Megachurches As Minitowns

In Glendale, Ariz., the 12,000-member Community Church of Joy, which has a school, conference center, bookstore and mortuary on its 187-acre property, has embarked on a $100 million campaign to build a housing development, a hotel, convention center, skate park and water-slide park, transforming itself into what Dr. Walt Kallestad, the senior pastor, calls a “destination center.”

Patty Anderson and her husband, Gary, found faith where they least expected it — he on the free-throw line and she swathed in sweats in an aerobics class.

It happened at the 50,000-square-foot activities center of the Southeast Christian Church here, where pumping iron and praising the Lord go hand and hand. Amenities at the gym include 16 basketball courts and a Cybex health club, free to churchgoers, where the music is Christian and the rules ban cursing even during the crunch.

“I really had no intention of being part of a church,” recalled Gary Anderson, a physiology professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. But hoops at this 22,000-member megachurch led him to the sanctuary. And after three years, he said, like a slam dunk, “the sermons sunk in.”

Southeast Christian is an example of a new breed of megachurch — a full-service “24/7” sprawling village, which offers many of the conveniences and trappings of secular life wrapped around a spiritual core. It is possible to eat, shop, go to school, bank, work out, scale a rock-climbing wall and pray there, all without leaving the grounds.

These churches are becoming civic in a way unimaginable since the 13th century and its cathedral towns. No longer simply places to worship, they have become part resort, part mall, part extended family and part town square.

In Glendale, Ariz., the 12,000-member Community Church of Joy, which has a school, conference center, bookstore and mortuary on its 187-acre property, has embarked on a $100 million campaign to build a housing development, a hotel, convention center, skate park and water-slide park, transforming itself into what Dr. Walt Kallestad, the senior pastor, calls a “destination center.”

The churches have even become alternative employers. At the Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, a McDonald’s will open this month, complete with a drive-in window and small golden arches. Part of its goal is to create jobs for young people and the elderly, while offering a predominantly middle-class black congregation another reason to linger on church grounds.

By making it nearly possible to inhabit the church from morning to night, cradle to grave, these full-service churches can shelter congregants, said Dr. Randall Ballmer, a professor of American religion at Barnard College, from “a broader society that seems unsafe, unpredictable and out of control, underscored by school shootings and terrorism.”

While some scholars and communities are concerned about the megascale of the churches, and the civic responsibility they assume, 24/7 churches reflect a broad cultural desire for rootedness and convenience for overextended families. And in stark contrast to the issues roiling the big traditional churches, these churches, which are largely evangelical, offer relief from stresses on American family life, including suburban sprawl, with its vast commutes, and “drugs, crime and other youthful temptations,” said Dr. Joe Samuel Ratliff, pastor of Brentwood Baptist. It was he who advocated the McDonald’s at Brentwood as a way to “create a controlled, protective setting for our kids.”

The churches reflect a desire by congregants for “a universe where everything from the temperature to the theology is safely controlled,” Dr. Ballmer said. “They don’t have to worry about finding schools, social networks or a place to eat. It’s all prepackaged.”

Though many of the churches, which are largely in the South and Midwest, are involved in missionary work, their congregants may be able to isolate themselves from the greater community — to engage in a kind of “Christian cocooning,” said Dr. Bill J. Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Yet, church leaders say, their aim is not isolation but comfort and convenience for harried families. With their numerous ports of entry, from gyms to singles cafes, full-service churches make it easy to come and stay, they say.

The staying part has proved trickiest for religious institutions. Adult churchgoers, at the rate of one in six, “church-hop, based on their need du jour,” said David Kinnaman, vice president of Barna Research, one of the new consulting firms helping these churches grow. One in seven will leave a church this year.

“People are looking at churches with a similar cost-benefit analysis they’d give to any other consumer purchase,” Mr. Kinnaman said. “There is little brand loyalty. Many are looking for the newest and the greatest.”

Dave Stone, the associate minister of Southeast, calls his church, which is open daily from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., “a refueling station.”

“If we can get people to come to our gym,” he explained, “it’s only a matter of time before we can get them to visit our sanctuary.”

The church was deliberately designed like a mall. (The sanctuary is the anchor tenant.) Hallways 20 feet wide with curves enhance “people flow,” said Jack Coffee, a church elder and chairman of the building committee. Preschoolers frolic at a Disneyesque play land, with mazes. There is an education wing for Bible classes, a concert-hall-size atrium with glass elevators, crisscrossing escalators and giant monitors that itemize the day’s offerings: meetings to help smokers quit, a cross-trainers minimarathon and pat the Bible classes for 6-month-olds.

Such amenities are typically paid for by the congregation with three-year capital campaigns, on top of the church’s operating budget, which is often financed with tithes, said Malcolm P. Graham, president of Cargill Associates’ church division, a fund-raising consultant. A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at the Hartford Seminary, finds the average annual income for a megachurch is $4.6 million a year. Annual contributions to Southeast Christian are more than $20 million.

Southeast Christian churchgoers speak of a 22,000-person family, and visitors are regaled with statistics: the coffeepot that serves 5,000 cups an hour, the 403 toilets. Southeast’s size has spawned the invention of the Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine, designed by Wilfred Greenlee, 79, a congregant. It can fill 40 communion cups in 2 seconds.

For Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Tex., attracting young congregants, and keeping them, has helped it grow from 30 families to 20,000 members in a dozen years. Fellowship offers a 40,000-square-foot youth center with a climbing wall and video arcade and is creating a lake to encourage father-son bass fishing.

Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Tex., has a youth center so elaborate that some have called it Preston World: 15 ball fields, a 1950’s-style diner and a fitness center, as well as classrooms and a 7,000-seat sanctuary. It is adding a $19 million school, coffee shop, food court, student ministry center, youth building, an outdoor prayer walk, a chapel and an indoor commons, modeled on the idea of Main Street. “We’re not a large church,” said Mike Basta, the executive pastor. “We’re a small town.”

Brentwood Baptist in Houston also offers a full range of family options, often based on a political and social agenda. Besides its choir and Bible-study classes, it has housing for AIDS patients and a credit union.

In this supersize church, the new McDonald’s is not just an investment for the congregation — the church has put $100,000 into the for-profit franchise — but also a way to create jobs and generate money for scholarships and community programs. (McDonald’s gets its standard 4 percent from sales.)

Not incidentally, it gives the 2,000 or so Brentwood congregants who flock to church for more than 80 activities each evening — like children’s theater and adult computer classes — an excuse to stick around. “If you have to go home for dinner, you don’t come back out,” Pastor Ratliff said, referring in part to the city’s vast commutes.

But some scholars and municipalities are troubled by the civic expansion of 24/7 churches. They are becoming “a parallel universe that’s Christianized,” in the words of Dr. Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute.

Dr. Wade Clark Roof, a professor of religion and society at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said he worried that full-service churches are “the religious version of the gated community.”

“It’s an attempt to create a world where you’re dealing with like-minded people,” he said. “You lose the dialogue with the larger culture.”

Marci Hamilton, a professor of constitutional law at Benjamin Cardozo Law School in New York, said that church growth and in some cases, the expansion of megasynagogues, Mormon temples and mainline churches has become contentious locally, especially in residential neighborhoods upset about “intensity of use.” The full-service churches virtually never sleep, drawing cars, crowds and even bright spotlights at all hours and on any day.

Tensions between church and state were highlighted by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act, passed by Congress two years ago, which prevents government agencies, including local planning boards, from blocking church projects unless a compelling government interest is at stake. Municipalities around the country are “wrestling with the question of what the new law allows them to do or not to do,” said Jim Schwab, a senior research associate with the American Planning Association in Chicago.

The town within a town being fashioned by the Community Church of Joy in suburban Phoenix will let members live on church grounds and even be buried there, venturing outside perhaps only to work and buy groceries. Even the water park, which will be part of an Olympic-size aquatic center, will have a Christian theme, with laser shows depicting Jonah and the whale and David and Goliath. The housing development, which will not be limited to church members, will have a full-time chaplain. Though not meant to replicate Disneyland, it is a Disneyesque utopian vision with a Christian spin.

“People are longing for morals, values and ethics,” Dr. Kallestad said. “It’s not isolation. It’s insulation.”

Author: Patricia Leigh Brown

News Service: The New York Times Company


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