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Megachurch and the theology of place

Megachurch and the theology of place

Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of believing.  In other words, the way we pray (and worship) shapes what we believe.  But what about where we worship?  It is a truism in liturgical planning that “the building always wins.”  The design and layout of the worship space speaks loudly to what we believe about God and our mutual relationship.  Is God far away and remote? Then lets put an altar far away from the congregation and behind a rood screen (or even an altar rail).  Is God immanent only from scripture?  Then lets put a pulpit front and center?  Anglicanism is a tradition that treasures the beautiful and the sublime, and examples of treasured buildings are numerous.

But it is rare to see a new-built church, especially of the non-denominational mega-church sort, incorporate the kind of traditional church architecture that many Episcopalians are familiar with.  Religion Dispatches has a post up highlighting the work of LA-based artist Lisa Auerbach entitled “Megachurches.” Auerbach spent several years touring the United States and taking pictures of churches—exteriors only.

Speaking of the work, and the sense that it documents a kind of anodyne sterility she said;

“It just is what it is. That’s what it looks like. That’s what that strain of faith looks like. Like the look of Catholic cathedrals is very different from megachurches because there really is an idea of the divine in the architecture. Megachurches are more about having a big enough space for everyone to fit in, so it’s really not about this feeling of being small and humbled in the face of a larger power. I get a different feeling from going to a megachurch than I do from going to Notre Dame or going to an L.A. cathedral.”

Auerbach grew up in a mostly secular Jewish home, and claims she isn’t seeking to comment on the inherent theologies on display.

“You try to photograph the churches when they’re deserted and empty. Is that in any way a commentary on what you feel is being offered in those churches?

No, I just didn’t want it to have a human face. I don’t want people to identify with it as “I could never go there because those people are all whatever they are.” I didn’t want people making generalizations based on the race of people, their gender, what they were wearing. I didn’t want that factoring into the sense of the space.

Leaping off of that question, do you feel the architecture of these buildings communicates the theologies of these churches in any way?

Theologies are really varied. There are a lot of different denominations that are represented. I’ve noticed for instance that Southern Baptist Convention churches are often very large versions of what you’d consider a classic Southern church to be, with white columns and red brick. They’re kind of blown up in this strange way. Most of them don’t look like typical churches, though—they look like big box stores or malls. Also there’s just so, so many domes. But it’s hard to make a generalization about what they’re preaching because I have a hard time figuring out what the differences between the ideologies are.”


Implicit in the architecture of many megachurches is a critique of the kind of churches with which most Episcopalians are familiar.  What does the megachurch have to say about contemporary ideas of God and church?


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Ann Fontaine

Many of them are repurposed abandoned stores – hence the “look.” I used to have coffee at a place where the pastors of a Wyoming sized megachurch met to plan worship. I was amazed that they were even more scripted than Episcopal liturgy. Entirely scripted around producing an emotional high.

David Allen

I see megachurches reinventing the same thing that the Church has already passed through. Bishops, the successors to the Apostles, were the pastors of the early church. As their congregations grew and pulled in members from the suburbs and hinterlands they grew unwieldy and the central church began to be broken up into satelite congregations with locally based pastors handpicked and authorized with the bishop’s authority. Megachurch and satelites = diocese and parishes.

David Carver

Interesting – I was aware of that history on some level, but hadn’t thought of it in relation to the megachurch phenomenon. (But then, I seldom lend much thought to them… Or thought that isn’t a tad uncharitable on my part, at least) Thank you for that insight, Father Allen.

David Allen

Thank you for the compliment, but I have not persued priestly orders. Brother will do me fine. 😀

Anand Gnanadesikan

Having spent time in the evangelical church, I’d say that the central organizing principle of the megachurch is not the Bible but the pastor.

On the one hand this can be a good thing. Rick Warren, Bill and Kay Hybels, Francis Chan all appear to be good and sincere people who are committed to the gospel- to excellent preaching and teaching but also to reaching out to the broader world.

But then you have the Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars of the world who are basically committed to the prosperity gospel.

Thinking about this last night, though, I realized that its easy for me to look down on the latter group and the folks who follow them. I don’t need my church to be successful in order to feel like I’m part of something important. I have lots of things in my life (education, job) telling me that I’m a success and my work bears on some really important global issues. I think this is true for many folks in my church.

But this may in fact make us less committed to seeing our church be successful, not just in a worldly sense, but in terms of impacting the world for Jesus.

David Allen

Not to mention the megachurch empire of Mark Driscoll that literally fell apart in a matter of weeks. That was entirely a cult around the chief minister.

Leslie Marshall

95% of megachurch’s ‘ideology’ is The Bible. The reason they are so big & ungainly, is to house the congregation… which almost always began in someone’s living room, or a small storefront.

Regardless of what the building looks like, mega churches serve thousands & thousands of saints every week. [Check out their weekly calendar & ministries if you want to know the purpose of the megachurch architecture.]

Here’s a mega church (serves 15,000 every week) in Carlsbad, CA, that has a Tuscany villa vibe, has huge outreach in the community, world missions & is pro-arts, with theatre productions, dance & art galleries. They call themselves, ‘The Church without Walls’:

Gregory Orloff

Correction: 95% of megachurches’ ideology is not the Bible, but their interpretation of the Bible.

Big difference.

The reason megachurches are so big and ungainly is because the megachurch phenomenon has bought into American consumerism’s utilitarian marketing notions that “bigger is better” and “numbers are the bottom line” — the spiritual equivalent of a “big box” store like Walmart, as opposed to the neighborly intimacy of a local Mom-and-Pop store or the idiosyncratic interest of a boutique.

There was a time when people built churches to be things of beauty that reflected if not heaven, at least their vision of heaven, and some still do, which can inspire.

But the megachurch phenomenon essentially the religious analog to a shopping mall, to pack in as many consumers as possible to push a product for the largest market share possible.

I may be an old-fashioned lad, but I’ll pass and take a community, large or small, where Christ is made present in baptism and the eucharist — just like the Bible says and the earliest Christians practiced.

And the Episcopal Church does well on that account.

Leslie Marshall

Almost all mega churches sponsor church planting. Sometimes, dozens of them, which in turn grow & grow.

By necessity, many mega churches have satellite locations all over town, where they live-stream sermons every Sunday, and where small groups meet during the week.

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