Big Church

Randall Stephens

Big, bigger, biggest. Americans dig superlatives. I didn't know that as a kid when the Stephens clan attended the enormous College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, Kansas. It was and still is one of the defining features of my home town. It looks a little like a massive brick wigwam, or an enormous brick-covered circus tent, or bricked mother ship, with docking stations, resting on the prairie. (When the main sanctuary was built around 1980 I don't think "megachurch" had yet entered the neologism lexicon.)

As a youngster, maybe I assumed that most other people, too, attended churches with 2,000-plus members. Our church had stadium seating and a passion play that brought acres of Jerusalem--hills, shrubbery, buildings, a tomb, the Last Supper tablescape--into our sanctuary. I did visit some Missouri Wesleyan and Nazarene churches out in the sticks that didn't have orchestras, so I suppose I did soon realize that not everyone was blessed with a sprawling church complex.

You could get lost in the basement halls of our church. (I still remember all the smells of that basement when we had to scurry down there in the late 1970s during a tornado. Odors of Play Doh mingling with mold, perfume, and Old Spice.)

I wonder what future generations of historians will have to say about the megachurch. (Surely, sociologists and suburban anthropologists have plenty to say about it now. So did Andrew Sullivan in his Conscience of a Conservative.) What does the megachurch tell us about religion in America in the last 20 years or so? What does the disdain that most critics have for them tell us? If we took a snapshot of American evangelicalism in the 1880s or the 1950s and compared that with the megachurch context of today, what contrasts would come into focus? (Matt Sutton found some roots of the phenomenon in Sister Aimee and Angelus Temple.)

An excerpt of an AJC piece on the ever-present megachurch:

Shelia M. Poole, "Megachurches: Supersizing Faith," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 6, 2010.

Rock climbing walls, kids' spaces that resemble small Disneylands, bookstores, state-of-the-art sound systems. It's church -- supersized. In metro Atlanta and elsewhere, the number of megachurches, which have long been defined as having a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more, are still drawing huge numbers of worshippers and receiving millions of dollars in the collection plate. "Megachurches have really succeeded because they service all needs of the community, the spiritual and the social," said Lerone A. Martin, an assistant professor of American religious history at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. . . .

These religious behemoths have received greater attention of late after a flurry of well-publicized litigation against one of the most mega of megachurches, the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia. New Birth is named as a defendant in five lawsuits, four of which allege that its prominent pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long, coerced four young men into having sex.


Tom Van Dyke said…
Looks like a cathedral from the olden days and its attending buildings, except not so high or gothic. Nothing new here, nor specifically American, move along.

The Bishop Eddie L. Long? Gratuitous slime at the end there from Sheila M. Poole, "Megachurches: Supersizing Faith," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 6, 2010.

And they wonder why we don't trust the media. The Bishop Eddie L. Long, his alleged corruptions and failings as a human being [perhaps all true], has nothing to do with "megachurches" on the whole.

Thx for pointing out yet another dishonest attack on Christianity in America today, Mr. Stephens, and keep up the good work.

Lord, if we had to judge Christianity by the worst of its Christians, no sane man could count himself as one.