Megachurches, Suburbia and the Prosperity Gospel

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Megachurches often invest in state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment and luxurious, expansive buildings.
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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.

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.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

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.

Architecture is one of the major components of this process of bricolage. “Suburban megachurches,” scholar Eileen Luhr argues, “attracted new members with nonthreatening architecture that mimicked suburban designs, pastors who wore casual clothes and preached about everyday issues, and a contemporary worship style that featured up-to-date music.” An example of this reappropriation is Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Pastor Joel Osteen’s suburban congregation grew so large that the church moved into the former Houston Astros baseball stadium to accommodate their numbers. The structure was transformed into a maze of youth and children’s rooms, a bookstore and coffee shop, and a sanctuary adorned with plush purple-velvet pews, state-of-the-art lighting and sound, a giant golden globe, and two waterfalls behind the pulpit. Megachurches, however, do not have to repurpose stadiums to be successful. is one of the largest churches in the United States, but it does not meet at a central location. Instead, branches of the church have been founded in movie theaters and strip malls, where members can attend Sunday services connected via satellite to the organization’s senior pastor, Craig Groeschel, or another teaching pastor. Worshippers are also invited to join services on the church’s “Internet Campus” at home if they cannot attend a service in person. By repurposing and revising the mode of delivering their messages, megachurches reproduce commercial culture and the mechanisms of capitalist consumption through convenience and competition, with churches offering a variety of services in a manner similar to suburban malls.

The Suburban Megachurch Philosophy

Although they are diverse, many megachurches build their identities around capitalism and commercialism—two forces that help shape the landscapes of American suburbs. The moneymaking and hierarchy-driven megachurch relates directly to the business world, with which many members of the suburban middle class are familiar. One New York Times contributor traced the relationship between the development of the megachurch and the “corporate-organizational complex” and found that megachurch pastors operate more like CEOs than like traditional preachers. This direct parallel between the suburban megachurch and the corporate world may have contributed to the prevalence of these enormous congregations across the United States. Texas serves as a good example of this connection between corporate clout and megachurch religion. The state hosts large companies such as Exxon, ConocoPhillips, AT&T, and Valero Energy. It is also home to a total of 157 megachurches, including 4 of the 10 largest megachurches in the country. Houston’s Lakewood Church is easily the largest church body in the United States to date, with more than forty-six thousand worshippers attending service every Sunday. Lakewood is a suburban outcropping of the megachurch, with people driving to the complex as they would to a basketball game to bear witness to the festivities.

The selection of the suburbs for the planting of the majority of megachurches speaks to their leaders’ capitalist ingenuity. Since the late 1980s more than 75 percent of megachurches have been built in suburbs, and by the 1990s most of the new megachurches were being constructed in distant suburbs or exurbs because of these areas’ lack of zoning restrictions and the advantage of lower taxes. Such areas also have access to “the type of people most attracted to megachurches: consumer-oriented, willing to commute great distances, highly mobile and often displaced, with a traditional nuclear family structure.” As Saddleback Church, a megachurch in Lake Forest, California, bragged on its website in 2010, it was “growing to a community near you. We want to make it easy to get to Saddleback and make it enjoyable when you arrive!” This advertisement represents the strategy and philosophy of megareligion in the American suburbs: it strives to entertain and appeal to individuals seeking a church home in a way that speaks to a suburban following.

The business-oriented model is only one way in which megachurches have taken on unique characteristics that draw in droves of converts. Praise music serves as a ready example of the process of megachurch bricolage. Most megachurches rely on contemporary worship practices, including music that uses a variety of rock instruments, peppy tempos, and repetitious refrains. Songs are intended to uplift rather than condemn and focus on the value of the individual rather than the collective. In his work on Lutheran megachurches, Ellingson describes praise music as optimistic and simplistic, arguing that it “present[s] the Christian story and notions of God in . . . reductionistic terms so that the difficult, ambiguous, and negative aspects (e.g., sin, sacrifice, death) of Christianity and Christian theology are avoided.” This scholarly observation withholds judgment of the quality of praise music and the emotional experience it produces. Carol Demong, a former megachurch congregant and a critic of megachurch practices, does not use the same restraint. According to Demong, megachurch worship teams give old hymns a new pop persona. “If an old hymn is given a nod,” she observes, “it will be sporting a mini-skirt and spiked hair—louder, speeded up, with difficult phrases reworked.” In making worship music easy to sing and choirs and their leaders easier on the eyes, churches use popular culture as a reference point and try to tailor their services to potential religious consumers (read: members). In their quest to bring in more souls, Demong insists, “planners seem to have decided that Mega needs to look like, feel like, sound like, think like, and act like the culture might look, feel, sound, think, and act after it had been given a good de-lousing.” Therefore, megamusic and other trappings of worship represent a coming together of familiar cultural forms and an optimistic, uplifting Christian message. Demong’s criticism of megachurch music is strikingly similar to jibes made at the suburbs by their critics, who claim that a plastic and sterilized veneer coats suburban communities.

Fitting Religion into Suburbia

Praise music and entertainment are just some of the reasons behind the success of megachurches in the United States. Some megachurch supporters accuse the “land of plenty” in which these churches are located of having no identity and argue that megachurches are important because they create “a small-town community in a placeless suburbia.” Megachurch pastors, however, are not working within a space devoid of culture or place. In fact, one of the reasons they are so successful is that they have a firm understanding of the character of their suburbs and a distinct desire to connect to fellow suburbanites in their own corners of the country. Although there are regional variations, megachurches share similar musical styles, architectural features, and messages of prosperity, indicating the predilection of their leaders to present a consistent vision of the new Christian ideal—an ideal that often seeks to entertain, bless, and grow.

The ideal does involve some potential problems that these congregations have had to overcome. Suburban space can be defined in many ways, but megachurches share a unique characteristic that has often been ascribed to suburbia: separation. Scholars have described suburbs as places distinct from urban centers or the rural beyond. In some suburban communities, a sense of separation and distinctiveness drives a feeling of alienation and marginalization. For some churchgoers, this leads to defensiveness and complaints of victimization. But it is that very notion of marginality, combined with a utopian vision and conservative values, that helps to create and define a unique suburban sense of place and self. Charismatic/neo-Pentecostal preachers relate to these emotions and to the suburban lifestyle through sermons that simultaneously point out the unique stresses in suburbanites’ lives and give suburban congregants the spiritual power to face these problems. In a 2013 sermon at Lakewood Church in Houston (Osteen’s congregation), popular megachurch preacher Joyce Meyer asked the congregation to “stop complaining” about life’s inconveniences and listed a litany of problems that she assumed members of her audience might face. She elaborated on reasons she could have complained over the past two months, ranging from spraining her toe when it got caught in her underwear, losing her pants at the spa at a five-star hotel, her staff not being able to find an open Starbucks for her morning coffee, and receiving the wrong bedspread after ordering one through the mail. Meyer’s message focused on the problem of the modern Christian constantly complaining, but her larger point was muddled with references to her economic status and consumer culture. Christians should not complain about their houses or cars, she continued, because they asked for them and God gave them those blessings. “If gas prices rise, believe God will give you money to pay for how much you need to get to where you need to go.” Meyer used the neo-Pentecostal touchstones of “name it and claim it” (like claiming the gasoline or a house or car) prosperity theology and related it to the middle-class and formulaic suburban consumption. As Meyer’s sermon indicates, megachurch pastors consider the special demographics of their audience: megachurchgoers are likely to have more education and more wealth than average churchgoers. Leaders of megachurches base their teachings on issues (materialism, commercialism, social mobility, and affluence) that have relevance to the particular perspective of these congregants.

Writing on the special qualities of evangelical suburban living, Albert Hsu challenges church leaders to craft their messages to appeal to the middle class. According to Hsu, “The suburban life is a spiritual quest,” a pilgrimage, and megachurches need to respect this perspective when designing their mission to suburbanites. In an obvious overstatement, he argues that if megachurch pastors could reach suburbanites, they could actually save the world. To accomplish this goal, Hsu suggests, pastors must relate to their audiences and adjust their messages and approaches to better suit their congregants. Consider, for instance, the value of Christian sacrifice. Hsu recommends that instead of asking their congregations to fast or to give up alcohol (conventional evangelical commands), pastors should tell them to drive only one SUV instead of two for one week or to use public transportation. This will remind suburban Christians that some Americans have to deal with these inconveniences on a daily basis. He tells his readers that in heaven there will be no cars whatsoever, and believers need to get used to that fact. “While Revelation’s picture of the New Jerusalem is undeniably an urban city environment,” he explains, “nobody even speaks of driving there. We always look forward to walking on those streets of gold.” In his projections, Hsu firmly attaches himself to middle-class attitudes, comforting his readers by reminding them of their relative affluence but also appealing to their desire for upward mobility. One day, he postulates, his stereotypical suburban believers will have to sacrifice their large, expensive cars, but in exchange they will live in the splendor of the most glorious (unpolluted, nonthreatening) city.

David Goetz, a Christian journalist, also sees suburban religion as a special project and, like Hsu, insists that faith can be practiced in the suburbs, just in a slightly adjusted way. “You don’t have to hole up in a monastery,” he urges, “to experience the fullness of God. Your cul-de-sac and subdivision are as good a place as any.” While not all megachurch services may incorporate talk of SUVs or gated communities, the picture that they create of modern religion remains the same: they all maintain a particular perspective on suburban life, Christian sacrifice, and Christian success in order to appeal to the assumed audience in their surrounding communities. In an earlier article that Goetz wrote for Christianity Today, he references Kenneth T. Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier and argues that “what Jackson observed sociologically [that the space of our physical surroundings shapes our behavior], I’ve concluded must also be true spiritually.” Living in the Chicago suburbs, Goetz addresses the subject of suburban faith as a process that has unfolded in communities throughout the United States. Goetz wryly explains that Christian consumerism is one by-product of suburban religion, with “church migration patterns [that] tend to follow whatever church has the ‘buzz’—the ‘biblical’ preacher, the new contemporary service, the nuevo liturgical service, the acoustical, postmodern service, the youth ministry with the great weekend retreats and exotic mission trips.”“Choice,” he concludes, “is a beautiful thing.” What many megachurches try to provide is the best of all worlds, a collection of all these amenities so the suburban family need not choose.

“Seeker-Sensitive” Services Attract Congregants

One of the most influential instances of a megachurch adopting such a culturally driven message occurred at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. As early as 1975, Willow Creek set out to restructure the way that it worshipped, focusing on what its leading pastor, Bill Hybels, termed “seeker-sensitive” services. According to Christianity Today, the church used “its Sunday services to reach the unchurched through polished music, multimedia, and sermons referencing popular culture and other familiar themes.” The seeker-sensitive model influenced other congregations, like Ed Dobson’s Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to make their ministries “consumer oriented” and to “place the gospel in a culturally relevant context.” In order to determine what issues were culturally relevant to their communities, these seeker-sensitive churches relied on surveys and statistics, developing business plans for expanding their numbers. In 2007, however, Willow Creek released a new study titled “Reveal: Where Are You?” and admitted that its previous model had been a “mistake” because it directed the church’s message toward the needs of the unchurched rather than its members. Despite this admission, Willow Creek continues to depend on “marketing methodology” and a “target audience,” and still relies on suburban consumerism to attract people to its sanctuary on Sunday mornings.

In many ways, the seeker-sensitive movement has shaped and been shaped by suburban stereotypes. Past scholars described the suburb as a “bourgeois utopia,” defined in part by homogeneity and segregation (from the working class, from other races, from the dirt and pollution of the city). The more the middle class grew, however, the more the suburbs expanded and diversified. Despite these changes, megachurches have not given up on many of the original suburban ideals. They nod to interracial and interclass cooperation—many of these churches serve a broad demographic—but they also maintain a commitment to exclusivity and homogeneity. Megachurch preachers emphasize the separation between their churches and the world and encourage congregants to guard themselves against sinful coworkers or friends. Some pastors go so far as to develop an explicit fear of the world in their congregants. (This category would especially include John Hagee at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he preaches a Zionist, pro-Israel doctrine and prophesies about the coming Armageddon.)

The content of megachurch sermons does the most to unite believers in a singular understanding of God and God’s plan for their lives. Many of these megachurch messages aimed at middle-class (and aspiring middle-class) suburbanites rely on some version of the prosperity gospel—a doctrinal device that feeds into suburban ideals focused on wealth and security. The prosperity gospel preaches (to quote televangelist and practitioner Joyce Meyer) that “God wants you to have nice things” and that Christianity does not require poverty but instead should lead to financial “blessings” from the Lord. It also encourages believers to accept wealth or gifts of talent and beauty as being from the Lord, relieving perceived suburban guilt in a society constructed on the foundations of attainment and appearances. Carol Demong believes that making modern Christianity relevant to acquisitive suburbanites is a dangerous practice. It produces “uncomplicated, pre-digested Mega junk food” centered on the message “I’m okay, God is okay, and he seems to like me for some reason.” In many megachurch sermons, God likes believers enough to promise them temporal wealth in addition to everlasting life. One scholar defines the prosperity gospel as a movement derived from the mind-cure theories of the nineteenth century, with the modern doctrine teaching that “verbal confessions of faith possess the metaphysical power to compel God’s blessings.” Bruce Wilkinson popularized the current conception of this doctrine when he released his best-selling book The Prayer of Jabez in 2000. It sold one million copies in February 2001 alone. According to the prosperity gospel, blessings can come in many forms, from physical healing to financial success because, Wilkinson claims, “your Father longs to give you so much more than you may have ever thought to ask for.”

The Broad Appeal of the Prosperity Gospel

Perhaps the most renowned prosperity preacher today, Joel Osteen has a particular penchant for reaching a broad audience not only in Houston and its suburbs but also across the United States and the world. He has found a niche with his prosperity-soaked message of hope and happiness and convinces his followers that God wants them to live a comfortable (what he terms “blessed”) life without financial hardship. Instead of relying on scriptural parables, Osteen often prefers to use modern-day anecdotes to reach congregants, a strategy that seems to have contributed immensely to his popularity. In 2010, during the economic crisis, Osteen continually promised his followers that God would help them out of their despair and, if trusted, would grant them the financial fruits for which they asked. In an online post, for instance, Osteen insisted that God causes “reversal and restoration” if believers give him praise. “Believe Him for restoration in your retirement and savings,” Osteen implored. “Believe God for restoration in that business that you lost. There is nothing too difficult for God to do. Everything that was stolen can be restored in your life. God always gives us double for our trouble and He likes to outdo Himself.” God can even restore stock market losses, Osteen insisted, if one truly has the faith that he will.

Osteen’s perspective is part of a growing neo-Pentecostal movement that has rooted in many megachurches. Pastors preach prosperity to largely suburban audiences in these churches and tailor the doctrine to local demographic needs. In Dallas, T. D. Jakes stands out as the corporate-minded, charismatic leader of the Potter’s House, a mostly African American megachurch founded on the prosperity gospel and nationally recognized for its religious teachings on financial aggrandizement and commercial success. Jakes spells out his thoughts on prosperity in his book Reposition Yourself. He says that success means getting good grades if you are a student, “closing a deal” if you are a CEO, owning a home if you now rent, or “owning a Mercedes to park in front of your condo” if that is your desire. In America, he explains, there is too much contempt and disdain for the wealthy. His teachings try to make his followers feel more comfortable with affluence, and he promises to show them how God can help them become even more prosperous.

For middle-class African Americans, this message of prosperity strikes a profound chord. An article published in Ebony magazine in 2001 explores the power that Jakes has over the black community in Dallas and calls the African American preacher a “trailblazer.” He relates religion to contemporary culture, “binding tradition to modernity,” Ebony explains, and “encourag[es] his members to buy stock and build wealth” rather than be content with mediocrity. Perhaps because of the segregation of earlier suburban communities and socioeconomic disparities that resulted from racial prejudice and lack of opportunity (both educational and occupational), African Americans are drawn to Jakes’s version of prosperity gospel theology. Since the 1980s and 1990s, more black Americans have moved into suburbs like those surrounding Dallas, Texas. Jakes’s message of accepting success without shame finds an eager audience among the growing African American middle and upper-middle classes in these suburbs. “Open your arms up to God and receive your blessing,” the popular preacher entreats his willing believers as they “plan to be blessed” financially.

Paula White delivers a similar message of abundance to congregants in Tampa, Florida, even when they may have little hope in their financial futures. The young, petite, blond preacher took over as senior pastor of Without Walls ministries in 2009 when her ex-husband, Randy White, resigned because of health problems. Paula White has latched onto the prosperity movement but has made it relevant to many women in a way that Jakes may not. In a sermon that she delivered on May 23, 2010, titled “Increase,” White told her congregants to “Bring on the Big.” She claims that God often “anoints” his faithful with future gifts that often do not “line up with current conditions.” For instance, God may tell a struggling individual to begin a company, even if the person cannot make the mortgage that month. Or he may encourage a woman to buy a wedding dress even if she has not had a date in ten years. The key is to be ready for the blessing, White implores, and to understand that “it’s TOO BIG for you, BUT just right for HIM and YOU!”

White shares personal examples to explain her points—examples that resonate with a middle-class, consumer-oriented cohort. White compares God’s blessings to the actions of a shipping company, for instance, admitting that “she orders a lot through the mail,” items like “cute shoes for a conference.” Sometimes “they try to deliver—BUT no one is there to receive it,” a situation similar to when God tries to give believers “NOTICE” and they ignore his messages. Often there can be “DELAYS in delivery,” White notes, and she compares these delays to Satan’s stonewalling God’s blessings to prevent a Christian from benefiting from them. “The enemy has been trying to discourage you,” she exclaims, “make you disbelieve by DELAY. But DELAY doesn’t mean denial.” In fact, she argues, God actually has his own “tracking system,” much like UPS, and he “watches over his WORD to perform it.” By comparing God’s blessings to modern consumption, White makes the prosperity gospel relevant to middle-class religious consumers.

Suburbanite Influence on the World

Joel Osteen may have summarized the megachurch movement’s appeal best himself when he said of his ministry: “I shouldn’t put it that way, but it’s an unusual thing that for some reason people that don’t normally go to church, I think I have a way—not just me—but of making things not too—and I don’t mean this wrong—but not too religious. You know, make it for the everyday person.” But that “everyday person” is not just any person. He or she is the individual Matthew Hagee (son of John Hagee and pastor of Cornerstone Church) describes in his work on Christian prosperity. “Who are you?” he asks his reader. “Not the nine-to-five you or the weekend recreational extreme sports you or the summa cum laude class of ’96 you—but the real you. Too many people find their identity in the wrong place, and I believe there is a good reason why.” Even as Matthew Hagee detracts from the stereotypical suburban identity to ask his audience members to reevaluate their souls, he also legitimates and relates to that identity. And that approach is one of the major keys to megachurch success.

Megachurches like Cornerstone barter for tithes with promises of prosperity, but they would not be successful in convincing congregants of their utopian visions if they did not interact with their particular suburban surroundings. Megachurches often borrow and create a suburban sense of place and notions of “authenticity” (authentic architecture, authentic music, authentic relationships), and they are also empowered by the wealth of many of these suburban communities to spread their messages to other parts of the nation and, in some cases, the world. The exchange between megareligion and the suburbs has produced a megachurch enterprise that expresses both the fears and the desires of the modern middle class. It has gained enough authority through utopian vision and prosperity theology to shape suburban response to economic, cultural, and political trends.

Evangelicals are not unaware of this expanding influence of the suburban megachurch. Many view it as an opportunity to reach souls previously lost, to demonstrate the power of the gospel through the sheer number of members collected and money tithed. As president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson emphasizes the importance of suburban belief for the future of Christianity: just as Christ ministered from his suburb of Bethany, so, too, can the suburban Christian. “Suburban churches can and do influence America,” the preacher declares. “Suburban churches can and should reach millions of people, disciple generations of Christians, steward billions of dollars, parent tens of thousands of new congregations, and advance the gospel of Jesus Christ in the hundreds of nations on our earth.” It is the megachurch that allows for this grand vision, and it is a vision shared by a constantly growing number of megadisciples. And because of this deep connection to place, the megachurch is both a product of and a prescriptive for suburban desires, anxieties, and fears in modern America.

“Sanctifying the SUV: Megachurches, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Suburban Christian,” by Charity R. Carney is reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America edited by John Archer, Paul J. P. Sandul, and Katherine Solomonson. Copyright 2015 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.

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