Rock climbing walls, kids' spaces that resemble small Disneylands, bookstores, state-of-the-art sound systems. It's church — supersized...
ATLANTA — Rock climbing walls, kids’ spaces that resemble small Disneylands, bookstores, state-of-the-art sound systems.
It’s church — supersized.
The number of megachurches, long defined as having a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more, are drawing huge numbers of worshippers and receiving millions of dollars in the collection plate.
“Megachurches have really succeeded because they service all needs of the community, the spiritual and the social,” said Lerone Martin, an assistant professor of American religious history at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
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Donald Wilcock, a business analyst, started attending First Baptist Church Atlanta three years ago. The church is large enough — it seats 2,800 — that Wilcock, 31, is able to take part in several small groups.
“There are just more resources,” he said. “Could we do this in a smaller church? Sure, but not on the scale we do it here.”
These religious behemoths have received greater attention of late after a flurry of well-publicized litigation against one of the most mega of megachurches, the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., near Atlanta.
New Birth is named as a defendant in five lawsuits, four of which allege that its prominent pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, coerced four young men into having sex.
Another megachurch, The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., founded by the Rev. Robert Schuller in the mid-1950s, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The church lists more than $43 million in debt, including a $36 million mortgage.
With a megachurch, the “ripple effect is larger,” said John Vaughan, founder and owner of Church Growth Today, a Bolivar, Mo.-based newsletter and research organization. When large organizations run into tough times, “people know the name and they’re more apt to know someone who knows the church or goes there. I believe you could write about 500 small churches in Atlanta, and people might not read the article. But you can write about one church of that size and people all over the city will know who they are.”
Megachurch budgets can be huge. Houston’s Lakewood Church, led by the Rev. Joel Osteen, has an average weekly attendance of 43,500 and an annual budget of $70 million, according to an article in Forbes magazine last year. North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., has an annual budget of about $40 million, the church reports on its website. By comparison, the city of Alpharetta has an operating budget of $50.3 million for the 2011 fiscal year.
More than 60 percent of megachurches are in the Sunbelt, with Texas, California, Georgia and Florida leading the way, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.
Experts track the appearance of megachurches to the 1950s; the churches’ growth often tracked that of the community and demographic shifts. As suburban populations exploded, so did the number of church pews.
New Birth, which has a multimillion-dollar ministry that reaches the faithful in several countries, is such a church. When Long became pastor in July 1987, the church had 300 members. That number then grew to 8,000, then to 25,000.
Kamelya Hinson, 44, a single mother of two, joined New Birth about 15 years ago. She has been a member of the choir, served as a cheerleader coach and worked with the singles and dance ministries.
“It’s within these ministries where the relationships are built,” the Web content coordinator said. “The more relationships you build, the smaller the church feels.”
The church holds two Sunday services in its cavernous sanctuary, which seats 10,000. Long leans on the podium, mike in one hand, iPad in the other. His gravelly voice quickly whips up the congregation, already warmed up by prayer and music.
He preaches about the trials and tribulations of life. God, he once told them, doesn’t send a storm and leave. God is there to help them, he said, to weather life’s storms.
Like Long, many megachurch pastors are men with dynamic and magnetic personalities, according to the Hartford Institute. The typical megachurch pastor has an “authoritative style of preaching and administration and is nearly always the singular dominant leader in the church” supported by up to dozens of associate ministers.
Megachurches exist in nearly all denominations as well as independently, though it is typical for them to defer a large share of power to the pastor, Thompson said.
For example, Long in 1994 took away the deacon board’s authority, with the approval of the membership. In his book “Taking Over,” Long said the deacons had been “telling the man of God when to jump and how high.”
Other churches have other approaches. North Point Community Church, led by the Rev. Andy Stanley and established in 1995, sits on a large campus in the midst of a suburban office park. The church’s three campuses — the two others are Buckhead Church in Atlanta and Brown’s Bridge Community Church in Cumming, Ga. — attract more than 20,000 adults and 6,000 children each Sunday, according to North Point’s website.
The church has a board of elders, which meets monthly and has the final say in church matters. Bob Strickland, executive director of multisite ministries, said the board is the only body that can dismiss Stanley as pastor. (No Stanley family members serve on the board). For day-to-day operations, the church has a management team that includes Stanley, Strickland and two others; and a 10-member leadership team.
“We know that people have options about how they spend their Sundays,” Strickland said. “Our goal was to have a church that would be the No. 1 option for people to come to on Sunday morning.”
On a recent Sunday, members swayed to the sounds of a Christian band. The theme of the service was “Game Plan,” and ushers dressed in referee shirts. Then came the pastor, “Andy,” dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, to deliver a sermon about following the game plan God has set for your life.
“They make a concerted effort so you don’t feel lost,” said Linda McGrue, a military veteran and member at North Point for about three years. “It does not make me feel bad if he (the pastor) doesn’t know me by name, because he still recognizes me as a member of the body and he still considers me important.”
But megachurches aren’t for everyone, or even for most people. According to Church Growth Today’s Vaughan, 95 percent of the Christian, non-Catholic churches in the United States have a weekly attendance of 350 or fewer people.
“People have a thing that bigger equals better,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, whose membership is roughly 1,500. “That’s just not true. The church is about relationships. Megachurches are not geared toward relationships. By their very nature, they’re not personal. I pray to God that we don’t become a megachurch.”
McDonald, who was called by the membership in 1984, said the church body has the final say in significant church matters.
“As long as things are running smoothly, the church body lets the pastor run things,” he said. But, if it’s a matter concerning the pastor — say, a financial problem or a scandal of some sort — the church body may step in and remove the pastor by vote.
At All Nations Life and Praise in Stockbridge, Ga., the Rev. Keith Brooks recently welcomed his 480th congregant. Brooks said he believes small works better for some people.
“They expect more from you,” he said.
Brooks says he tries to be there through all stages of his congregants’ lives — christening, wedding, funeral. He also issues a quarterly statement of church spending and finances that is available to every member.
“I’ve always had the type of pastor I could go to and he could minister to me one on one.”
Brooks said he tries to do the same. “I try to remember everyone by name,” he said. “A shepherd should know his sheep.”