Monday, October 17, 2005

MegaChurched

The American Way of Life, long characterized by drive-through suburbia, McMansions, super-sized products, big-box shopping and the ever present all-you-can-eat buffet, is now joined by the latest example of excess, the Megachurch. Increasing numbers of Americans, apparently no longer content with their empty suburban lifestyles or unfulfilled by their traditional mainline churches are now finding salvation, purpose, and plenty of creature comforts at their spiffy new out-sized houses of worship. These Megachurches, in addition to being yet another scar on the built landscape, represent everything that is wrong with today’s culture.

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 Though the article is now been archived, a few snippets are quite telling.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!
A whole stinkin’ water park? So What Would Jesus Do first? The Ragin’ Rapids or Wave Pool? Even more telling is this quote from the pastor on how he would like the church to be seen

''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.

8 Comments:

Blogger Liz Logan said...

Yikes! I hadn't thought about this phenomenum. And what about the loss of face to face relationships and community with congregations in the thousands. That can't be good.

10/18/2005 9:56 PM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

Community?? Whatever... That's so last century. What with computers, cell phones, play dates and plasma screens who needs community??

/sarcasm

In all seriousness, these church sizes would seem to inhibit everything that needs to happen in a post peak world, though part of me thinks one or more of these megachurches may try and chart an actual communal approach to try and mitigate some of the early impacts of a declining energy supply. How successful some of these efforts could be would ultimately boil down to how realistically they approach the problems and how proactively they plan.

These congregations are huge and would likely include many elements needed in a post peak world (doctors, nurses, construction trades, farmers, teachers). If they would band together and actually form a physical community (assuming they had a viable piece of real estate to fall back on) I could see it potentially working. With a proper amount of job roles and a cohesive leadership, the megachurch community could pull it off and escape a die off somewhat easier.

I have my doubts that the leadership would be proactive enough recognize this though. Most would probably miss the warning signs until war, famine, violence and disease close in on this country. And at that point probably more than a few would be expecting to be raptured out. Why plan for sustainability if you have a get out of jail free card?

Besides, most megachurch adherents are scattered around suburbia and will be left stranded in their respective cul de sacs without a fillup. (my apologies to JHK)

10/19/2005 1:36 AM  
Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks for the additional insight on megachurches. I'm very annoyed with the big one in our town that keeps expanding into nearby farmland (it's almost connected to the nearby Wal-Mart at this point, appropriately enough), but you add some other downsides I hadn't considered.

And to top that off, they seem mostly self-centered... where's the commitment to social justice and helping the poor? Unfortunately, in many cases, if there's any attention to the problems of the world, it's to say in an I-told-you-so voice, "the end times are coming/here!"

Thanks for a thoughtful piece... where is community, indeed.

10/20/2005 8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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?"

I think you are wrong on both accounts. These are the churches that will benefit most when government money begins to flow to religious organizations, so they will become defacto feudal arms of the government. They will be able to decide who gets housing and food when local governments are unable to provide for their citizens. The power of the church will usurp that of the town/village/city and if you aren't "with the program" you could be SOL.

The leadership vacuum is being filled by religious wingnuts who will find themselves with more power as the long emergency erodes the capability of traditional government services.

10/20/2005 9:42 AM  
Blogger Tim of Suburbia said...

My family visited one of these megachurches in our own community, but we were just overwhelmed by the smorgasboard of offerings and lack of spiritual connection.

The churches exist because they fill a need for people living the suburban lifestyle. Religion and spritiuality is treated as a consumable product, you can be just as involved or as anonymous as you would like. The messages preached do not challenge the heart. It's easy salvation.

They use Jesus teaching regarding "The Great Commission" to justify their never ending full-court press for growth. A true relationship with the Creator is exchanged for a feel-good I'm OK you're OK weekly experience.

I recently linked to an article that I believe is a better understanding of some of Jesus' last commands before his crucifixion.

I belong to what I call a mini-mega church, sort of a franchise church, planted by another group of churches that all "tithe" back to some kind of over-arching corporate group that dispenses funds among them. Eh, the kids like it and I can stay as anonymous as I want to.

10/20/2005 3:49 PM  
Anonymous deborah said...

There's an interesting analysis of the megachurch phenomenon vis a vis class and aspiration in the US and Australia in Kate Crawford's essay,
‘Not like us- Megachurches and the left', which can be downloaded as a PDF here:
http://www.bewareofthegod.com/?p=54

11/25/2005 8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous made a good point when he/she wrote that "[the megachurches] will become defacto feudal arms of the government."

I agree. When the Roman Empire collapsed the Catholic church was the only organization capable of filling the vacuum of power. Although it took centuries to assert itself, the office of the Pope was the ruler of the feudal era, and the Pope was able to crown and dethrone kings and emperors. And remember the Church stifled science for centuries until the Age of Enlightment, when scholars began to challenge the unscientific authority of the Church. Looks like Amerika is headed back to a new dark age with Pope Bush as leader.

5/25/2006 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Duncan said...

Kunstler expounds more on the fate of mega churches on his weekly podcast, The KunstlerCast.

KunstlerCast #19: Wishful Thinking

Religious activists are praying at Washington DC gas stations for cheaper fuel. James Howard Kunstler says that type of neurotic behavior isn't much different than the behavior of cargo cults in the South Pacific. The concept of getting something for nothing is widely accepted by American culture, and religion, too. But Jim feels spirituality in America might one day evolve into something worthy of more respect than the Jiminy Cricket, consumerist culture of today's suburban mega churches.

Click to listen (14 MB):
KunstlerCast_19.mp3

6/20/2008 1:20 PM  

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