Growing up in the Midwest in the 60’s and 70’s I was unavoidably taken with any event of weirdness and edgy behavior in California, especially as those reports were delivered by Zeitgeist observer Johnny Carson. Carson may have only cared about scoring a funny premise, but he ended-up finding lots of them in the cults and therapies and experimental eating habits originating in California. Found in this news hash was the occasional mention of a new “drive-through” church or even church services held regularly at drive-in movie theaters. Oh, those beatnik bongo-playing nut jobs out in California…
Some of that vintage “Hey, get a load of this…” reaction to trends and fads originating here in the Golden State came back to me in rush as I read Sunday’s LA Times article by Duke Helfand on mega-churches, a term applied to churches with congregations in excess of 2,000. I think my Mom’s church in Wisconsin has several hundred families in its congregation, although that’s been no barrier to their holding one of the biggest garage sales in that part of the state. Thus it is written, “Ask thy neighbor how much for the Thigh Master, then pay as you would have others pay you.”
Helfand made a convincing argument that California is now ground zero for the superchurch or megachurch phenomenon. On a quiz show, I would have answered Colorado since their megachurches have received enormous national attention. That might indicate that California’s giant churches are quietly going about their business without headline-grabbing scandal or other woes. Back in ’97 there was some business about Robert H. Schuller of the big Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove having stirred up trouble on a commercial airliner. Maybe he was irate that a live camel he was bringing back for that church’s opulent Christmas pageant was being charged for two seats in coach.
The Times story reported that California has 193 giant churches, a few more than Texas. That’s impressive since Texas is always dominant in any “giant” or big category, being home to the first Six Flags amusement park and restaurants challenging patrons to eat a 72 ounce steak in an hour. The largest number of giant California churches are located in the suburbs between LA and San Diego, an area that Helfand reports observers are now referring to as the Southern California Bible Belt. Leaving this observer to wonder, “What’s up?”
Megachurches offer compelling and (not meant in a bad way) entertaining pastors, lively rock/pop hymns and music powered by rock band musicians as contrasted to traditional church music, and services that involve the congregants physically. Helfand’s story featured a photo showing a woman with her arms thrust into the air as those around her clapped in time to the music. Everyone appears to be wearing picnic clothes and quite a few have sunglasses pushed back on their foreheads. I’m saying, it doesn’t look too rigid or formal at the Shepherd of the Hills in Porter Ranch where they have plans for a 3,500 seat auditorium. Helfand’s article estimates that a megachurch will draw an average of 4,100 parishioners over the course of multiple weekend services. Multiply that times 193 megachurches… and you have a reliable weekly constituency that many cable TV shows would envy. And that’s just in California.
Should it give us pause? At the moment, there appears to me more provable damage being done by traditional churches that strike out against homosexuality, and the still powerful Catholic Church’s historical tendency to protect and relocate child abusers and encourage the poor and hungry of the world to stand fast against birth control. But if there were suddenly a perceived danger arising from what many viewed as a potentially devastating moral crisis in our country… the grapevine of megachurches would seem destined to play a role. And yet for many of us, they are currently operating off our radar and without much attention.
That last paragraph makes me sound like a struggling provocateur working the midnight to four AM shift on a talk radio station. But consider the flaming garbage balls hurled into the media dome by the right in just the last few months: Obama is a socialist, death panels, the government wants to run health care, the President was born in a foreign country, ACORN, Sotomayor is a racist… sorry, I’m running out of ink. At some point, if one of these finds real traction there’s a heck of a telegraph to be worked via megachurches.
In truth I appreciate the work, or showmanship, of a few of these pastors. I thought Rick Warren conducted himself well enough in that completely unnecessary “values” forum during the Presidential campaign. And T.D. Jakes, at full throttle in front of a large group, is worth taking a few minutes to behold. The man is a mix-master of psychology, faith, feminism, and a “prosperity theology” that I can’t fully explain although I’m sure the complete line of products on his web site can. Megachurches may have been inevitable in a country that supports monolithic Costco outlets vending giant TV sets like boxes of Crackerjack. But when a church such as Shepherd of the Hills pulls in 8,000 congregants over six services each weekend, you have to consider that that’s basically a small town… gathering and listening to the same message and reacting emotionally to what’s said. There’s some real power there. Or maybe I’m just jealous that my own column has a slightly smaller reach.