Step Inside the Wonderdome

the church, supersized

by by Rob Moor

Megachurch. The word used to fill me with a peculiar mix of awe and dread, like 'Death Star' or 'tidal wave.' In the public imagination, the megachurch exists in a realm beyond rational understanding; it is large beyond description, tasteless beyond belief.

Its adherents are the rapturous, sweat-sparkled, swaying masses and the occasional shrieking hysteric, seizing on the floor. I have seen it on late-night commercials for Christian rock compilation albums; I have seen it on the Trinity Broadcast Network. It was not until I finally saw it in person that I realized that the megachurch is not any more menacing than a traditional, un-mega church. It is merely the Anglo-European church made American: younger, faster, brighter, bigger, cheaper, less exclusive, more dynamic, more diverse and yet inexplicably more hollow.

A megachurch is technically defined as any church having more than 2,000 worshippers attending weekly services. They often employ multiple ministers, and many broadcast their services on television and the radio. That is about where the defining similarities end. The denominations range wildly--Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, Black Methodist--as do their preaching styles. Joel Osteen runs Lakewood Church in Houston, the largest megachurch in the nation. His sermons focus primarily on self-improvement and moral rectitude, with little discussion of theology. New Life Church in Colorado Springs centers its doctrine on the need for religious people to engage in politics. Its lead pastor, Ted Haggard, is rumored to have a direct phone line to the White House, used to influence national and state elections and to speak with the President each week. If his name sounds familiar, it is likely because in November 2006 he confessed to purchasing methamphetamines while in the company of a male prostitute and later underwent therapy to 'cure' him of his homosexuality. Incidentally, there is even an LGBT megachurch: the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, which boasts more than 3,500 members.
As the second largest megachurch in the United States, the Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois, is at the forefront of the emerging movement of "seeker-friendly" Evangelical non-denominational churches: Christian places of worship stripped of divisive doctrine, made flashy, attractive and huge. Each weekend, Willow Creek's 20,000 members commute from all over Illinois to watch a spiritually uplifting multimedia presentation bearing only a passing resemblance to an old-fashioned sermon. Interwoven into the performance are props, music, song and dramatic performance. Above the stage, it is projected onto twin 24-foot wide hi-def Mitsubishi Diamond Vision LCD screens, the same kind seen at sporting events and rock concerts.

Behind the glossy veneer of Willow Creek is a doctrine of inclusiveness bordering almost on conquest. The church's website states that the "mission of Willow Creek Community Church is to turn irreligious people [in the US and overseas] into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ." What makes Willow Creek and churches like it revolutionary is the aim to convert not through fear of divine retribution, but through the sheer attractiveness of their message. By integrating rock music and film into the sermon, they have succeeded in appropriating and subverting the very aspects of our fast-paced, technologically dependent culture that the church once condemned.

In other words, fear not: the megachurch will not swallow you. If anything, you will swallow it.

Willow Creek ain't yo gramma's church
It appeared out of the midwinter Chicago sleet and fog like an aircraft carrier, long and flat and dark, composed of a series of interlocking rectangles. No cross, no steeple. I thought it looked like an Ikea superstore painted gunmetal gray. My friend, along for backup (should anything cult-y go down), said it looked like the Cobra Commander's headquarters, if GI Joe's enemies hid out in suburban Illinois. We stood a moment in the sleet, staring across a glistening prairie of midsize sedans and minivans, envisioning what wonders or horrors might be housed within.
When I was a child visiting my grandparents in Houston on Easter Sunday, the whole extended family--non-believing Yankees included--attended church services at the local Episcopal church. My memories are encapsulated in certain vivid physical sensations: the swelter of the stagnant spring air, the hard wood of the pew, the smell of the old Bibles and psalm books, the astringent swell of traditional hymns sung precisely, whitely. There was the hot feeling of disgrace each time the congregation rose to take communion and I, the only seven-year-old atheist within a hundred miles, was left sitting alone in my row. There was the choking cinch of my necktie and the hot itch of navy blue wool as I sat squirming in my Sunday best. Often I would awake with a start as my head slumped over onto the sweet-smelling shoulder of my grandma or aunt, who would frown down at me in a look of mingled disapproval and commiseration.

Acrid memories flooded back as I stared out across the parking lot. The un-steepled edifice represented an architectural rebuke to every visual cue I had learned to associate with churches and Christianity. And yet it still managed to fill me with that special dread I reserve for places of Christian worship.

No shirt, no tie, no exceptions
With childhood memories in mind, I dressed 'appropriately' for my first church service in over a decade: button-down shirt tucked into khakis, an old Brooks Brothers jacket, brown leather shoes, hair smoothed down to one side. As we crossed the parking lot, I began to notice--with a sudden tug of dread in my gut--that everyone else, without exception, was dressed as though this was just another trip to the mall. They poured through revolving glass doors in their sweatshirts and jeans and Starter jackets and high-tops, while we strutted in looking like traveling salesmen or, worse, undercover journalists.

The relaxed dress code at Willow Creek is no accident, nor is it necessarily a reflection of the socio-economic position of the churchgoers. According to Forbes, in 1975, founder and lead pastor Bill Hybels walked door-to-door through South Barrington asking his neighbors what kept them from attending church. He then embarked on one of the most aggressive advertising and PR campaigns in recent ecclesiastical history, encouraging an informal dress code, replacing pews with movie theatre-style seats and holding services later in the morning. Willow Creek offered a more comfortable, entertaining and welcoming alternative to the traditional stuffiness of the community church. Almost overnight, the church became (quite literally) a monumental success, and has since spawned over 20 copycat churches nationwide.

Jesus on the JumboTron
The Main Auditorium of Willow Creek's sprawling complex is proudly billed as the "largest theatre in the US." Riding the escalator to the uppermost mezzanine, we pulled open the doors and stepped out over a sea of 6,000 silent people, all with heads bowed. We had interrupted a moment of prayer for the survivors of the recent Northern Illinois University shooting. Unlike the church I remember from my childhood, which was plagued by dusty silences and stifled coughs, Willow Creek is rarely silent, even during prayer. Somber organ music bubbled out of a synthesizer piano onstage as we took our seats. As they prayed, I snuck a peek at the crowd, which had the exact casual deportment of a movie-going audience: calm, sated, a bit slouched, with creased brows and joined hands. The pastor raised his head, muttered a thousand-echoed "amen," and the sermon began.

The day's sermon, entitled "Trust Funding: a Revolution of the Heart," addressed the age-old theme of charity, but in a decidedly modern fashion. It began with a video featuring computer-generated text rippling over pictures of celebrities like Bono, Madonna and Brangelina while a hip, young-sounding voice asked pithy questions, like "Why do you give? Is it to impress your neighbors? Is it out of pity? Or is it because you want to be like the movie stars on TV?" As the video faded to black, a spotlight illuminated a mocha-skinned 20-year-old woman holding a microphone. She told a story about buying some powdered milk for a young street child during a recent trip to Nepal. Behind her flashed photos of Kathmandu while recorded voices, including that of the young Nepali boy, chimed in behind her. The story was frank, touching, shockingly well choreographed and only glancingly touched upon the Bible or God, with no mention whatsoever of Jesus. And it was all projected in radiant hi-def. I was entranced.

Planting seeds
Lead pastor Gene Appel then appeared on stage, wearing a lime green shirt with no tie. His pink scalp showed through a shiny tangle of thinning hair. In his left hand he held a blue plastic bucket filled with dry flax seed. Throughout the sermon, in which he compared giving to "sowing seeds with God," he would intermittently caress the seed, letting it sift through his fingers like sand. At one point he dropped four handfuls onto the stage to visually represent the four types of giving, which I no longer recall, but all of which started with a P. At the end, to the great delight of the crowd, he let loose a wild yellow spume of flax into the air, emptying the bucket completely, just as he said one is meant to joyfully empty one's coffers of time and money for the church.

The content of the sermon was staid, conversational and brief. His high nasal tone brought to mind Richard Dreyfus, and though the message didn't really resonate with me, whenever I became bored or irritated, Pastor Gene would catch my attention again with an amusing anecdote or a wave of the bucket. Interspersed with the moral prescriptions were moments of surprising candidness: he discussed his first divorce, his early money troubles, even his (reportedly, smokin' hot) sex life with his second wife. At the end, when his rhetorical bucket was empty, we prayed once again and filed out the doors as the speakers struck up the first chords of Supertramp's 1977 hit "Give a Little Bit."

Kingdom come
After the service, we explored the massive bookstore, the café and the Visitor's Center, where I stood in line to meet Pastor Gene. He was exceedingly gracious, but without seeming, you know, too gracious. We discussed Providence, the ongoing genocide of Christian tribes in Myanmar and the merits of charity. Not once did he try to convert me. He just smiled sweetly with his crinkled eyes, chatted for a few minutes, told me he was glad to see me, shook my hand, and that was all.

Walking around the labyrinthine complex, I was surprised by the racial diversity of Willow Creek's congregation. The sermon was simulcast in Spanish, Chinese and Korean. Foremost among the non-white churchgoers were people of Korean descent. This probably should not have surprised me, as South Korea contains five of the world's ten largest megachurches. Topping the list are also megachurches in Nigeria, Chile, El Salvador, India and Argentina. Not one of the top 10 is within the United States.
The recent success of megachurches worldwide underscores one of their defining features: they spread. Willow Creek alone has five satellite churches scattered throughout the Chicagoland area and mentors over 11,000 churches nationwide on boosting attendance. Megachurches have founded their own schools, their own printing presses, even their own television networks. And while there are vast ideological differences between, say, a non-denominational Evangelical megachurch like Willow Creek and the radical, speaking-in-tongues First Pentecostal megachurch of Jackson, Mississippi, what all of these supersized churches hold in common is their desire is to carve out a larger space from what they perceive as an overly materialistic, shallow, debauched American culture. They hope to build a kingdom of the righteous here on earth, even if it's only as big as a city block or a basketball arena. In that endeavor, megachurches aren't all that different from the little Episcopal church I remember from my childhood. They're just carving off a bigger slice of the pie.

Sow to the wind, and ROBERT MOOR B'08 will reap a whirlwind.