Some problems originate from their sheer size.
Large churches of course, have always been around. The Catholic Church for one, has long constructed large, imposing structures capable of seating thousands. Those structures however, were painstakingly constructed (over centuries in some cases) by a mix of human, animal and simple mechanical means. Their focus was primarily ecclesiastical in nature with little to no ancillary uses. None were constructed with comfort in mind and most were pedestrian oriented in nature. Although a number of older large churches have underwent renovations to make them warmer in the winter, colder in the summer and lighter all year long, they pale when compared to today’s suburban campus churches. These new churches feature thousands of square feet of climate controlled buildings surrounded by acres of parking and manicured landscaping. The huge sizes, isolated located locations, and multiple foci (worship, education, and shopping) ensure that their collective energetic impact would be greater than a more traditional church.
Size of course, isn’t everything. How it is used and what it represents is actually far more important. Megachurches are not simply very large houses of worship. They are an extension of supersized suburban culture that afflicts much of our built landscape. What’s more, the religion in many of these establishments is a simplified form of Christianity, distilled down for easy consumption by the complacent masses and served up with a healthy helping of pizzazz in the from the extravagant light and sound system. Your grandfather’s cathedral this most certainly is not.
The New York Times had a great article on the Megachurches this past March. Though the article is now been archived, a few snippets are quite telling. One church, Radiant, in particular stood out as a pretty spectacular example of suburbanized religion on steroids.
[E]verything about Radiant has been designed to lure people away from other potential weekend destinations. The foyer includes five 50-inch plasma-screen televisions, a bookstore and a cafe with a Starbucks-trained staff making espresso drinks. (For those who are in a rush, there's a drive-through latte stand outside the main building.) Krispy Kreme doughnuts are served at every service. (Radiant's annual Krispy Kreme budget is $16,000). For kids there are Xboxes (10 for fifth and sixth graders alone).
''That's what they're into,'' McFarland says. ''You can either fight it or say they're a tool for God.'' The dress code is lax: most worshipers wear jeans, sweats or shorts, depending on the season. (''At my old church, we thought we were casual because we wore mock turtlenecks under our blazers,'' Radiant's youth pastor told me.) Even the baptism pool is seductive: Radiant keeps the water at 101 degrees. ''We've had people say, 'No, leave me under,' '' McFarland says. ''It's like taking a dip in a spa.''
As if their own baptismal pool wasn’t “good enough,” the church’s website announced this for their next set of baptisms:
The next scheduled baptism is on September 10th at Water World! Join us for our
anniversary celebration – we’ve reserved the whole park for an entire day! Baptisms will take place in the wave pool at the start of the day. You may get baptized without purchasing a ticket if you do not plan on staying the rest of the day.Sign-up to get baptized this weekend at the Water World table in the lobby. You can also purchase discounted park tickets for you and your family!
''We want the church to look like a mall. We want you to come in here and say, 'Dude, where's the cinema?' ''
Have we degenerated that much as a culture that we have transformed the last bastion (religion) to not only accommodate mindless consumption, but encourage and celebrate it as well?
Or has religion always been something co-opted by those seeking a seal of approval of sorts on their particular worldview? Whatever the answer is to that question, several things are made blatantly clear by this new crop of churches: comfort and consumption are good things and unfettered growth is but God’s will and to be celebrated. Witness Joel Osteen’s gargantuan Lakewood Church that has grown to fill the Compaq Center (a former basketball arena). Further growth is not out of the question for him.
Going hand-in-hand with a the implicit message that unlimited growth, creature comforts and amenities are all good, often is a spiritual sermon that emphasizes the good, minimizes the bad, and remains upbeat throughout. This all adds up to a religion that fits well with the conventional belief in limitless growth, easy motoring and a suburban way of life. In this respect, the megachurch fits well into today’s society.
As we march forward into Kunstler’s Long Emergency, one can’t help but wonder how these megachurches will fare. Will their repetitive, dumbed-down sermon style transform to a more downbeat message—or worse—an accusatory one? Will these places whither away, done in by their supersized utility bills and forgotten by their parishioners, most of whom can no longer afford to drive that Excursion or Explorer? Or will these massive churches’ internal bureaucracy form a de facto government of sorts and mitigate the worst effects of our looming energy crisis?
Whatever the outcome is one thing is for sure; that $16,000 donut budget and Water Park Baptism days most likely are things of the past.