For the past 40 years, a close friend of mine was nurtured, formed, and actively engaged in a local congregation; he struggles to say exactly why, but he just couldn’t do that anymore. Now he simply shows up for the early morning worship service at a nearby megachurch. One of my students, at best nominally religious, was required to visit a worship service for a class. She went to a megachurch. It changed her life. She had never before experienced worship like that. A friend, writing a PhD thesis on megachurches, is weary of the defensive reaction he frequently gets when the topic is raised with people still connected to local congregations. Megachurches attract lots of people and lots of reaction.
According to the Lilly-funded Insights into Religion project, which has gathered a plethora of information on this phenomenon, “The number of megachurches in the United States has grown tremendously over the past 20 years, which suggests this innovative American institution has taken root and is thriving.” The Hartford Institute for Religion Research and the Dallas-based church resource centre Leadership Network report that megachurches—those with a weekly attendance of 2,000 people or more—have grown in number from approximately 50 in 1970 to over 1350 today. Average weekly attendance continues to grow throughout those churches, with the most recently established megachurches growing the fastest. Newcomer orientation is constant, and 40% of attenders have joined within the last 5 years. The identity of a large majority of these megachurches is broadly evangelical; most have some kind of tie to a denomination, fellowship, or association, but by far the most important factor in considering who they are and what they are free to be is the character, conviction, and charisma of the leader at the helm.
All indications suggest that megachurches will likely be around for the foreseeable future. They have increasingly defined and are now filling a niche in the social architecture of American life. I do wonder, however, about how best to understand the social location and the functional purpose of this “innovative American institution.”
American advertising loves to exult in products that are “bigger and better”—a bigger burger must be better. So, too, one might suppose, for churches. Bigger is better. More choice (worship time, programs, etc.), more quality (praise band, preacher), more freedom to participate in just the ways that suit you. But this kind of social adaptation cuts both ways: if megachurches are relevant in ways typical to big box merchants, entertainment agencies, civic sporting events, etc., perhaps they are not such innovative institutions after all.
In times long past, a megachurch (e.g., medieval cathedrals) often functioned as the hub of a community’s social and economic activity. The very construction of the building was an artistic testament to the times. Creative and commercial energy swirled around and within its walls. Neighbourhoods grew up around it. Artisans and merchants took up residence in its vicinity because it was a destination point. Crowds gathered at cathedrals. It would appear, however, that the social location of today’s megachurches is somewhat different. Though today’s megachurches are also a destination point, and though this destination is typically located in a spot that is well-served by heavily populated thoroughfares, the destination is not so much a dwelling place as it is a celebrated regional highlight (in some ways, perhaps, on par with a casino, convention centre, or amphitheatre).
I have begun to wonder, therefore, if there might be better ways to comprehend this “innovative American institution [that] has taken root and is thriving.” Could it be that megachurches are not so much the result of creative innovation but instead the almost predictable and necessary byproduct of a time of tempestuous social change? The metaphor that comes to mind for me is that of a “detention basin.” Let me explain.
Social change, like the changing of the seasons, is easily observed when looking back over a span of time. From the vantage point of summer, the change from Winter to Spring looks relatively steady and predictable. Temperatures rise, snow melts, bulbs burst forth from the ground, rain showers soak us all. The day to day reality of that change, however, is usually not so even. Some days the temperature just never warms up. Other days, the sun shines radiantly, snow melts, or a thunderstorm rolls through and suddenly the floodwaters are everywhere. Over time, it all evens out, and when we look back the predictable change has once again occurred.
The infrastructure of our homes and neighbourhoods has been designed to handle the turbulence of this seasonal change. We lay drain tile around the foundations of our houses to channel the swelling tides of melting snow and rain water. Sump pumps can then send these excess waters out into neighbourhood drains, causeways, creeks—back into the larger geography where it is assimilated into the ecological system that surrounds us.
More recently, and all the more urgently given the intensity of recent meteorological activity, civic planners have begun to insist not just on drains, causeways, and the like as necessary for appropriate handling and channeling of these dramatic, but temporary, floodwaters; they now also require detention basins. For any large building, an overflow or catchment area must also be included in the overall design. During thunderstorms or when a lot of snow melts quickly, these detention basins collect and hold the dramatic inflows of water, only to release the water back into the broader ecological system over the next while. The destructive effects of sudden flooding, cascading erosion, and displaced sediment deposits are thereby avoided.
By nature of the case, these detention basins tend to be quite large. They need to be large because they are designed to handle a large amount of water delivered almost all at once. The precise design of these detention basins, however, can vary significantly. Some basins are quite non-descript, a large flat field of grass with gently sloping sides. Other basins may look quite ragged, but only because the area is filled with native grasses and other plants that variously bloom and fade. Still others are more like wide open pits, walled enclosures of concrete or stone or whatever.
For the most part, these large detention basins sit empty. Generally, they are not essential or integrated into whatever else is happening all around them. Their purpose is quite singular. They protect us from the destructive effects of surging change. The rest of the time, they are not really a determining factor in what happens. At times, the open grassy basins may provide some children a convenient place to play ball, or a dedicated golfer might go out and chip around with a few golf balls. But it is important to notice that these open public spaces never fully function like a civic park or neighbourhood gathering spot. That’s not their intent, and by design, they are at times obviously unsafe for such activity.
Could it be that megachurches are a kind of sociological detention basin? And if so, what are we to make of this “innovative American institution”? If nothing else, perhaps we might suggest the following:
First, megachurches are likely to stick around for a while. And gladly so, given the degree and scope of social change that North American life is undergoing.
Second, we should neither overestimate, nor underestimate, the nature and function of their place in North American religious life in the meantime. On this understanding, they are not likely to be significant instruments of renewal and revitalization for the North American church in the coming decades. They are mostly just holding tanks. But that does not render them inconsequential, for they play a vital and necessary role in the midst of social change. People flock to them, where they are securely held, until such time as they can assimilate back into local neighbourhood structures. So yes, we should perhaps expect megachurches to stay large, and to continue to grow, until such time as the surrounding social architecture and the broader religious geography is ready to assimilate these displaced folk in ways appropriate to these rapidly changing times.
Perhaps, therefore, the more pressing questions are not what we should make of these growing megachurches, but to ask, what will happen if/when these megachurch crowds begin to drift away? What kind of local church or parish neighbourhood would be willing and able to absorb and embrace the kinds of people who make up the motley crowds currently being held in megachurches? What kind of church(es) will be needed to engage the challenges and opportunities of the social realities that lie ahead? Is it too much to suggest that, given the history of the church across the ages and the very nature of detention basins, that it is likely that people will, in time, drain away from this “innovative American institution”? Is it too much to suggest that they will drain away in search of humble, enduring communities that somehow both inhabit and transcend the particulars of their social location? What habits of heart, what daily liturgies of life would be needed to embody, to comprise such a community today?