The rise of the American megachurch
(Page 2 of 2)
Organs have been replaced by electric guitars, hymns with rock-and-roll tunes. Nowhere is there a cross or a candle, and the language is contemporary, with not a "thee" or a "thou" to be heard.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"They have removed every obstacle that keeps people from coming into the Christian church," says Eddie Gibbs, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary. "Plus, they give people a feeling of anonymity. And that's particularly important to those who have been hurt or burnt out in smaller churches."
In addition, megachurches are good at reaching young people raised in an entertainment-saturated culture. Some have created separate services for youth. Many have more of a rock-concert feel to them and use plenty of multimedia.
Take the DeSelles, for instance. They have been coming to Lakewood for 16 years but, at one point, grew tired of the 70-mile round-trip drive each Sunday.
"We tried other churches closer to home," says Angela DeSelle, waiting in line to buy Lakewood T-shirts at a former Compaq concession stand. "But we kept coming back. Our teenagers love it here."
Back in his seat amid the sea of people, Joshua, their 14-year-old son, mutters in typical teen fashion: "It's different. It feels a lot more comfortable here."
On the stage below, the band cranks up as the Jumbotrons display a barrage of MTV-quality music videos, produced in-house. The lights flash and the crowd rises to its feet, those in the upper balconies feeling "just a little closer to the rapture."
One result of all this popularity is money. Lakewood is spending $75 million to renovate the Compaq Center and $12.3 million to rent it from the city for the next 30 years. After the initial groundbreaking services earlier this month, the church returned to its previous location until the refurbishing is complete in 2005.
To Pastor Osteen, the appeal of his nondenominational church lies in its message of uplift. "I think it's because our services have a celebratory feel to them," he says, sitting on a coffee table in his makeshift office near the locker rooms. "People feel lifted up by our message of hope, of life and victory. They don't feel like they are constantly being beaten down."
Still, not everyone is a convert to the idea of megachurches. While some admit they are a way to get people back into the pews, others believe they are diluting religious doctrine, offering more flash than substance.
Some even doubt they are meeting people's deepest spiritual needs. They see them as little more than a fad. "It's highly unlikely that significant life transformation is going on at these megachurches," says Professor Gibbs. "That usually happens in smaller group settings."
Don't tell that to Carolyn Anyiam. She says she was healed of alcoholism about a decade ago when she started coming to Lakewood. "I feel the presence of God here," she says, clutching her handbag and watching the millions of blue-and-white paper doves wafting from the rafters. "I would have been dead without this church."