[Paleopsych] David Brooks: The Next Church (1996)
checker at panix.com
Tue Mar 29 20:39:20 UTC 2005
The Next Church - 96.08
[This is one of my all-time favorite articles, and I'm very glad it's
online. My term for the next church was Rock Christianity. I asked an
Orthodox Jewish friend if rock "music" had invaded the synagogues and he
sniffed, "Yes, in the *Reform* synagogues." Note the date.]
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar
Welcome to the Next Church
Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and
service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities
around the country the old order gives way to the new
by Charles Trueheart
N O spires. No crosses. No robes. No clerical collars. No hard pews.
No kneelers. No biblical gobbledygook. No prayerly rote. No fire, no
brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary eighteenth-century hymns. No
forced solemnity. No Sunday finery. No collection plates.
(Related Articles The list has asterisks and exceptions, but its
meaning is clear. Centuries of European tradition and Christian habit
are deliberately being abandoned, clearing the way for new,
contemporary forms of worship and belonging.
The Next Church, as the independent and entrepreneurial congregations
that are adopting these new forms might collectively be called, is
drawing lots of people, including many Americans with patchy or blank
histories of churchgoing. It constitutes, its champions believe, a
distinctly American reformation of church life, one that transcends
denominations and the bounds of traditional churchly behavior. As
such, it represents something more: a reconfiguration of secular
communities, not just sacred ones.
Visit a multimedia companion to this article, where you can view
photos, hear audio clips of church services and contemporary church
music, and read additional material about "the next church."
Social institutions that once held civic life together--schools,
families, governments, companies, neighborhoods, and even old-style
churches--are not what they used to be (if ever they were what we
imagined). The new congregations are reorganizing religious life to
fill that void. The Next Church in its fully realized state can be the
clearest approximation of community, and perhaps the most important
civic structure, that a whole generation is likely to have known or
likely to find anywhere in an impersonal, transient nation.
The churches are remarkable chiefly for their size. Many of these
(mostly Protestant) congregations count thousands of people in
attendance on a weekend--in some cases more than 10,000. For their
hugeness they are often known, and often chagrined to be known, as
megachurches. Among the other labels one hears are full-service
churches, seven-day-a-week churches, pastoral churches, apostolic
churches, "new tribe" churches, new paradigm churches,
seeker-sensitive churches, shopping-mall churches. No two of these
terms mean quite the same thing, but together, like the blind men with
the elephant, they describe the beast rather well. These very large
and dynamic congregations may at the moment number no more than 400,
but they are the fastest-growing ones in the country. Half of all
churchgoing Americans, to cite a figure treasured in the Next Church
community, are attending only 12 percent of the nation's 400,000
churches. To look at it another way, half of American Protestant
churches have fewer than seventy-five congregants.
Big congregations endow a church with critical mass, which makes
possible sizable budgets and economic efficiencies (such as very low
staffing ratios) and formidable volunteer pools, and thus the capacity
to diversify almost infinitely in order to develop new "product lines"
that meet the congregation's needs and involve members in unpaid
Still, to understand what the Next Church means, one cannot ignore
hundreds more churches that are small to middling but willing and
determined (or desperate) to think big--to be "intentional" about
growing, to use an adjective commonly heard in their midst. For these
churches this is not an abstract decision. The mainline denominations
are bleeding. Their churches have more pew than flock, and unless they
change, they have more history than future. Little congregations of
fewer than a hundred at worship, in rural communities and inner
cities, are shutting their doors at the rate of fifty a week, by one
The Next Church movement makes many traditional church leaders, and
many active Christians, nervous, because it implies a rejection of the
tried and the once-true and the somehow holy; it also suggests to many
people an unseemly market-driven approach to building the Kingdom of
Heaven. But its obvious success in building congregations and
communities alike is making many believers out of skeptics.
For the past year I've been visiting these churches and talking to
their pastors and members to understand what makes them work.
AN ISLAND IN THE
I APPROACHED Mariners Church, on a gentle hill above Newport
Beach, California, through its parking lot. At the entrances to the
asphalt expanse men and women in reflective orange jackets waved on a
procession of hundreds of cars entering by twos the acres of parking
places being vacated by the outflow from the earlier service.
Mercifully, confusion did not reign.
The new architecture of faith is inconspicuous. The seven-year-old
sanctuary of Mariners is an understated horizontal brick pile with
barely a peak in its auditorium roof, let alone anything suggesting a
spire. Walking from my car, I realized that no door to the church
building was visible--a mischievous design considering that Mariners,
like other churches of this ilk, has figurative doors that are
uncountable. And on the side away from the parking lot are real glass
ones constantly admitting people--these days 3,500 at four services
every weekend, and many hundreds more during the week. The Next Church
The doors of Mariners open onto a tree-lined semicircular courtyard
that was packed that Sunday morning with hundreds of people standing
and talking together in the sunshine. A few, wearing name tags,
approached and shook hands with everyone arriving; in the case of a
stranger they gave a simple friendly greeting and no more. An
orchestra played upbeat soft rock somewhere within, wafting melody and
song to the outside. The dress was California casual. Children
scurried everywhere. A cappuccino cart with parasol stood to one side,
dispensing the secular sacrament. And along the periphery of the
courtyard one shaded table after another announced the church's
various "ministries," support groups, and fellowship
opportunities--each a point of entry into the Mariners community.
To name a few open for inspection and inquiry that morning: a
seminar on effective single parenting; twelve-step recovery meetings
by category (alcohol, drugs, abuse) and freeway coordinates; a
parents-of-adolescents meeting; a class for premarital couples;
another for "homebuilders"; something called Bunko Night ("Tired of
shopping? Low on funds?"); a "women in the workplace" brunch; a
"fellowshippers" (seniors) meeting; a men's retreat ("Anchoring
Deep"); women's Bible studies; a baseball league; a passel of
Generation X activities; "grief support ministries"; worship music,
drama, and dance; "discovering divorce dynamics"; a "belong class" for
new members; and "life development" ("You will learn to know yourself
and begin to see where God has a place of service for you. This is a
can't miss class"). Needless to say, Mariners is also the home seven
days a week of kid-oriented activity--a lot of it.
Wandering away from this bazaar, I climbed a few steps to another part
of the grounds and happened upon a clutch of men and women, mostly in
their twenties and thirties, standing together in shorts and T-shirts
around a baptismal pool--actually a turquoise hot tub. A pastor in
shirtsleeves called them one by one, and they came forward and
declared to their attending friends and families, seated in folding
chairs before them, "My name is ------, and I accept Jesus Christ as
my savior" or "my personal savior." Then, one arm gripped by the
pastor, each stepped down and into what, it became clear from their
looks of surprise, was a very cold bath. Just as the baptist gave
their heads a final push to total immersion, they would grab their
noses. When they came up shivering and born again, their friends and
family were applauding.
I made my way with hundreds of others to the sanctuary and found a
seat along a carpeted aisle. I was in a handsome and dramatically
sloped modern amphitheater. After some energetic songs of celebration,
led by a sextet of male and female singers and a twelve-piece
orchestra of saxophones, synthesizers, guitars, and drums (none of the
songs composed before 1990, and all of them of club quality), the
people of Mariners heard from a few of their number.
A tall and smartly dressed woman shared a little about her Bible-study
experience, and the help she got from the Bible in accepting her
husband instead of trying to change him. A couple talked about the
new-members' class they had just completed. The wife explained that
she had gone from saying "I go to Mariners Church" to "I belong to
Mariners Church." The husband was asked how he and his wife had made
"a small place out of this big place"--a fair and worrisome question
that many newcomers wonder about. He spoke of finding "a sense of
connectedness" in the small-group activities he had joined and a "new
purpose in serving God in several ministries."
Then we heard from the forty-one-year-old senior pastor of Mariners,
Kenton Beshore, who spoke discursively and often wittily on "Enclaves
and Community." One riff caught my attention. It drew on the
Scriptures: "I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not
stand against it." Beshore explained to his flock, "Hell wants to
build walls all around this church, and every church in our community,
so the world doesn't see. It doesn't see our love and fellowship . . .
it doesn't see our unity."
"Hell," he went on, "is about building gates. Hell," he said again,
pausing a beat, "is a gated community."
The laughter rose slowly from the crowd. "No, no, no," Beshore said
abashedly, after letting the mirth coalesce. "If you live in a gated
community, I'm not saying that."
But he was, in a way. "Not only does Hell want to build walls around a
church, but it wants to build walls around you . . . because if you
become a little private gated community . . . you're not going to be
generous; you're going to live in fear." Jesus, he told them, "tears
down walls between you and between you and the community."
The jest about gated communities must have hit home with hundreds of
people there who do, at various levels of middle-class attainment,
live in secure communities widely decried as an emblem of modern
isolation and of class and racial mistrust. A church like
Mariners--indeed, any church--is inevitably a gathering of like-minded
people who may also be demographically alike. That makes for insiders
Beshore's discussion of walls suggested both the appeal of the Next
Church and its constant challenge. These busy and tight-knit
congregations of thousands, inside and outside traditional Protestant
denominations, have become sanctuaries from the world ("islands in the
stream," to use a phrase often heard in these parts), and as such they
are proving themselves to be breeding grounds for personal renewal and
human connectedness. Yet they stay alive and purposeful--and true to
God's will, as they see it--only by growing: by remaining vigilantly
open and aggressively attractive to the world.
Following Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, they seek to
be "all things to all men"--not forgetting the rest of the sentence,
"that some might be saved." By taking on roles as various as those of
the Welcome Wagon, the USO, the Rotary, the quilting bee, the book
club, the coffee shop, and the mixer--and, of course, the traditional
family and school--they have become much more than the traditional
churches that many Americans grew up in and have long since lost.
Belonging to Mariners or any other large church conveys membership in
a community, with its benefits of friends and solace and purpose and
the deep satisfaction of service to others.
When we were talking in his office one day, Beshore described the Next
Church strategy as succinctly as I was to hear it. "We give them what
they want," he said, "and we give them what they didn't know they
wanted--a life change."
One recently returned churchgoer at Mariners, Bonnie Leetmaa,
described the phenomenon this way: "Our government has let us down.
Our workplace is not secure. Our communities are falling apart.
Churches and synagogues are serving the community." She added, "It's
been the best-kept secret of the last couple of decades."
"WHO IS OUR CUSTOMER?"
BOB Buford, a Texas businessman and author who became one of my guides
in the world of the Next Church, showed me a handsome framed woodcut
on the wall of his study, in Dallas's exclusive Turtle Creek district,
one day. It read, "What is our business? Who is our customer? What
does the customer consider value?"
The words come from Peter Drucker, the high priest of management
theory, who has recognized the pastoral-church phenomenon as one of
the signal events of the late twentieth century--part of a
sweeping and spontaneous reorganization of social structures and
"What is our business?" That would be FDFX. I saw this mysterious
acronym on a T-shirt, and eventually figured out what it meant. It
comes from a chronically invoked Next Church mission statement:
turning irreligious or unchurched people into Fully Devoted Followers
"Who is our customer?" That would be Baby Boomers, mostly. This is
not exactly niche marketing. The postwar birth cohort, after all, is
the biggest and currently the most powerful one out there, the
flushest and the most fecund. Boomers are a needy and a motivated
bunch--with lots of experience in shopping for spiritual comfort. Many
of today's new churchgoers trafficked in heightened awareness in
the 1960s, gravitated to gurus and self-actualization movements in
the 1970s, and dabbled in New Age nostrums in the 1980s. Members
of the same generation that cleaved to Robert Bly's "Iron John"
and embraced Bill Moyers's Joseph Campbell now read James
Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy and have taken a fancy to angels.
Might God have a market opportunity here?
Churches like Mariners are drawing a flock of previously unchurched or
unhappily churched people by being relentlessly creative about
developing forms of worship--most symbolically and definingly,
music--that are contemporary, accessible, "authentic." Next Church
services are multimedia affairs. Overhead projectors allow the
preacher to sketch his point the way a teacher would on a chalkboard,
or to illustrate his message with a cartoon, an apt quotation, or a
video clip. Lyle E. Schaller, an independent scholar and the author of
dozens of books on the large-church movement, suggests that these are
the descendants of the stained-glass window, another nonverbal
storytelling device. (Overhead projectors are also used instead of
hymnals and prayer books, and to project the Scriptures of the day.)A
personal testimonial, or a two- or three-person dramatic sketch,
illustrates with true-life vignettes the point the pastor is making in
his message (it's almost never called a sermon).
In congregations of this size communion at the altar can be
impractical; the communion services I saw were special rather than
regular occasions, and because kneeling sequentially in such numbers
is logistically tricky, the sacraments are administered standing up at
strategic locations in the amphitheater.
A leading pastor in this movement, Leith Anderson, of Wooddale Church,
in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, likes to talk about "reading the culture"
and "translating the culture." The culture is suspicious of old-church
"European" atmospherics, ritual, and language--suspicious of old
institutions in general.
Some of these churches "are dramatizing a truth that missionaries have
known for decades," the church scholar George Hunter writes in his new
book, Church for the Unchurched. "To reach nonChristian populations,
it is necessary for a church to become culturally indigenous to its
`mission field'"--whether that is Asia, Africa, Latin America, or
Exurbia. "When the church's communication forms are alien to the host
population, they may never perceive that Christianity's God is for
people like them."
Christian denominations in America are among the few institutional
expressions of European culture still left standing, and their
bulwarks of belief and tradition are mighty. The Anglican liturgy and
music that I grew up with, for instance, and that I still savor on
Sunday mornings for their grandeur and familiarity, seem to me to have
the air of eternity. But they are, after all, a fairly recent
expression of the faith.
Anderson, in his recent book A Church for the 21st Century, put this
While the New Testament speaks often about churches, it is
surprisingly silent about many matters that we associate with
church structure and life. There is no mention of architecture,
pulpits, lengths of typical sermons, or rules for having a Sunday
school. Little is said about style of music, order of worship, or
times of church gatherings. There were no Bibles, denominations,
camps, pastors' conferences, or board meeting minutes. Those who
strive to be New Testament churches must seek to live its
principles and absolutes, not reproduce the details. We don't know
many of the details, and if we reproduced the ones we do know, we
would end up with synagogues, speaking Greek, and the divisive sins
of the Corinthians.
Hunter points out that Martin Luther translated the Scriptures into
German vernacular, and the Lutheran Church adapted then-contemporary
folk music, including drinking songs. The Methodists under the Wesley
brothers "agreed to become more vile" to reach the common
people--preaching in fields and town squares. They coached their
adherents to speak "in the most obvious, easy, common words, wherein
our meaning can be conveyed." General William Booth, the founder of
the Salvation Army, memorably said, "Why should the Devil have all the
To illustrate what he sees as the absurdity of institutional
resistance to new forms of worship and service, Schaller recalled for
me some earlier controversies that divided churches: "Should we have a
telephone in the church building? Should we have indoor plumbing? You
don't want them doing that in God's house!" This is not ancient
history. I met the young pastor of a Church of Christ congregation who
was lamenting that his denomination still forbids the use of any
musical instruments in its worship services.
In fact it is music, more than any other issue or symbol, that divides
congregations on the cusp of growth. The pipe organ, the old hymnal,
and the robed choir are emblems of continuity and cohesion to those
who uphold tradition, of encrustation and exclusion to those who
don't. Whether a church uses contemporary music or not defines which
kind of people it wants. When it uses contemporary music, it's saying
it wants unchurched people--particularly those of childbearing and
Proponents of culturally "authentic" church music can be blunt. Howard
Clark, the pastor of the Northwest Bible Church, in Dallas, remembers
a young staff member saying to him, "I don't have an organ. None of my
friends has an organ. Why should I listen to an organ on Sunday?"
Chuck Fromm, who is the chairman of Maranatha! Music, a company that
supplies churches with contemporary praise and worship music, told me,
"We better think about our sound and how we are reaching our
community, or we will be the Amish of the twenty-first century."
THE WAGES OF SUCCESS
ONE young woman who recently joined Mariners Church after shopping
around for a few years remarked to me that when she first saw "all the
Beemers and Jaguars in the parking lot, I wondered, How could these
people love God?" Mariners (now Mariners Southcoast Church, since its
merger with a neighboring megachurch) draws from one of the wealthiest
and most Republican precincts in America--southern Orange County,
California. "They're the new rich," Kenton Beshore told me. "Many in
our church run companies, and are high-paid guys who went to Princeton
or Harvard or Stanford. They're executives and entrepreneurs."
He was not (just) boasting. He was making a point: "They got the world
they wanted. But it wasn't the world they wanted." Many of his
parishioners have tried everything else--money especially, and maybe
booze or drugs or infidelity or overeating. "The Alcoholics Anonymous
definition of insanity,"he said, "is doing the same thing over and
over again and expecting different results."
Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, in South
Barrington, Illinois, the country's ultimate megachurch, described
this as "success panic," and he doesn't restrict the syndrome to the
One Sunday morning at Willow Creek, I heard a message from a breezy,
funny speaker named John Ortberg. Quoting Ecclesiastes 6:7, he said,
"All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied."
He told the congregation of 2,400, "Your cravings, if you could get to
the heart of them, are for the eternal."
Bonnie Leetmaa, the returned churchgoer at Mariners, remembers how her
brother brought the question down to earth: "As soon as people realize
they're going to die, they go back to church."
That reckoning often follows from parenthood. Children have brought
many unchurched people or lapsed Christians back to churches they felt
they had no need for without progeny. The story and the ritual and
even the community of church remind parents and children of eternal
continuities and provide them with a fairly well tested cheat sheet of
moral precepts. Rules are in vogue, and we are enjoying a tonic
renaissance of belief in sin and virtue. (The source of wisdom cited
most frequently in my conversations, after God, was William
Even the most stubbornly traditional churches, if they have any
critical mass at all, are putting children's education, child care,
and teen activities up there with music as essential ingredients to
attract Boomer families and, in the years ahead, the following
generation, usually called Busters (for the post-Boom baby "bust,"
born after 1964). The new churches understand something about their
demographic target market which Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist at the
University of California at Santa Barbara, describes in his excellent
study of Boomer spirituality, A Generation of Seekers.
[Their] concern is to experience life directly, to have an
encounter with God or the divine, or simply with nature and other
people, without the intervention of inherited beliefs, ideas, and
concepts. Such striving is understandable, not simply because
secondhand religion can be empty of meaning, but because only
personal experience is in some sense authentic and empowering.
Its means may be market-driven, culturally sensitive, and
cutting-edge, but this does not make the Next Church "progressive" or
"liberal" on the fundamentals.
What the new churches are is expressed well by the Fellowship of
Las Colinas, in Irving, Texas, in its official statement of
purpose:"We exist to reach up--which is worship (expressing love to
God); to reach out--which is evangelism (or sharing Christ with
others); and to reach in--which is discipleship (becoming fully
devoted followers of Christ)." Although not usually fundamentalist in
the sense so poorly received in liberal churchgoing and secular
America, these churches are proudly evangelical--that is, they are
devoted to missions and conversion--and take the Bible very seriously
if not always literally. God's word is the only thing about these
churches that is considered sacred, and yet their people invoke Jesus
as often and as familiarly as other people talk about their friends.
These are not television ministries; they are cohesive congregations.
Their adherents are not the people who faint in revival tents, who
knock on one's door with pamphlets, or who demonstrate at abortion
clinics. The average megachurch person, no matter how intense his or
her love of God, is a more buttoned-up, socially inhibited person--an
average American, that is. A woman I met at Prince of Peace
Lutheran Church, in suburban Minneapolis, told me, "We don't throw up
our hands and act crazy. We're Lutherans, after all."
A CHURCH OF OPTIONS
BOOMERS as customers are accustomed to eclecticism, which is the
embodiment of choice. In spontaneous imitation of that other
late-century cathedral, the mall, the megachurch offers a panoply of
choices under one roof--from worship styles to boutique ministries,
plus plenty of parking, clean bathrooms, and the likelihood that
you'll find something you want and come back again. This is what the
customer considers value. I saw written up in the local paper a
smallish Episcopal church in Orange County that every Sunday morning
offers a traditional service, a contemporary service, and a
charismatic service. Another minister I met, Stanley Copeland, of
Pollard United Methodist Church, in Tyler, Texas, referred to his own
worship menu as "chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry." He told me, "We
do not want to be a church just for people who are already Christian.
We are not a church of the Way. We are a church of options."
I saw lots of options in my travels.
Ed Young, the dynamic young pastor of the Fellowship of Las Colinas,
has a particular zest for marketing his business through direct-mail
drops touting Las Colinas's popular Saturday-evening service and
messages ("A Succsexful Marriage") to targeted ZIP codes in his area.
More than 3,000 people worship at one of Las Colinas's four weekend
services, owing at least in part to enormous mailings such as the
92,000-piece mail drop on Young's Easter series "The Future of the
Sports are a big deal at Las Colinas. The church organizes a
thirty-eight-team basketball league, starting with children of both
sexes in grades one through six. It has sponsored a baseball clinic
led by the New York Yankees. To anticipate the objections of just
about every male Texan, services conclude in time for watching parties
for the Dallas Cowboys football games--which are on view on a big
screen outside the sanctuary for church attendees to take in as part
of their post-worship fellowship. For those for whom Sundays are truly
sacred, Las Colinas offers the Saturday-night service.
People may drive forty-five minutes to an hour to get to a church like
this--but then, as normal Americans, they're in the habit. Bob Buford
explains, "People don't work in their neighborhoods. People don't shop
in their neighborhoods. People don't go to the movies in their
neighborhoods. So why should anyone expect them to go to church in
their neighborhoods? They'll drive right by small churches in their
neighborhood to get to attend a larger one that offers more in the way
of services or programs."
He shook his head at the contrast between Ed Young's operation and the
"stone church on the corner where the guy is preaching on the
Hittites." "The program offerings are overwhelming" at Las Colinas, he
said. "The sound systems are state-of-the-art; the message is relevant
and well communicated. People will demand from their church all the
Willow Creek stuff, and if they don't get it, they'll go to Willow
Creek. It's Wal-Mart versus the corner grocery. It ain't a fair
Probably the most spiritually energized and musically charged service
I attended was in Minneapolis, at the Church of the Open Door. David
Johnson's congregation of several thousand meets three times a weekend
in a somewhat blighted former high school in the northwestern
blue-collar reaches of the city.
It was eight o'clock one rainy winter morning when I drove there,
parked in a muddy lot, and hustled inside down grim tiled corridors
lined with rusty lockers. Upstairs, through a room with dozens of (by
now familiar) booths advertising the activities and help that the
church offers during the week, I found my way into a cavernous
gymnasium arrayed with folding chairs down the center and basketball
bleachers along either side. The congregation, unlike many of the
Dockers-clad Volvo drivers of more-prosperous megachurches, was mostly
in jeans and wool shirts.
For all its simplicity, the Church of the Open Door used overhead
projectors for Scripture and song lyrics. This may seem a luxury, but
it is cheaper than buying 2,000 hymnals and 2,000 prayer books. It's
also smarter: for one thing, projecting words and lyrics on a screen
means no mass page-flipping by parishioners with their heads bowed. I
don't think it's an accident that the singing I heard in all these
churches was booming and enthusiastic--partly because of the
simplicity and almost childish repetitiveness of the music, but also
because the people had their chins up and their hands free. Thus the
spontaneous clapping and swaying of hips and, occasionally, the single
hand outstretched to God.
At the Church of the Open Door that morning there was singing for
forty minutes straight. It was indescribably uplifting, sore legs
notwithstanding, and a programmatic mark of this kind of
church--sustained celebration in song. The outstanding lead vocalist
carried the energy of her praise to the limits of modesty. Exhausted
from her song, she whispered into her microphone to a hushed
auditorium, "Thank you, Lord, for the victory."
Johnson then appeared and presented one in a series of messages on
money, in which he explored all the barriers to giving to the church
and what he took to be the cause: his parishioners' ongoing "struggle
with financial bondage." Unlike many big-church orators, who have a
cool, crisp, Lettermanesque manner, Johnson was animated and often
shouting--Jimmy Swaggart without the sweat and tears. But his manner
was Next Church in its heavy dose of comic attitude. Roaming the stage
histrionically around his clear-plastic lectern, Johnson spoke, like
Jesus, in tongues the people before him could understand--indeed, in
an array of over-the-top voices: I could hear the motivational
speakers of late-night television, along with Joe Pesci and Robin
Williams. Johnson interrupted himself, the way stand-up comics do, to
introduce another deep-voiced character who said, "Gee, Dave--this
doesn't sound very spiritual." Johnson as Johnson answered, "Somebody
better talk about this stuff. This is God stuff. It's not a money
thing. It's not a sex thing. It's a character thing. A spiritual
thing. A God thing."
The membership of most of the churches I visited was predominantly
white, although in almost every one I could see a sprinkling of black
and brown and Asian families. Most pastors plead that they attract the
people who happen to live in their communities (defined as an
agglomeration of ZIP codes). But they don't look happy about it.
Lyle Schaller, the church scholar, told me that race and ethnicity are
"still a very significant line of demarcation" in most of American
church life (except for very large, multicultural, charismatic
congregations). The same impulse that drives people to worship with
their own social kind, or to make the choice of a church a statement
about the way they see themselves in the world, keeps them racially
unmixed. In this sense the gated community lives. One way these
churches address the problem and meet the need is to plant their own
The rise of Afrocentric thinking has found powerful expression in
hundreds of newer and larger black churches in America. At Concord
Missionary Baptist Church, in South Dallas, the Reverend E. K. Bailey
is content to be a magnet for what he calls "buppies"--black upwardly
mobile professionals. They need the specialized ministry that an
African-American church like Concord can deliver, he says. "They're
often one of a kind in a white organization. They're all stressed-out
in that culture. Here they can be who they are, feel they have
something to add as much as anyone else."
Concord's worship rituals don't look exactly like those at the typical
large churches, but that reflects the fact that the black church in
America long ago tapped its culture, and developed a form of worship
and a gospel-music tradition that now seem almost as timeless as the
King James Version.
In Next Church circles there is a keen interest in creating churches,
or services within churches, that minister to Americans in their
twenties. I heard more than one exegesis of the differences in tastes
and expectations, spiritual and otherwise, between Boomers and
Busters. Carol Childress, who has studied generational preferences,
says that Busters as churchgoers tend to be skeptical of the
megachurch excesses and seek "authenticity"above all else. Other
differences in tastes and expectations, I suspect, are merely those
between twenty-five-year-olds and forty-five-year-olds at any point in
But I did glimpse something of the Buster style in Chris Seay, the
pastor of the University Baptist Church, in Waco, Texas, who is mellow
as only a twenty-four-year-old can be. Seay ministers to a flock of
twentysomethings and younger people that has grown to 1,200 in just
twelve months of meeting in an old downtown movie theater.
When we met, in Dallas last year, Seay told me about a couple of
attractions that University Church is known for. He said it offered
the best rock music by the best rock musicians in Waco. He talked
about their "sound"--"a cross between Pearl Jam and Hootie and the
Blowfish." His church also offers small groups, or "cells," called
together, say, to watch the television program Friends and then
discuss it among themselves, before Bible study. (In Boomer
congregations the program of choice is Cheers, in reruns, with its
theme song of connectedness in a world of anomie:"where everybody
knows your name . . .")
At University Church on Sundays the seamlessness of the Boomer church
gives way to something like spontaneity. Seay says of his worship
services, "We don't know what's going to happen next--or we make it
seem like we don't know what's going to happen next."
Seay, a third-generation pastor, says this about Busters: "It's not
that we don't trust God; it's that we don't trust the institutions.
They've let us down. But I don't think Busters have rejected Christ."
His mission is to "communicate to seekers in a safe place," he says.
"They need a place where it's safe to say, `I don't believe this whole
God thing. I think it's a lot of malarkey.'"
Like the mainline denominations, though perhaps with more success,
new, large, independent churches attempt to live with intense
divisions among their flock over abortion and homosexuality. Some,
like Michael Foss, the pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, in
suburban Minneapolis, are fiercely agnostic. "I'm convinced you can be
a Christian on either side of those issues," Foss told me when we
talked last fall. "One of the tragedies of the culture is the tendency
to draw lines where they needn't be drawn. Christians ought to quit
throwing rocks at Christians. We don't have to agree on everything.
And these are side issues. What we're about is spiritual renewal."
Such dangerously free thinking is not always apparent among the Next
Church pastors I spoke to. Like politicians, they put varying degrees
of emphasis on teaching people the biblical injunctions on these
matters, and in their hands Scripture stacks up pretty heavily against
people who terminate viable pregnancies or enjoy nonprocreative sexual
relations of any type. But it seemed to me also that their conclusion
was always that compassion was necessary--vigilance against the sin,
forgiveness for the sinner.
This is a matter of common sense to many of the Next Church pastors I
met. Randy Frazee, the pastor of Pantego Bible Church, in Arlington,
Texas, told me, "I think we've got to redefine church. There are a
whole lot of people out there with a major failure in their lives--and
they never find themselves acceptable in church again. They're
spiritually hungry, but they feel like second-class citizens."
Many of them, he said, grew up in the Catholic Church; indeed, lapsed
or renounced Catholics contribute mightily to the ranks in Protestant
megachurches. Many of Frazee's congregation were living out of
wedlock, and "I was willing to accept them for who they are. The
church is not for those that are perfect."
WHEN I asked Ed Young, the pastor of Las Colinas, if his church could
keep getting bigger and bigger, he answered, "As long as we keep
getting smaller and smaller." The riddle is worth pondering.
Growing churches and congregations, like growing businesses, have a
reflexive thirst for market share. They tend to equate rising numbers
with self-worth and bricks and mortar with godliness. But growth is
also an expression of the evangelical mission. When I marveled to Bill
Hybels, of Willow Creek, about his church's phenomenal growth and
size--more than 15,000 attend a worship service every weekend--he
frowned. "There are two million people within a one-hour drive of this
place," he said. "In business parlance, we've got two percent of
market share. We've got a long way to go."
Not only self-styled evangelicals are growth-minded. Bill Tully, the
rector of St. Bartholomew's, a distinguished old mainline Episcopal
church in New York City, is watching the large-church "restoration
acts" across the country with an appreciation of the inherent tensions
"People come to church to be touched, to belong," he told me in an
E-mail message one day. "We form local congregations as if they were
clubs. And then we behave as if they were clubs. But clubs are
anti-growth." Tully added, "Working to keep a church at a comfortable
number is almost always self-defeating. Organically, that's stasis,
and it spells death eventually. A church that consciously grows will
learn to ask of everything that it pursues, Does this help us grow? or
does this keep us the way we are?"
It is not accidental that the latest generation of large churches,
with their huge auditoriums and balconied atriums, some with food
courts and fountains, resemble secular gathering places. (Banks and
colleges used to build their buildings to look like Gothic
cathedrals.) Walking into a church like Mariners, or Willow Creek, one
can easily imagine oneself in a corporate headquarters or a convention
By adopting nonthreatening architecture, the large churches are
finding another way to lower psychological barriers against the church
edifice. The multi-use church facilities, often the biggest and finest
in their communities (Willow Creek has the largest auditorium in
metropolitan Chicago), open their doors to every kind of community
group for meetings. Once people get used to hanging around a nice
building, the theory goes, they may take a flyer on something deeper.
Big congregations, far from being a deterrent, are a marketing asset:
they lend the anonymity that allows newcomers, shoppers, the curious
("seekers," in the parlance), to feel comfortable checking out a new
church. (When, last March, I walked into a little country church in
Virginia just before the service started, every head turned to see who
had come in.) The rule is that newcomers do not wish to be singled out
for attention--until such time, of course, as they do.
Experience has taught these churches that after the initial exposure,
size can soon alienate the potential new member. At Willow Creek a
while ago word came back that some newcomers felt overwhelmed by the
size of the church, and even some members who were trying hard and
sounded cheerful actually despaired of ever finding a place in its
vast and impersonal honeycomb of God-driven busyness.
As it sought to address this problem, Willow Creek found echoes of the
solution in the secular world. Lee Strobel, a Willow Creek leader who
wrote one of the best-selling books in megachurch literature, Inside
the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, likes to illustrate the concept
by referring to an ad for the Continental Bank of Chicago (now
BankAmerica)that confronted popular mistrust of huge, impersonal
institutions. Continental, the campaign said, was "the big bank with
the little bank inside."
The small-group system that Willow Creek gave its own expression to,
which has itself been widely adopted by even not-so-mega churches,
encourages every new member to join a cell of usually no more than ten
people, led by a lay person. Such a cell, says Willow Creek's
small-groups czar, Jim Mellado, "is the basic unit of church life."
Some 10,500 of the more than 15,000 worshippers at Willow Creek, and
comparable proportions at other churches, belong to small groups--some
for singles, some for couples, some by sex and age, many by location.
The old men who push Willow Creek's fleet of fifty industrial vacuum
cleaners down the miles of halls every night are part of
hall-vacuuming small groups. Whatever its affinity, every small group
includes some Bible study and God talk--which are, after all, the
point of the exercise.
The perfume of these groups may be Christian, but their integument is
social. Ideally if not always practically, your cellmates are the ones
who are there for you when your parent dies, or when you're lugging
your stuff to a new apartment, or when you have to go to the doctor
all of a sudden and you need someone to pick up the kids after school.
Relationships, that is. Neighbors. Family, when so many people seem
not to have a family anymore. What used to happen naturally, at least
in the small-town America we mythologize, today needs a little more
deliberateness. "We have to work at keeping the village," a
small-group enthusiast at a church in Minneapolis told me.
These churches' need to shore up smallness in the tide of bigness
echoes such management nostrums as creative teams at ad agencies and
quality circles on assembly lines, and such marketing conceits as
designer boutiques within department stores and editors' imprints
within publishing behemoths. Whether the churches maintain formal ties
to their denominations or never had any to begin with, they reflect
the impulse to customize, to bring institutions closer to their
clientele, and to design them on a scale that will be not only
approachable but ultimately irresistible.
A THIRD FORCE
WHAT may at first go unremarked when one beholds all the
small-grouping and service being provided for people who come to these
churches is the service being provided by all those people who are
already there. Teaching Sunday school and arranging flowers and
passing the plate have long been the formal obligations of any
Protestant congregation's core. But the degree and intensity of
participation in the Next Church is on a wholly different scale. The
churches, even the ones with enormous paid staffs (Willow Creek has
nearly 200 full-time paid employees), can truly be said to be led and
staffed by their laity.
The overwhelming reality is that the bulk of the people who make the
church function are volunteers. Some of these churches have adopted
the pitch, "At ------ you won't have to sign anything, sing anything,
say anything, or give anything"(until you are ready to, that is). But
once people have learned the secret handshake, as it were, they are
expected and asked to play an active role--and many of them are eager
to be put to work. (To the list of reasons that send Boomers to church
from the wasteland of their unchurched life I would add: gratitude.)
Just as significant as the existence of 1,400 small groups of seven to
ten people each at Willow Creek is the work of 1,400 small-group
leaders, each one responsible to team leaders and on up the line to
the pastoral staff.
One of the basic elements of large-church management is identifying
the "gifts" of people in order to fit them to the church's various
ministries. The larger the church population, the more ambitious the
church mission, the more customized the service, the more rewarding
the ministry. Willow Creek, for example, is famous for its active
car-repair ministry, in which weekend grease jockeys fix up the cars
of fellow parishioners who can't afford professional service or
restore clunkers to life and donate them to the poor.
Service is its own reward. Hybels remarked to me, "There isn't a
personality charismatic enough to get a volunteer to vacuum the floors
of the church at night. Something has to be going on in his heart."
What brings people to their gift of service is a desire to do
something that--perhaps unlike their day job, perhaps unlike their
evenings--matters. Among the things that they didn't realize they
wanted when they came back to church, in the view of many people I
met, was not just a changed life but the chance to change the lives of
Peter Drucker has written approvingly of what he calls the pastoral
churches as yeasty new sources of nonprofit-sector volunteerism. In
the view of Drucker and some of his disciples, Bob Buford among them,
these churches are an integral part of a potent and largely unseen
"third force" of volunteer productivity and philanthropy that is
picking up what the private sector has forsaken and the public sector
has squandered. The potential may be dazzling, but the current base
line is impressive too: giving to religious institutions in 1993 made
up 61 percent of all household charitable giving; the average
contribution from households where no one volunteered was $425, and
from households where someone did, $1,193.
Collection plates may have been replaced in many large churches by
less threatening buckets at the door for exiting churchgoers. But the
preponderance of the giving that supports these big institutions--and
churches in general--is not so spontaneous. Well-organized stewardship
ministries promote the virtues of tithing and orchestrate high levels
of donor participation and dollar contributions. The giving makes
possible such imposing places as Saddleback Valley Community Church,
in Mission Viejo, California, whose seventy-nine-acre campus, now
under construction, will eventually include a 10,000-seat auditorium,
a fellowship hall, a day-care center, and office quarters. The price,
borne by the more than 11,000 worshippers at Saddleback, is likely to
exceed $50 million.
Drucker says that Americans today go to church for reasons very
different from those of two generations ago. Then attendance was
steered by heritage, habit, and social status. "Now," he told me
recently, "it is an act of commitment, and therefore meaningful. It is
no longer an act of conformity, and therefore meaningless. People need
community, yes, and they need a spiritual identity, yes, but they also
need responsibility. They need the feeling that they contribute."
Reminding me that "this is not a church story, it's a volunteer
story," Drucker told me about a woman he knew who was a senior
vice-president in a Fortune 500 company and left her job to run a
social-service agency for two years. When he asked her why, she said,
"Look. The company pays me very well. I enjoy it. But I'm Goddamned if
I know what the company is trying to do. At the agency it took me two
years to straighten it out, and I can see the results."
GO FORTH AND
WILLOW Creek Community Church, the Fellowship of Las Colinas,
Saddleback Valley Community Church, Mariners Church, Wooddale Church,
Calvary Chapel, the Church of the Open Door, the Community of Joy,
House of Hope, Gateway Cathedral, New Life Fellowship . . . these
places have something in common:they whisper no word of a
In some cases that's because the church belongs to none. The Next
Church is sui generis, a house built of local materials and
independent pluck and zeal. In other cases the church would just as
soon not mention that it owes allegiance to any remote earthly
institution. In a few cases the church doesn't even call itself a
At Wooddale Church the "Baptist" is silent. When I visited him there,
Leith Anderson showed me the results of a focus group he mined some
years ago. A randomly selected group of local residents was asked to
react to a list of names that Wooddale Baptist Church was considering
in conjunction with its move to spacious (and now already overcrowded)
new acreage. He found, as have others across the country, that putting
"Baptist" in a name is to the unchurched about the surest turnoff
Though many congregations in the Next Church retain nominal membership
in mainline or evangelical denominations, and some are thriving as
parts of a greater ecclesiastical whole, what they are concealing in
the names they have chosen is at the heart of the great convulsion
going on in American church life: the challenge to denominations.
Unaffiliated churches have led the way in acting independently,
creatively, aggressively, competitively, intentionally, to build huge
communities of people whose lives orbit the church seven days a week.
In most cases they have had no help from denominations--no staffing,
liturgy, financing, or brand recognition. Indeed, a few dozen of these
churches are big and influential enough to constitute denominations in
everything but name: they train pastors and lay leaders, they "plant"
and counsel churches, they publish their vision, and they seek new
One midwestern Episcopal rector I met, who later asked for anonymity,
took the long view. "Denominations as we know them are a historical
anomaly," he said to me recently. "The very large churches are
becoming the new dioceses--and they don't take a big cut of your
income to do it."
Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, in California, one of the
granddaddies of the large-church movement (it began as the home of the
"Jesus people," sometimes called "Jesus freaks," of the 1960s), has
spawned some 700 other Calvary Chapels across the United States and
abroad. About forty of them have congregations numbering in the
thousands. Calvary Chapels would be a small denomination if it wanted
to call itself one.
Willow Creek is a more contemporary example of the new
proto-denomination. As it grew and its renown spread in the church
world, Willow Creek soon felt overwhelmed --not just by the numbers of
people flocking to its worship and other ministries but also by the
numbers of pastors and church elders from around the world who wanted
to hear the story, learn the lessons, and receive the wisdom.
To handle these professional seekers, Willow Creek created a kind of
parachurch organization called the Willow Creek Association, a
group of churches from more than sixty denominations (or none), whose
membership now numbers 1,700. Their leaders, clergy and lay, come to
Willow Creek by the thousands for seminars, and receive continuing
education and advice from newsletters, books, audiotapes and
videotapes, and specialized consulting from Hybels and his staff. The
clientele can pick and choose from a cafeteria of concepts and
strategies and materials that Willow Creek has developed, from using
short dramatic sketches in worship services to organizing small groups
to reaching the unchurched and developing FDFX.
This is no Vatican. The big "teaching churches" like Willow Creek,
Saddleback, Wooddale, and a few dozen others emphasize to their pupils
the need to customize an approach to the market. Hybels is quick to
say that he does not wish to create many little Willow Creeks, and
several other pastors, unprompted, ticked off lists of differences
between the way they do things and the way Willow Creek does things.
(It's not always fun being the big boy on the block: when Hybels gave
an interview to Christianity Today, the cover line accompanying his
photo was "Selling Out the House of God?")
The teaching churches also share strategies and lessons among
themselves, and across denominational lines, through such
organizations as Teaching Church Network, founded by Leith Anderson,
and Leadership Network, established by Bob Buford. One of the tools
Leadership Network uses is NetFax, a series of one-page briefings,
pointers, lists, and quotable quotes from the likes of Peter Drucker,
Ken Blanchard, Lyle Schaller, and Alvin Toffler, which regularly
reaches 3,800 pastors and others.
"The fact is, these large churches have more in common with each other
than with other churches in their denomination," Buford told me, as we
drove down the freeway to our third worship service of the morning one
Sunday last summer.
Just as significant for the next generation of these large churches,
and for the established Protestant denominations, is that they are
training their pastoral staffs themselves. They would rather identify
their own best pastors and create a priesthood (another word they
don't use) in their own image than take whichever stranger the bishop
wants to send their way every five years.
Next Church pastors may go outside for some limited academic seminary
training, but their real education began the day they joined the
church and started growing in its midst. The most fully developed
follower of Christ, in the prevailing theologies of these places, is
one who becomes a minister himself or herself, forsaking all other
occupations for the ultimate mid-career change and act of faith.
Willow Creek is led by such as Greg Hawkins, who left a career
trajectory that included a Stanford M.B.A. and a position at the
consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and Lee Strobel, probably the only
reporter and editor on a major U.S. daily paper (The Chicago Tribune)
to switch careers and become a religious leader. Drucker would
consider such trajectories a large-church archetype.
These new pastors may join the staff of the church or lead a church
plant--be it geographic, to serve a new community, or ethnic, to serve
a growing minority, or demographic, to serve a new generation. Before
podding off from Wooddale Church, Leith Anderson told me, the
designated pastor is given a "hunting license" to scout the parent
congregation for a core group with all the essential knowledge and
skills to form the new church. He and other church leaders at Wooddale
are currently planning the first church plant into another
"We are not in the business of building denominations," Anderson told
me over dinner one evening in St. Paul with his wife, Charleen. "We
are in the business of building the kingdom of God."
I HAD a telephone conversation last spring with Loren Mead, a
pioneering church consultant and the founder of The Alban Institute,
an ecumenical think tank, in Bethesda, Maryland. Mead described his
years of attendance at an Episcopal church in Washington that in the
1960s and 1970s was famous for breaking ground with its contemporary
worship services. A Washingtonian and an Episcopalian, I remembered it
too, as a place with guitars for sound and five-grain bread for the
host and a fearless crusader against injustice for a priest.
I told Mead that in that era, when I was a student at Phillips
Exeter Academy, my friends and I had been involved in creating and
leading experimental worship services in the old school church. Our
challenge from Edward Stone Gleason, the school minister, was to reach
our fellow students, newly unshackled from Exeter's nearly
200-year-old church-attendance requirement and, as adolescents in the
late sixties, in no frame of mind to worship voluntarily. As "deacons"
of the church, we tried to break through to them in worship services
by singing Beatles songs and performing scenes from Samuel Beckett and
slipping in as much Holy Scripture as we could. We built it, and they
did come--some of them.
Yet Mead and I--and Gleason, too--have long since returned to
traditional, old-fashioned churches with eighteenth-century hymns and
stained-glass windows and beautiful prayers we can recite without even
thinking. Mead and I traded notes on the phone about the contemporary
music we'd heard in the megachurches we'd visited. "I could like it,"
he said, "but I have a feeling I couldn't like it long. It's like the
Top Forty." He is comfortable now in the traditional church he has
returned to in Washington. He said, "I like the familiarity. When I go
to church, I'm going home in a way."
As an old-fashioned Episcopalian who has seen and admired examples of
the Next Church across the country, I returned from my reporting
feeling more impatient with the creaky, lazy, obscure, complacent, and
sometimes forbidding dimensions of my familiar church. I also came
away with a new appreciation for the interior logic of evangelism.
Evangelicals are about the business of growing the flock, broadening
God's market share, spawning new Christians and leading them to a
mature faith and a life of service. The Next Church leaders and their
congregations are willing to say so, and to act accordingly, in ways
that would scare many of the people in my church out of their wits.
For old-church people like me, the church provides safety from those
who believe other than we do, and safety from pressure to act on our
supposed convictions and faith by seeking out others to share them. A
gated community, in other words. In familiar and safe surroundings, I
understand, we take comfort and draw closer to God. But might we be
missing something--something as important as giving as good as we're
I'm not a natural mark for megachurch membership. Along with the
crankiest old codgers I bemoaned the mild changes made to the Book of
Common Prayer in 1979 to render it more intelligible and more
inclusive in its language. I attend a beautiful, traditional old stone
church with the finest organ, choir, and music director in my city. I
look to few things as warmly as singing great lungfuls of old hymns on
Sunday morning and kneeling for that transcendent moment of grace at
the communion rail. But I also wonder whether, as Mead put it, "we're
speaking a foreign language to younger people," and whether my church
is not in danger of withering away. And whether it doesn't deserve
that fate if it doesn't get intentional, and soon.
Illustrations by Tom Garrett
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; The Next Church; Volume 278, No. 2;
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