A Mini-guide to Megachurches

How they're changing the social and political landscapes

| June 2, 2005

When Harvard professor Robert Putnam was giving the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) tips on how to revitalize the labor movement, he argued that the social network fostered at union halls has dissolved, as has the bygone era of the tightly knit neighborhood. And suburbanites and exurbanites are now turning to megachurches.

'Megachurches have done an incredible job of helping people find a sense of community,' SEIU President Andrew Stern tells the Associated Press.

These new communities are dependent on being oversized (the typical megachurch has at least 2,000 members) and intimate at the same time. The faithful are drawn and reassured by the huge congregation (consumer confidence in numbers, James B. Twitchell suggests in Mother Jones). Small 'cell groups' then provide the personal interaction that's drowned out in the comforting sea of worshipers.

At megachurches, individual needs reign supreme. The freshly built, mall-like structures offer child-care services, food courts, book stores, youth programs, and counseling for what ails you: financial issues, marriage problems, sexual addiction, chemical dependency. There is no burdensome talk of fire and brimstone or a dictate to serve the poor. Those are downers. These churches flourish by making people feel good about themselves and the search for prosperity.

It's textbook good business management: Know your customer. Pastor Ted Haggard at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, which Harper's Magazine calls 'America's most powerful megachurch,' has mastered this tack. 'He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than 'moral values' -- it needs customer value,' Jeff Sharlet writes. Community surveys have guided pastors in shaping their churches: Don't be overbearing, promote casual dress, make men feel comfortable, and, above all, entertain.

The business know-how is paying off, BusinessWeek reports. While mainline denominations are shrinking and struggling to retain members, megachurches have surged to number 880 compared with 50 in 1980. Donations and tithing bring in millions, while the huge complexes can employ hundreds. The booming business even has drawn Corporate America into the mix. And it's not just Christian books, tapes, and 'inspirational giftware.' According to WORLD Magazine, a Christian publication, 'a new kind of retail evangelism' may be emerging, embodied by the Southern California skateboard-chic chain C28 (for Colossians 2:8).