Megachurches, Suburbia and the Prosperity Gospel

With congregants numbering in the thousands, megachurches are a firmly suburban phenomenon, often promoting a prosperity gospel designed to mesh with the affluent lifestyle of suburbanites.

| August 2015

  • Seats
    Megachurches often invest in state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment and luxurious, expansive buildings.
    Photo by Fotolia/peych_p
  • Making Suburbia
    The stereotypical view of the monotonous, nearly identical houses and lawns of suburbia reveals very little about the lives of the people who live there; “Making Suburbia,” edited by John Archer, Paul J. P. Sandul and Katherine Solomonson, investigates the experiences and everyday actions of the inhabitants of American suburbs.
    Cover courtesy the University of Minnesota Press

  • Seats
  • Making Suburbia

The editors of Making Suburbia (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), John Archer, Paul J. P. Sandul and Katherine Solomonson, have collected essays on home décor and garage rock, modernist shopping malls and holiday parades to explore how suburbanites actively created the spaces of suburbia. The following essay, titled “Sanctifying the SUV,” deals with megachurches and the prosperity gospel among suburban Christians.

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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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 megachurches across the United States tend to share common characteristics (large buildings that are often repurposed, prosperity gospel theology, seeker-sensitive services, and neo-Pentecostal emphases), most of these congregations are situated in the South. In his work on postsuburban religion, Justin Wilford presents evidence from the Hartford Institute that southern states host about 50 percent of the nation’s megachurches; the Midwest and West are home to between 20 and 25 percent of these congregations, and the Northeast claims less than 12 percent. Because of the number of megachurches in the Bible Belt, the South has an important impact on megachurch culture. California and Illinois also figure in prominently as states that have high proportions of these massive congregations.

The national appeal of megachurches is multifaceted; it can be attributed to the decidedly bourgeois language their leaders use via the prosperity gospel, the conservative ideology that they affirm, and the architectural grandeur of the structures themselves. Whatever their focus, megachurches are designed as self-contained, self-sustaining environments, offering services intended to attract and keep members. Each church attracts thousands of congregants by constructing spaces that reappropriate and repurpose common and identifiable objects, products, and places that feel familiar. In his study of Lutheran megachurches in California, Stephen Ellingson contends that church leaders remake traditions in an attempt to grow membership. Part of the reasoning for this is the congregations’ “embeddedness” in the larger religious world. This change leads Ellingson to describe megachurches as “posttraditional” and preachers as “bricoleurs” in their construction of a new faith. Suburbia is the site of that process of bricolage—a process of cultural construction through which megachurches combine older faith traditions, newer versions of prosperity gospel theology, repurposed and grandiose architecture, and contemporary musical and pop culture references.

8/14/2015 11:25:40 AM

It's interesting how people talk about Jesus as if he really existed. He may have existed as a mere mortal or he may simply be ancient mythology ( ). However, two things attributed to him in the Bible that all Christian churches seem to reject are people should pay their taxes (no tax exemption for religions) and people should sell all they own, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus. Perhaps the Deist Thomas Paine was right when he wrote in his book The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition that we need a revolution in religion based on our innate God-given reason and Deism. This would make for a much more rational and happy world free of religious fear-based superstitions, myths and religious violence. Progress! Bob Johnson

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