First Baptist, Depreston: Megachurches and Making Suburbia



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Charity R. Carney

Strip malls. Chain restaurants. Gated communities. Starbucks… So many Starbucks. And megachurches. One of the main features of today’s suburban landscape is the megachurch. Megas offer entertaining services, architecture that mimics the surrounding material environment, and a sense of community that seems to fit the suburban lifestyle. For sprawling suburbs many megachurches have even built satellite campuses so that the Sunday commute isn’t too burdensome. Large, seeker-sensitive churches (some preaching prosperity) seem to do particularly well in the suburbs, which have provided homes for more than 75% of megas in United States since the late-1980s.1 The suburbs have contributed to the evolution of modern American evangelicalism’s rituals, doctrines, material culture, community structures. While we can still lament the rise of pre-fab houses and “Californian bungalows in cul-de-sacs” (see Courtney Barnett’s brilliant new homage to the suburbs, Depreston), it is important to recognize the diversity of suburbia and the ways that it has affected religion and religious practices.


This month, University of Minnesota Press released Making Suburbia: Histories of Everyday America (edited by John Archer, Katherine Solomonson, and Paul J. P. Sandul) and I’m fortunate enough to have an essay on megas included in the collection. Here’s a brief excerpt of my piece on the relationship between megachurches and suburban culture, "Sanctifying the SUV: Megachurches, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Suburban Christian":


Jesus had a favorite suburb. According to pastor Leith Anderson, Jesus’s favorite suburb was Bethany, and the Messiah actually commuted to Jerusalem to work. All of his “best friends” lived in Bethany (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), so it made sense for Jesus to live in a suburb instead of in the urban center.² Although Anderson does recognize that Bethany may have been different from the modern extraurban manifestations of sprawling gated communities and planned neighborhoods that have come to represent suburban life, he insists that Jesus was, like so many Americans today, very much the suburbanite. The minister has only one purpose for placing his savior in a suburban environment: to demonstrate that the suburbs can be useful and “authentic” spaces for spiritual activities. He argues, for instance, that Jesus performed his “top miracle” in Bethany by raising Lazarus from the dead. What Anderson attempts to accomplish in this narrative is to combat the notion that suburbs are spiritual vacuums, void of any real religious substance. If Jesus lived and prospered in one, he asserts, then so can many Americans.

Like Anderson, many of today’s evangelicals strive to reconcile their suburban lifestyle with their Christian walk. There is a heavy emphasis in modern Christian literature on how believers may be “good stewards” in a consumer-oriented environment—an environment that often conjures a suburban mythos. The growing megachurch movement combines popular religion with suburban culture to offer a possible solution to the divide between faith and consumption. A church qualifies as “mega” when it has an average attendance of at least two thousand per week; some megachurches have more than sixty thousand congregants.³ These massive churches provide extremely large, contemporary services in state-of-the-art buildings and are generally constructed for the preferences of suburban congregations. The forms of entertainment and doctrinal foci of these churches differ based on their particular suburbs and local demographics, but one thing that remains constant is megachurch leaders’ rhetoric regarding the churches they promote. The suburbs (even the stereotypical and unrealistic image of picket fences and cookie-cutter houses) represent a common motif in evangelical literature and sermons.⁴ Megachurches promote and defend an image of prosperity and plastic religion that reflects a self-imposed image of the suburb that they seek to serve.⁵ This essay situates the megachurch in a suburban context, exploring architecture, ritual, and rhetoric that connect congregations to their surroundings. It presents the rhetoric of megachurch pastors, proponents, and opponents who identify megachurches as a suburban phenomenon and argues that megachurches have constructed their architecture and services to reflect the self-selected symbols of suburbia, offering their own contributions to the national discourse over the nature of suburbia.

Suburbs provide the physical settings for megachurch growth as well as part of a carefully crafted imagery used by megachurch leaders to promote their messages. The rapid rise of megachurches is in part due to their geographical positioning. They offer convenience to churchgoers—the physical locations of the main structures and smaller satellite churches (buildings constructed for the convenience of congregants who want to avoid commuting) are often in suburban areas and next to major roads and interstate highways.⁶ From a spatial perspective, the suburb can be defined as a place that allows a differentiation between work life and family life through the commute; this differentiation of space protects the home from the grind of the city. Historically speaking, suburbs developed around cities as people utilized public transportation or personal automobiles to travel from their homes in decidedly distinct family communities into city centers to work. Today there are various permutations of this theme, with exurbs, inner suburbs, distant suburbs, and cities often blending and shifting their boundaries. Within this ambiguous environment, what the megachurch often provides is the sense of a distinct space for community gathering in an era in which suburbanites are looking for social anchors. Scholars also argue that megachurch planners find suburbia an attractive location because it offers lower land prices and fewer zoning restrictions than do urban centers.⁸ Whether megachurches are located in suburban areas or with satellite campuses throughout cities, their pastors and services often cling to a suburban myth of middle-class prosperity and romanticized self-sufficiency, even if these characteristics are not truly representative of the suburbs in which the churches are planted.


While the collection is on pre-order, here's Barnett's tune to tide you over:



(A huge thanks to Joe Johnson for letting me use his amazing photographs for the essay, several of which are featured above.)



1.  Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: John Wiley, 2007), 11.
2. Leith Anderson, foreword to The Suburban Church: Practical Advice for an Authentic Ministry, by Arthur D. DeKruyter (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), ix. The author of this book, DeKruyter, served as the pastor of a large suburban church on the outskirts of Chicago for thirty-two years, from 1965 to 1997. During these years, he led Christ Church of Oak Brook, a nondenominational congregation with a weekly attendance that averages two thousand and a message that reaches even more listeners through televised broadcasts. The church’s building sits on twenty-two acres and houses a student center, library, counseling center, “state-of-the-art” media center, and preschool. “History,” Christ Church Oak Brook, accessed July 3, 2010, http://cc-ob.org.
3. Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, “Megachurch Definition,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, accessed October 23, 2013, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/definition.html.
4. Dolores Hayden describes these stereotypes as “sitcom suburbs.” Even though recent literature has diversified the definition of the suburb, megachurch leaders and writers often draw on the romanticized version as presented by Hayden. Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (New York: Pantheon, 2003).
5. David Chidester, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 52–53.
6. Most megachurches are “increasingly located in newer suburban areas.” Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, Changes in American Megachurches: Tracing Eight Years of Growth and Innovation in the Nation’s Largest-Attendance Congregations (Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, September 2008), http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/megastoday2008_summaryreport.html.
7. Justin G. Wilford, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 11–12.
8. Thumma and Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths, 11–12.

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