Getting "Plugged In" to the Future of American Religion: A Megachurch Experience Bethel Temple, Hampton, Virginia Sunday, 8 April 2006

By Blaakman, Michael; Kuhagen, Scott et al. | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Getting "Plugged In" to the Future of American Religion: A Megachurch Experience Bethel Temple, Hampton, Virginia Sunday, 8 April 2006


Blaakman, Michael, Kuhagen, Scott, Teasdale, Kirsten, Anglican and Episcopal History


A megachurch is commonly defined as a Protestant church with an average weekly attendance of over two thousand worshipers. During the past several decades, this new religious phenomenon has swept across America, particularly exurban neighborhoods in the sunbelt. A survey in 2005 by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research (hirr.hartsem.edu/ org/ megastoday2005_summaryreport.html) tallied 1210 megachurches in the United States, nearly double the number calculated five years earlier. It found that they were statistically over-represented in the sunbelt, and that over a third identified themselves as nondenominational. Usually conservative politically and sometimes reaching the realm of Christian fundamentalism, megachurches are stanchions of the religious right. A survey co-sponsored in 2004 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 56 percent of evangelical Protestants self-identified as Republicans, while only 27 percent identified themselves as Democrats (pewforum.org/publications/ surveys/ green.pdf). The purpose of the megachurch is nicely epitomized in the mission statement of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, which enjoys an attendance of nearly nineteen-thousand at its Sunday services: "to evangelize the lost, edify the saved, minister to those in need, and be a conscience in the community" (www.southeastchristian.org).

Despite their intimidating size, megachurches strive to be welcoming places that provide their attendees with a sense of belonging. In this respect they continue a pattern in American religious history exemplified in the urban Protestant institutional churches that emerged in the late Victorian era and in the Jewish synagogue-centers of the early twentieth century. These sought to provide parishioners with comprehensive programs ranging from sports teams and dining centers to schools and libraries. Megachurches are finding the same sweeping success as their predecessors. They offer appealing weekly programs and events that culminate in Sunday worship services; thus they simultaneously meet the spiritual, social, and recreational needs of their members, and attract adherents through programming as well as through evangelization. Peter Drucker, the late guru of management and economic theory (and a practicing Episcopalian), recognized the megachurch phenomenon "as one of the signal events of the late twentieth century-part of a sweeping and spontaneous reorganization of social structures and relationships" (as quoted by Charles Trueheart in The Atlantic Monthly for August 1996).

At most megachurches, worship is intensely performance-based, in ways that depart from centuries of Christian tradition. Comfortable theatre-style chairs replace pews. Stage lights replace votive candles. Rock bands replace cantors. Praise hymns replace processionals. Elaborate dramatic performances and emotional sermons replace conventional liturgy. Services are scheduled throughout the day, and on different days of the week. Some services provoke charismatic activity, but nearly all lead audiences to tears and rediscoveries of faith in Jesus.

With an average weekly attendance of 2462 persons, Bethel Temple of Hampton, Virginia, qualifies as an American megachurch. It is situated at a busy intersection in the middle of a vast commercial expanse near the center of Hampton Roads, a sprawling collection of cities between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach. At the 11 AM service on 8 April 2006, the first thing a visitor notices is Bethel Temple's large parking lot. Comparable in size to parking lots at such "big-box" stores as Target and Best Buy, it sprawls across a separate parcel of land, a crosswalk away from the main campus.

The structure that houses Bethel Temple strikes an observer as both modest and contemporary. Worshipers enter a plain and utilitarian lobby that wraps around the auditorium. There are several holes in the ceiling, and ladders and chairs are strewn about. …

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