They say that religion is dying in the West. But not if the latest data coming from US megachurches are to be believed. Megachurches are growing, even now in 2016.
When most people think about church life, they think about something rather parochial and small scale. They imagine the priest standing outside of the front door, greeting people as they walk in. And they imagine some pleasant music playing on the organ and polite people standing around in hushed chatter. But the vibe in today’s mega churches is very different. It’s not so much that people don’t talk to you or greet you at the door. It’s just the sheer scale of the operation. Walking into one of today’s mega churches is more like walking into the terminal at JFK. They’re truly enormous.
The size of these churches means that the experience for worshippers is very different to other churches. We’re not talking about reading lines from hymn books here. We’re talking concert-style sound quality mixed with the atmosphere of a gig. What’s perhaps more interesting even than that is the nature of the music. This isn’t the music that we grew up with when we went to church. Thanks to the digital age, there’s now a host of modern music with religious lyrics. The sound is very similar to what you might expect to come from a regular indy band.
At some mega churches, like the Second Baptist in Houston, Texas, things are even more extreme. Here it’s not just the music that breaks with tradition. There’s also lights and even smoke effects. The only thing that breaks the flow of the music is when it all suddenly comes to an end for a prayer. Once this happens, thousands of people immediately fall silent in reverence. It’s quite a fascinating experience.
Second Baptist is by no means alone in its scale. In fact, it is only the second largest church in the US, attracting a mere 24,000 to its weekly events. The church isn’t so much a church, but more of a campus. It’s got everything from gyms to bookstores. There’s even a cafe and a school for the kids on the facility itself. What’s so amazing about the place is just how much money pours into it from the congregation. These are trying times for most American families with the destruction of the middle class. But the church still manages to raise the $53 million it needs each year to run its operations.
Of course, Second Baptist isn’t alone. The megachurch has been trending upwards since at least the 1970s. Back then there were only around 50 in the entire country. But it’s since become the norm, with more than 1,300 today. Megachurches offer something different to the average run of the mill churches. They’re often centered around a few very charismatic leaders. These leaders have a reputation in the Christian faith for having facilitated or even performed some kind or miracle. They also have a reputation for being close to God in a way that their congregation can only dream about. They see themselves, in many ways, as world class Christians, serving the will of God.
But megachurches also have other methods for getting the punters in. There’s nothing like having a free concert put on for you every weekend. There are rock bands, big screens and lots of emotional experiences to be had. And you get to hang out with a bunch of people who largely share your views in a world that is generally hostile to religious faith.
Megachurches are, therefore, more than their row after row of church chairs. They are Christianity’s answer to the 21st century where everything is so shiny and entertaining. Megachurches understand their audience and their market, and they have learned what they need to do to attract new visitors.
“Mega” But Still Spiritual
With all this focus on entertainment, the leadership of these venues makes it clear that they are still about worship. It’s easy for megachurches to get sidetracked, focusing on their amazing facilities and technology. But even in the 21st century, with all our technology and know-how, God is still at the center of what these churches do.
Pastor Young is a member of the ministry team at one of the Houston megachurches. He says that people won’t find anything “ostentatious” in his church. The only things on display here are things that help to make “God’s house” more beautiful.
Of course, with congregations of more than 2,000, it’s hard to keep things beautiful and restricted. Soon every state in the US will have its own megachurch according to projections. With things like the Superbowl, Americans are getting used to gathering in large numbers. Megachurches seem like another natural outlet for this type of behavior. Authors in the Christian movement themselves predict that the growth of megachurches will continue. Two such authors have written a book on the subject. They document the doubling of megachurches between 2002 and 2007. But the authors warn that things aren’t as rosy as many people think. They suggest that the megachurch hasn’t actually helped Christianity grow in the way many of its leaders hoped it would. Instead, megachurches have siphoned worshipers from other churches throughout their state. People want to go to mega churches because they are “cool.” Megachurches themselves aren’t, on net, increasing the number of people involved in the faith.
The Future Politics Of US Megachurches
Things may change significantly for megachurches in the future. Right now, they aren’t allowed to discuss political matters at the pulpit. LBJ saw the power of the church to influence political opinion. So he created a law that said churches would lose their tax-exempt status if they discussed it from the pulpit. For four decades, churches have remained quiet on the subject of politics. But now that Trump has been elected, all that may be about to change. Trump has promised to scrap LBJ’s law, meaning that we could be hearing more about megachurches in the future.