves has noted, the average size of all American churches has gradually skewed upward over the last few decades, a product of people transferring from resource-poor to resource-rich congregations. The rise of the megachurch may thus also be in part the product of impersonal market forces gradually concentrating churchgoers into a smaller number of better-endowed congregations, the megachurch at the extreme end.15

A final internal spatial component of modern megachurches often cited as part of their appeal is the deliberately “contemporary” aesthetic they typically embrace. Eschewing traditional ecclesiastical architecture, megachurch congregations have become known for their deliberately modern but understated design schemes, often compared to the neutral, clean exterior of a corporate headquarters or suburban bank. Inside and outside, the styling is kept simple: no spires, no stained glass, no crosses, often not any religious imagery at all. Inside the sanctuary, the pastor delivers his sermon from a broad platform stage rather than a pulpit, hymns are projected from screens rather than provided in a hymnal, a centrally placed “worship band” provides drums-and-guitar accompaniment, and live-acted dramas or animation are used to supplement the liturgy. The overall effect is one of continuity with the modern high-tech world: entertaining, relatable, devoid of idiosyncrasy or alienating effect. In this, some have noticed the influence of modern televangelism and its visual and auditory techniques of charismatic engagement. Historian and ethicist Jonathan Walton suggests that the megachurch worship style is, in fact, “religious broadcasting incarnate,” sleek and professional, elaborately staged and carefully choreographed.16 The televisual spatial aesthetics of the megachurch provide an inviting and familiar setting for a generation raised on talk shows and sitcoms.

A sports arena, a shopping mall, a television studio: the architecture of megachurches is deliberately designed to evoke the mainstays of modern American popular culture and leisure (which are, not coincidentally, their main rivals for the time and attention of potential congregants). In this way, megachurches aim to avoid the sense of being a sacred space set aside from the profane, discontinuous with the surrounding environment. Instead, they prefer cohesion with everyday life and its tastes, rhythms, and norms, on the assumption that this eases the concerns of the “unchurched” who may be turned off by the trappings of more traditional Protestantism. This approach has been termed by practitioners as “seeker sensitive,” a beginner-friendly model of the church experience.17 Although “seeker sensitive” churches may also adapt their liturgies, sermonic material, or denominational identity to avoid alienation, it is in their spatial and aesthetic reconfigurations that this commitment is most immediately apparent to the people in the pews. The megachurch, with its vast sanctuaries of eager crowds, its ample equipment and plethora of conveniences, and its hip and high-tech ambience, is a space carefully calibrated to welcome the neophyte, inspire the convert, and cater to the committed.

Nevertheless, a church does not grow to become “mega” simply by constructing an appealing edifice and waiting for people to show up. Careful consideration must also be given to the surrounding spatial environment, the wider evangelistic field from which prospective attendants are drawn. The geography of a potential church is among the most important factors to consider. While some megachurches occupy sites they have held for decades, most are either newly formed or have been transplanted to a new location at some point in recent history. The decision about where to establish a congregation, therefore, is vital. Above all, an emplacement that is easily accessible to wide swaths of people is necessary to be able to draw in great numbers. This explains why nearly half of all megachurch congregations are located in newer suburbs, often in the exurban fringe of major cities, where population density is lower but highway networks connect vast territories together. Such locations also have the benefit of cheaper and more abundant land, a necessity for an ambitious congregation planning for growth and in need of extensive parking lots. Likewise, the concentration of megachurches in Sun Belt states, like California, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, reflects the pre-existing strength of evangelicalism across the region but also follows a more recent pattern of migration that has brought millions of new residents to the suburbs and exurbs of cities like Houston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Los Angeles.18

Once situated geographically, megachurches have also become known for making a strong spatial claim to their surrounding regions, treating them as vast mission fields to be aggressively reaped. Rather than rely simply on word-of-mouth dissemination, megachurches use a variety of print and media advertisements, highway billboards, and publicity campaigns to help spread awareness of the church far beyond the cohort of people who live within its immediate vicinity. Pastors as well as lay volunteers might conduct regular surveys and canvasses of adjacent neighborhoods and new developments in search of potential members. Sociologist and theologian Nancy Eiesland’s study of urban religious ecology describes the “evangelistic blitz” of one Georgia megachurch, which sent out teams of visitors every month to local neighborhoods (being sure that singles visited other singles, young couples visited other young couples) in order to offer personal invitations to the Sunday services of the congregation. She notes that smaller churches in the region often resented these evangelistic efforts and accused the megachurch of poaching their own congregants.19 More recent scholarship suggests, however, that megachurches tend to have ambiguous effects on their religious ecologies, spurring innovations in some neighboring congregations even as they outcompete others. In particular, proximity to a megachurch tends to have stimulating effects on attendance at nearby mainline and Catholic churches but a depressive effect on other evangelical churches.20

Direct evangelism may also be supplemented by other means of engaging local spatial environments. Megachurch congregations profiled by the anthropologist Omri Elisha have expanded their missionary efforts to include organized benevolence and acts of charitable work, putting their financial resources and small army of willing volunteers to work in a range of social ministries in the local community. Such efforts answer a biblical call to aid the poor, Elisha argues, but they also—not coincidentally—provide a boost to megachurch congregations in their efforts to grow their membership base: “social outreach ministries are among the key enterprises by which megachurches of all kinds strategically raise their public profile and expand their existing networks of action and influence.”21 Similarly, political scientist Tamelyn N. Tucker-Worgs discovered high levels of community engagement among black megachurches, which she characterizes as an effort to “brand” themselves as socially conscious and attract new members.22

The spatial strategies of megachurches operate at a number of analytical scales: regional, geographical, ecological, ecclesiastical, personal. Combined, they have constituted a powerful model for explosive growth and market dominance. And there appear to be few signs of abatement: the number and average size of megachurches continues to drive upward, though new models continue to emerge. Multisite congregations with numerous smaller satellite campuses networked together represent a growing bloc of the megachurch cohort and may soon eclipse the immense arena-style congregations that were popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. The spatial strategies of American megachurches thus continue to evolve, mirroring and developing alongside the changing tastes, fashions, and spatial distributions of their anticipated audiences.

Interpretations

Whatever the historical and cultural conditions for its flourishing, the contemporary prevalence of the megachurch is unavoidable. As a result, participants and scholars alike have struggled to come to terms with the meaning of this phenomenon—how should we interpret the rise of the megachurch? What does it indicate about evangelical Protestantism or American culture that these particular spaces have become so ubiquitous? This is no simple task given the idiosyncratic and contradictory ways that megachurches are often experienced: large but intimate, familiar but exciting, accessible but evangelistic. Such a paradoxical phenomenon will inevitably accrue a welter of contradictory assessments and interpretations. Nevertheless, three broad responses characterize much of this interpretive work: the megachurch as symbol of success, as exemplar of postmodern Christianity, or a cautionary tale about secular infiltration.

To its advocates, the most common reading of megachurch spaces is as a material confirmation of spiritual power. The immense church edifices and the crowds that fill them testify to the relevance and power of the Christian gospel and the charismatic pastors who preach it. Much of American conservative Protestantism is invested in a narrative of continuing evangelical strength, which the high visibility of megachurches helps to substantiate. The thriving megachurch subculture is contrasted with the struggling and declining liberal Protestant denominations, a contrast supposedly demonstrative of where the Holy Spirit truly resides. Such a message especially resonates in certain sectors of American evangelicalism. For example, historian Kate Bowler notes that American megachurches, especially of the largest variety, are disproportionately likely to embrace “prosperity gospel” messages. This correlation evidences the fact that the prosperity gospel’s “emphasis on results and the materiality of salvation easily absorbed the goal of church growth as a sign of its own faithfulness.”23 For those who believe God rewards the deserving and the faithful, a packed megachurch can appear as a marker of divine blessing, validating the claims of the prosperity preacher. Sociologist Gerardo Marti’s ethnography of Oasis Christian Center, a multiracial neo-Pentecostal congregation in downtown Los Angeles, provides a similar analytical insight, noting the congruence between the church’s identity as a flourishing, urban megachurch and its promotion of itself as a place for “becoming champions of life.”24 Within these interpretive orbits, the spatial hugeness of the megachurch connotes a range of meanings: evangelical might, heavenly favor, the coming victory and triumph of Christ.

Outsiders to the megachurch movement have also interpreted the phenomenon as a symbol of Christian endurance and success, but in less theological terms. A common refrain among this cohort is that megachurch spaces represent a particularly skillful adaptation to the “postmodern” moment. Sociologist Donald Miller’s study of megachurch congregations in Calvary Chapel, Hope Chapel, and the Vineyard Christian Fellowship argues that their success is a result of their willingness to reject the inheritances of traditional Protestantism, not only in sermons and music but in their post-Protestant spatial rendering. Responsive to the skepticism and search for “authenticity” of Generations X and Y, these churches reject the supposedly outmoded markers of sacred space of typical church architecture and indulge the pop sensibilities of their younger attendants. At one service, Miller reports, the lights had been dimmed “much as they might be at a club frequented by young people.” In another, the services ended with decentralized, lay-led prayer, the audience spontaneously breaking up into dozens of small groups scattered around the sanctuary hall. In this way, the megachurch is a paradigmatic “postmodern organization,” Miller asserts, an experimental and freeform institutional vehicle, in which the spatial arrangements of worship no longer privilege the hierarchical relationship of pastor over flock but encourage alternative forms of face-to-face relationality.25

A parallel argument is made by cultural geographer Justin Wilford in his ethnography of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California. Wilford suggests that megachurches like Saddleback mirror the dispersed, multi-nodal geographies of the “postsuburban” fringe where megachurch congregations tend to spring up. Although these churches purport to offer a means for uniting socially and spatially disintegrated lives, these congregations actually function through decentralized participation, the most important rituals often occurring in cell group meetings at members’ homes rather than at the Sunday worship service. To Wilford, the decline of the local community-based church in favor of the massive, diffusely structured megachurch is a product of the spatial reconfigurations and cultural transitions at work in the explosion of people on the exurban fringe, people whose lives are now shaped by “centerlessness” and fragmentation. Like Miller, he interprets the megachurch as a creation and reflection of the destabilized and fluid culture of the contemporary United States.

A final common refrain in the debate over how to interpret megachurch spaces is whether they replicate or resist the conditions of the secular. On the one side are those who see in the megachurch’s modern styling and corporate affect a capitulation to a putatively “secular” and morally vacuous consumer culture. Often this critique comes from within the evangelical world. Representative books like John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel, John Seel’s The Evangelical Forfeit, and Os Guinness’s Dining with the Devil accuse the contemporizing megachurch of seeking audiences at the expense of proudly proclaiming the gospel. Yet scholars too have seen in the megachurch not a counter to secularizing trends but the very agent of its dissemination. Historian Conrad Ostwalt argues that megachurches, in their wholesale adoption of the spatial features of the leisure industry, “represent the secularization of traditional religion, not its failure, disappearance, or loss of authority but its conformity to secular life and to popular culture.”26 Conformity, acculturation, forfeit, and loss are the themes of this particular genre of interpretation, which sees in the megachurch only the weakening or demise of a great tradition.

To other commentators, however, the blending of “sacred” and “secular” spaces in the megachurch is not a craven yielding to a corrupt culture but a shrewd and effective occupation of it. A good example is the commentary on Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in the country, which meets in the former Compaq Center, the 16,000-seat sports arena that was once home to the Houston Rockets. To critics of the megachurch, this choice of venue is symbolic, the final turning of worship into a mindless entertainment or consumer spectacle, a prime case of surrendering to the baser impulses of congregants. Sociologist Shayne Lee and historian Phillip Luke Sinitiere argue that Osteen and his congregation have creatively “sacralized” the stadium: the basketball court has been made into a sanctuary, the locker rooms have been refashioned as nurseries, and the snack bars now sell Christian books and audiotapes. They argue that the converted interior spaces of the Lakewood Church convey an implicit message about the possibility of “refashioning one’s identity” through spiritual transformation—one of Osteen’s favorite and repeated sermonic topics—a “crafty use of symbol, speech, and space.”27 Replicating the feeling of being inside a mall or a movie theater may appear like crass consumerism, but it may also be a reclamation, a spatial statement of Christ’s lordship over all of modern culture. In this final telling, the megachurch symbolizes a refusal to abandon the wider secular culture in pursuit of purity or isolated self-satisfaction. It is but the latest in a long history of adapting the preaching of the Christian gospel to the spatial contexts and cultures of its intended recipients.

Further Reading

Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Chaves, Mark. Congregations in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Eagle, David E. “Historicizing the Megachurch.” Journal of Social History 48.3 (2015): 1–16.Find this resource:

Eiesland, Nancy. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Elisha, Omri. Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Ellingson, Stephen. The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Ellingson, Stephen. “New Research on Megachurches: Non-denominationalism and Sectarianism.” In The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion. Edited by Bryan S. Turner. Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.Find this resource:

Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. “Plenty good room: Adaptation in a changing black church.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 558 (1998): 101–121.Find this resource:

Hamilton, Michael S. “Willow Creek’s Place in History.” Christianity Today (November 13, 2000): 62–68.Find this resource:

Harding, Susan. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Labanow, Cory. Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church: A Congregational Study of a Vineyard Church. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.Find this resource:

Loveland, Anne C.From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Marti, Gerardo. A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005)Find this resource:

Marti, Gerardo. Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Miller, Donald. Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Sargeant, Kimon Howland. Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Thumma, Scott. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.Find this resource:

Tucker-Worgs, Tamelyn. The Black Megachurch: Theology, Gender, and the Politics of Public Engagement. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Walton, Jonathan. “For Where Two or Three (Thousand) Are Gathered in My Name! A Cultural History and Ethical Analysis of African American Megachurches.” Journal of African American Studies 15 (2011): 133–154.Find this resource:

Walton, Jonathan. Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. New York: New York University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Wellman, James K., Jr., Katie E. Corcoran, and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk. “‘God Is Like a Drug …’: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches.” Sociological Forum 29.3 (September 2014): 650–672.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Mark Chaves and Alison Eagle, “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America,” National Congregations Study (December 2015), available at: http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf.

(2.) Warren Bird and Scott Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States,” 3 (2011), available at: www.hartfordinstitute.org/megachurch/megachurches_research.html.

(3.) See, for example, Lyle Schaller, The Very Large Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).

(4.) Scott Thumma and Dave Travis. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007); Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, “Changes in American Megachurches: Tracing Eight Years of Growth and Innovation in the Nation’s Largest-Attendance Congregations,” 12 (2008), available at: www.hartfordinstitute.org/megachurch/megachurches_research.html.

(5.) Thumma and Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths, 30–41.

(6.) Stephen Ellingson, The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

(7.) Donald M. Scott, From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750–1850 (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1978).

(8.) Jeanne Halgren Kilde, When Church Became Theater: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2012), 112–131; Anne Loveland and Otis Wheeler, From Meetinghouse to Megachurch (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 33–65.

(9.) Ibid., 66–80.

(10.) For other attempts to narrate this history, see Michael S. Hamilton, “Willow Creek’s Place in History,” Christianity Today (November 13, 2000): 62–68; David E. Eagle, “Historicizing the Megachurch,” Journal of Social History (2015): 1–16.

(11.) Lyle Schaller, “Megachurches!” Christianity Today (March 5, 1990), 20–23.

(12.) Elmer L. Towns, Is the Day of the Denomination Dead? (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1973), 86.

(13.) Sarah Z. Wexler. Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Going Better (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 2.

(14.) James K. Wellman Jr., Katie E. Corcoran, and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk, “‘God Is Like a Drug …’: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches,” Sociological Forum (September, 2014): 660.

(15.) Mark Chaves, “All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context,” Review of Religious Research 47.4 (June 2006), 329–346.

(16.) Jonathan Walton, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 3.

(17.) Kimon Howland Sargeant, Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000).

(18.) Kimberley Karnes, Wayne McIntosh, Irwin L. Morris, and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, “Mighty Fortresses: Explaining the Spatial Distribution of American Megachurches,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47.2 (June 2007): 261–268.

(19.) Nancy Eiesland, A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 53–61; Eiesland, “Contending with a Giant: The Impact of a Megachurch on Exurban Religious Institutions,” in Contemporary American Religion: An Ethnographic Reader, ed. Penny Edgell Becker and Nancy L. Eiesland (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1997), 191–219.

(20.) Jason Wollschleger and Jeremy R. Porter, “A ‘WalMartization’ of Religion? The Ecological Impact of Megachurches on the Local and Extra-Local Religious Economy,” Review of Religious Research 53.3 (December 2011): 279–299.

(21.) Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 59.

(22.) Tamelyn N. Tucker-Worgs, The Black Megachurch: Theology, Gender, and the Politics of Public Engagement (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 105.

(23.) Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 101.

(24.) Gerardo Marti, Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

(25.) Donald Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 31, 86, 153–155.

(26.) Conrad Ostwalt, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 57.

(27.) Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 37.