American megachurches represent a type of synthesis between Protestantism and capitalist business strategies. In Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture, R. Laurence Moore traces the commodification of American religion. At first glance megachurches appear to be the height of this trend with production studios, bestselling books and CDs, and food courts. By using the American business model, megachurches have been able to measure the demand for their product and through ingenious marketing techniques build massive congregations. Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is reported as having a 2007 annual income of approximately 70 million dollars and they recently purchased the former Compaq Center for 90 million dollars in order to expand seating to 16,000. Concern has been expressed that these churches are offering a watered-down version of the gospel or that God has become a product for consumers.
By analyzing the conceptions of God which are presented to these congregations we will be able to assess in what respects big business religion has altered the core belief it seeks to further. In looking at the music, devotionals, dramas, messages and statements of faith of a variety of megachurches it becomes apparent that a split has occurred in the conception of God presented to these congregations. In seeker focused material, God is discussed as an immanent, loving, personal deity. Any transcendent characteristics are rarely mentioned to seekers, but do seem to be incorporated into statements of faith and services for more committed church members. This means that the large majority of megachurch attendees are being shaped by a message that is not strictly fundamentalist, as these churches claim, but rather a message that talks about the amiable side of the gospel and presents an immanent God.
In most studies, a megachurch is defined as a church which averages over 2,000 attendees per week. According to Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, most were founded after 1955, with especially significant growth beginning in the 1980’s. The “campuses” often appear similar to executive centers or community colleges and are generally located in an easily accessible area near the outside of a city. Parking, considered a key for continued growth, is plentiful and shuttle buses are sometimes provided. Activities provided by megachurches range from gymnasiums to food courts, elementary schools to recording studios, and movie theaters to roller hockey facilities. Church Growth Today reports that the number of megachurches has grown from just 50 in 1980 to 880 in 2005 and the trend just keeps growing.
Thumma groups megachurches into three broad categories of orientation: conventional, non-traditional, and composite. Conventional churches retain a more traditional fundamentalist theology and continue to display typical Protestant imagery. Non-traditional churches set their target market as those who they call religious seekers or the unchurched. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church says, unchurched “doesn’t refer to only people who have never been inside a church. It also includes those who have a church background but no personal relationship to Christ, and those who haven’t been to church for some time, usually years.” Composite churches attempt to combine both approaches, holding onto some traditional elements but also embracing some of the techniques of the non-traditional church. This paper primarily deals with the theological shift at “non-traditional” and “composite” oriented churches, which are also referred to sometimes as seeker-sensitive churches.
The large majority of megachurches fall into the non-traditional category, with fewer in the composite category. These churches typically appeal middle class families who are upwardly mobile, highly educated, and consumer oriented. As a result, the congregations tend to be disproportionately youthful and borderline affluent. Their enthusiastic energy and tithes allow megachurches to have generous ministries and budgets in the millions. This rather specific demographic is no accident; churches study their ideal members and then develop ways to appeal to them.
Foregoing denominational affiliation or only loosely affiliating with a denomination is one tactic many megachurches employ to cast a wide net. Some pastors believe adding a denominational marker to their name will scare away potential visitors. Remaining non-denominational also has the added benefit of freeing the church from doctrinal and financial ties. This allows the church to budget their money how they see fit and gives the pastor freedom in his theology and teaching.
Evangelicals today face countless issues that affect the size of their membership and thus their continued viability. Continual population shifts, political issues and the increasing market mentality of current and potential members force churches to strategize or risk closure. In his book, Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld, James Twitchell notes, “churches face unprecedented market challenges. Hence, words familiar from boardrooms: market research, customer satisfaction, takeaway value, positioning, asset management, brand equity – resound in pastoral and diocesan offices.” They certainly have a presence in the megachurch. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois employs a Stanford MBA to manage the day-to-day affairs of the church and a Harvard MBA runs the Willow Creek Association. Their full staff includes over 260 full time and 220 part-time employees.
One popular method megachurches employ and recommend is doing market research in the community. Robert Schuller, founder of Garden Grove Community Church, conducted a research survey prior to opening his church in the 1950s. By finding out what his audience wanted, he achieved a 1971 church membership of 6,000 and increased that to 8,000 by 1981. In 1970, he started the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Church Leadership in order to show others how to reach the same type of success he had achieved. One attendee was Bill Hybels, who would go on to found Willow Creek and become its senior pastor. Hybels also used market research strategies prior to opening his church.
According to Anne C. Loveland and Otis Wheeler in From Meetinghouse to Megachurch, church growth experts say these research surveys are necessary because “the innovative church should be ‘market-driven.’ It should focus on what the target audience wanted in a church, which is to say view potential church members as consumers.” Market research done by these megachurches tends to focus on why non-churchgoers avoid the church. The information gathered is then used to tailor various aspects of the church to appeal to the target consumer. In The Purpose Driven Church, Warren states, “Once you know your target, it will determine many of the components of your seeker service: music, message topics, testimonies, creative arts, and much more.” In light of survey responses at Willow Creek Community Church, for example, all religious symbols were omitted from the church's décor, there is no altar call at the weekend seeker services, and visitors are allowed to remain anonymous and are asked not to participate in the collection. Hybels stated that he wanted visitors to say, “I was just at corporate headquarters for IBM in Atlanta on Wednesday and now I come to a church here and it’s basically the same.” Other churches employ shopping mall themes. Not all megachurch architecture and décor is religiously devoid, but it is truly an atmosphere where the consumer’s desires play a crucial part in the formation of the establishment.
Willow Creek and other churches have a general format for how the process of bringing in unchurched persons will proceed. A current parishioner will become friends with a non-attendee and through this friendship bring that person to church. This is not very different from traditional methods just on a larger scale. Then through a series of steps including small group participation and volunteering, the fledgling member will reach the pinnacle of the process, becoming a financial supporter. G.A. Pritchard, in his study Willow Creek Seeker Sevices guotes Hybels as saying, “Somehow we have to bring about a second conversion, and that is to convert a consumer into a contributor.” It is interesting to think of this shift in such important terms as “conversion.”
In the megachurch, participants are invited to a non-threatening service where they are in a situation that is not socially exacting but offers a pleasant experience as well as gym benefits. Then the church gradually tries to draw the participant into increasing levels of commitment, joining a small group or helping park cars. Eventually, the most committed participants take on the financial expectation of tithing and additional responsibilities such as leading a small group. These inner levels are where the theology and doctrine become increasingly fundamentalist, although still emphasizing a close relationship with God. Many participants, however, never make it to these deeper levels of commitment and teaching.
Many factors throughout the twentieth century culminated in the success of the business model of the megachurch. According to Twitchell, megachurches "are the result of a strange confluence of marketing, population shift, consumer demand, consumption communities, the entertainment economy, and the good old-fashioned yearning for a feeling of epiphany and the bandwagon effects that generate it.” It is not that people do not consider themselves religious and desire religious experiences, polling data about beliefs in God tell us that much. The success of the megachurch seems to indicate that Americans have become accustomed to the mass-customization of the marketplace and are unwilling to attend a church which does not appeal to them and satisfy their needs, even if that means not attending church at all. By customizing their product to the requirements set by consumers, megachurches have drawn thousands of people into their fold.
This trend may have implications for theology and doctrine, however. Twitchell cautions: "Once doing church becomes like doing shopping or doing lunch (or even doing drugs), the inevitable contradiction appears. The consumer is allowed to become passive while the retailer is active, and the hard sell, the guilt-and-shame sell, becomes the soft-sell, the feel-good sell. Brands and brand stories replace content based material." After religion becomes a customizable product, its content is suddenly up for grabs. The unattractive points need to be de-emphasized and the selling points stressed.
The modern seeker is interested in God and redemption, but less keen on concepts such as judgment and Hell. Megachurch pastors have responded. One of the least preached on topics is end times and judgment. The God they talk about is an immanent, not transcendent, God with whom the believer can have an intimate, direct relationship. Megachurches’ explanation of God’s nature focuses on God’s love and involvement in people’s daily lives. Their message is that human fulfillment is only found in an individual relationship with God. This is an experience that attendees can identify with by paralleling it with their own human relationships, so this tactic serves to make God real. One observer notes that during a church’s service many people reported feeling "the presence of God," meaning and encounter with a deity who was accessible, familiar, and tangible. This is a distinct shift from the sovereign, far-off, awe inspiring aspects of God which some, more traditional, churches present.
Upon entering the worship area of a megachurch, one feature you are likely to find is an enormous screen which is used for various purposes, one of those being to display the song lyrics sung during the services. In marketing surveys, megachurches discovered that people find traditional services boring. By doing away with hymnals and switching to state of the art technology, the entertainment value of the service increases. Even first time attendees can participate, and no one is distracted by the ruffling of pages.
It is not just the medium that has changed, however. The music that is displayed on the screens is rarely a hymn. Megachurches turn to contemporary Christian music and praise and worship songs to fill the musical slots in their program. According to Loveland and Wheeler, “The songs emphasized ‘the emotion and experience of spirituality’ rather than theological doctrine. Rather than being written about God, they were addressed to him, using second-person instead of third-person pronouns.” The lyrics often attempt to persuade people to engage in a close, individual relationship with God. These typically simple songs appeal to the megachurch's target audience because they paint a picture of a deity open to personal needs and desires rather than depicting a harsh, judgmental, or transcendent God.
All these musical evolutions are a crucial part of understanding the megachurch service since almost half a typical service is music. By setting these songs to catchy tunes and making the words repetitive and easy to remember, an attendee feels more comfortable singing these songs at a subsequent service or even humming them at the grocery store. The entertainment provided by the professional singers and musicians livens up the service for people who would ordinarily not come to church because they find it dull. There is even a financial benefit to not having to purchase hymnals for congregations consisting of thousands of members. It is easy to see why megachurches altered their style and presentation of music; it suited their consumer.
This shift is also apparent in the devotional literature distributed by these churches. Rick Warren preaches to approximately 22,000 people every weekend at Saddleback Church. He is perhaps even more widely known for his recent book The Purpose Driven Life which has become a huge bestseller. On the website designed for that book and the others which followed it (www.purposedrivenlife.com) free daily devotionals are available and archived. The following discussion stems from a review of the devotions posted on that site for August and September 2005.
By evaluating references to God in the devotionals several attributes appear to be prevalent. The aspect of God stressed most frequently is his relationship with people and his involvement in their lives. Also central is God as purpose giver, as father, as savior, calling people to service, and assisting evangelical efforts. Several devotionals are absent of any reference to God. There is mention of God as judge, as mysterious/unknowable and as sovereign, but these aspects appear significantly less than the softer, more interactive elements. Some devotionals talk about God being in Heaven, but more often he is located on earth or in human hearts as a force on Earth. Overall, these daily devotionals seem to emphasize God’s close interaction with people and the assistance he offers them.
Megachurch services often include a dramatic element such as a brief skit to help open up the meaning of the message in an entertaining way. The topics addressed in these dramas typically center around an every day event or problem such as relationships with relatives or co-workers. For example, “War and Peace,” a drama written and distributed by Willow Creek, deals with how frustrating it can be to approach a friend about their disruptive children. These pieces tend to be free of any theology and serve to help religious seekers identify with the message about to be presented in the service. The productions are always professional and often humorous, adding to their entertainment value.
Pastors of these megachurches often refer to their sermons as messages, presumably because there is a negative connotation of “getting preached at” when you use the word sermon. If that is the case, the shift in terminology is justified. As a rule, megachurch messages are brief, friendly, and theologically lite. This is not an accusation, however, as pastors are generally aware of this and many will say that their services geared at the unchurched are not worship services. Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church, says, “I’m not there to teach them doctrine necessarily, but to let them know that God is a good God, and has a plan for their lives.” This is a consumer friendly message.
Even the messages tend to focus more on practical, everyday concerns than on traditional religious teachings. The use of personal anecdotes is seemingly never-ending. Pritchard's study, conducted in 1989-1990, found the messages at Willow Creek included the word “I” over 6000 times to create intimacy, but scriptural passages were used a mere 169 times. This is a move to create relevancy for the attendees and minimize the weight Bible passages would give to the service. The goal is to help people see how God interacts with them in their everyday lives and illustrate the type of practical assistance he can offer. It is not only important that the attendees relate to the message though, it also needs to hold their attention. Part of the effectiveness of the pastor sharing personal stories is they are often humorous or evoke a strong emotional response.
Seeker services in particular, which are those geared to the unchurched, are a mix of education and entertainment. The listener is expected to be skeptical of religious doctrine, particularly any aspects that are disorienting, difficult, or distant. Services need to use a soft-sell marketing technique to make regular church attendance more appealing. This means that the God portrayed needs to be caring, loving, and forgiving, a God who will assist them in their every day trials such as personal relationships, financial difficulties, and routine activities like working and driving. This is not a far away, transcendent deity; he is as close and involved as a best friend or spouse.
In The Purpose Driven Church, Warren warns other ministers to keep their seeker services lite. He says, "Select your scripture readings with the unchurched in mind. While all Scripture is equally inspired by God, it is not all equally applicable to unbelievers. Some passages are clearly more appropriate for seeker services than others. For instance, you probably won’t read David’s prayer in Psalm 58: ‘Break the teeth in their mouths, O God… Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun… The righteous will be glad… when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.’ Save this passage for your own personal quiet time or the local pastors’ breakfast!" It makes good marketing sense to avoid harsh passages that might make attendees uncomfortable, but avoiding the less attractive points of belief garners charges of cheapening the gospel.
The dominant stance of the megachurches is that God is immanent and active. He is depicted as being present throughout the daily activities of people and he is also working to improve those people’s lives. One reporter summed up a Willow Creek message saying, "The distant God isn’t all that far away. He’s not the presiding official in a court of law tallying wrongdoings and weighing them against the works of wonder. He’s waiting for you in the stands of the soccer field, between the racks of clothes at Field Days, or in the boardroom. He wants to be your friend, and if you let him, it will change your life." Critics say that in appealing to the unchurched consumer, megachurches have made God into a product that they then re-packaged to meet the demands of their audience. Megachurch proponents ask if what is lost cannot be added later and claim that the gains in “souls for Christ” outweigh the theological implications.
In contrast to the discussion of “watered-down” gospel and compromised religion, megachurches' statements of faith are strikingly fundamentalist. Tenets of faith include such traditional messages as the infallibility of scripture, the idea of original sin, and the doctrine of the Trinity. Words like creator and ruler are used to describe God. He exists as the Trinity and offers grace and salvation through Jesus. To disobey God is to sin, to sin is to be separated from God, and to be separated from God is to be delivered to Hell. There will be an end time judgment which God will preside over and those who are not saved will go to Hell. Salvation comes through God’s grace and not through works and man was created in God’s image. While this is a traditional fundamentalist doctrine which the church clearly states they believe, it is subject matter not likely to come up in a weekend seeker service.
This disparity in espoused doctrine and the message presented in seeker services illustrates how megachurches are altering the theology they claim to be promulgating. During the year of Pritchard's Willow Creek study, more than two thirds of attendees only visited the weekend seeker service and never moved into the deeper level of commitment represented by weekday services. This creates a problem of church members who are only receiving the more user-friendly version of Christianity. Despite the megachurch's hope that seekers will get more involved and thus exposed to the second half of the fundamentalist message, this does not seem to be the case the majority of the time. In this sense, the seeker focused megachurch is creating a new theology for the majority of its members that does not conform to the traditional message they espouse in their statements of faith.
There are several ways to interpret these moves. Obviously, the megachurches have been wildly popular, if they had failed the never would have been “mega.” For R. Laurence Moore and others, religion is “a construction of human invention and assumes social forms that are both reflective and productive of class, gender, and politics in various historical contexts.” In this sense, the church is necessarily going to change with society, while also exerting an influence on society, because it is a human historical production. From this perspective, the megachurch is but the latest chapter in the ever-evolving story of Christianity. It has just gotten more effective at keeping up with the times.
The trend to shift positions based on cultural trends is not a new phenomenon in American evangelism. According to Wade Clark Roof in his book Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, "Since the time of Toqueville, observers have noted that Americans espouse a this-worldly, secular-style religiosity adaptable to the practicalities of everyday life.…Popular Evangelical styles continue to be driven by pressures of accommodation, and especially so within the Boomer culture. Despite resistance to the erosion of an older religious world, the drift over time, and still today, is in the direction of enhanced choices for individuals and toward a deeply personal, subjective understanding of faith and well-being." Since most megachurches define their target member as someone within the “boomer” generation, these remarks are particularly poignant. In a country where “the customer is always right,” it seems that religious communities that refuse any shift at all with popular demand stay small and may eventually disappear. Megachurches are simply using the most efficient strategies for assessing and reaching their target audience.
Seeker-sensitive megachurches are not the only evangelical churches to follow this culture sensitive trend. The Willow Creek Association is a network of more than 2000 churches nationwide that contribute around $200/year for free or discounted materials from Willow Creek to assist in ministry techniques or to use in their own churches. Although much of the church growth literature is written by someone affiliated with a megachurch, its readership is primarily within smaller churches seeking to increase the size of their congregation. Pastors at these churches realize that their congregations have many of the same complaints the megachurches are purportedly addressing. The theological and doctrinal shifts illustrated in this paper may be a representation of a larger trend happening not just within the megachurches, but trickling down to seeker-sensitive churches of all sizes.
From the material reviewed, it seems apparent that a changed conception of God has emerged from the megachurches and through their literature to other contemporary churches. God, as represented in these churches, is no longer portrayed as transcendent, mysterious, and judging. He is now immanent, loving, and a close companion. This alteration occurred in response to the demands of those masses of people who chose not to be involved in a church because they felt it was condemning, boring, or hypocritical. In responding to the concerns expressed in research surveys, or perhaps just using the extensive how-to material offered by successful megachurches, pastors alter many aspects of their services. Simple, upbeat music, relevant drama, and non-pressuring techniques are perfectly orchestrated to provide an entertaining and pertinent service that draws people into the church. It almost seems inevitable that God would undergo some changes as well.
This is not to say, however, that the core beliefs of the megachurch do not include some of the less marketable characteristics of God. Occasionally, those points are even brought up. Megachurch pastors believe there will be a judgment presided over by God in a similar way as McDonald's believes their food is fattening. It may be a part of what they believe, but you won’t see it in their next commercial. A genuine repositioning, however, appears to have occurred on the topic of transcendence versus immanence. Whereas traditionally the Protestant deity includes both characteristics, the God of the "seeker" service is a strictly immanent God.
From guest contributor Shawntel Ensminger