BBC, Jan. 18, 2003
By Jon Leyne, BBC correspondent, Kentucky
Arriving for the Saturday evening service at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky is a bit like going to the cinema. Not any old cinema, of course, but one of the smartest shiniest new multiplexes.
First there’s the car park – big enough that there’s a shuttle bus to the door of the church. In you go through the cavernous lobby.
Then up one of the banks of shining new escalators an usher shows you to your seat in the 9,000 capacity auditorium – and you slip anonymously into place.
Like many things in America, it’s best not to fight it. Just let the whole experience wash over you.
Southeast Christian is one of God’s success stories. They call them Mega-Churches. This is one of the biggest in the country – and around the US this is the growth area of Christianity.
There’s not much here that actually says “church” – just one cross up on the wall. It’s more like a vast conference centre.
Cleverly they’ve taken away all those trappings that seem to scare people off conventional religion – the vestments, the dreary hymns sung by an out of tune choir, all that standing or kneeling, the long silences, the incomprehensible language.
Instead, it’s like sitting through a very well produced, but rather middle-of-the-road, pop concert. The orchestra and singing is highly professional. Everything is relayed on a series of huge video monitors clearly visible, even from the top row of the gods. They even display the words for the religious songs so you don’t need to read from an order of service or a hymn book.
The congregation has only been in this massive building for just over four years – but already is threatening to outgrow it. A total of 18,000 people come here for the three services every weekend.
Many thousands more spend a good chunk of their week in the smart new gymnasium, food court, day-care centre, classrooms… You see this is not just a church, it is the shopping mall of modern religion – a new medieval city, clustered round the sanctuary.
One of the other Mega-Churches is actually introducing a McDonalds. Some of them have housing developments on campus, one is building a religious theme park based on the story of Jonah and the whale.
They are quite open about the purpose of it all.
Take our friend Steve at the so-called basketball ministry. A few years ago, he came along to play in the fantastically well-equipped gym beside the church.
They gather round for prayers before each game, and, of course, swearing or rough play is out of the question.
But Steve wasn’t intending to come closer to God, he just wanted to play basketball. The church was quite patient, then a couple of years later they persuaded him to start coming to services. Now he has the fervour of a convert.
Anyone is welcome to come to the basketball games, he says, the church will wait as long as it takes to save another soul – but sooner or later they hope to lure them into their religious community.
Of course, Southeast Christian insists it is not poaching believers from smaller congregations. But there is a sort of Wal-Mart effect. Here are the wealthy middle-class Christians in their suburban mall of a church, while church after church in depressed downtown Louisville is going out of business.
But why would you want to go to this vast Wal-Mart of a church, when you could be among friends at St Mike’s or St Luke’s round the corner?
I certainly didn’t understand it – but then I guess I am not American. Speaking with members of the congregation, the words “safety” and “security” keep coming up.
Strength in numbers
Bob Russell, the pastor of Southeast Christian, talks of a world that is getting worse. Christians feel a need for a greater strength he explains – and there is strength in numbers.
One religious affairs expert described it as a form of Christian cocooning – as the faithful withdraw from what they see as an increasingly threatening world.
Another former member of the congregation explained to us a less high-minded motivation. Southeast Christian is the place to be seen in Louisville, it’s the place to meet the leading local politicians, to make business contacts. It’s the country club of religion.
So successful is this religious country club that they take in $500,000 in donations every week. There’s even a police escort for the collection.
There are ambitious expansion plans that will cost more than $30m. The church is buying or putting in bids for every scrap of land around. They even have the equivalent of a chief executive. He moved here from the company that owns Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now he is marketing God, not chicken wings.
It might all seem a little quirk of American life – not a phenomenon of any significance. And yet there is something about the Mega-Churches that really sums up what is going on in this country – the blandness, the insularity, a pulling in on itself, a search for certainty.
In fact, most of the congregation of Southeast Christian would see little of that as a sin. As for the size – surely bigger is better is written into the constitution isn’t it?
Or rather, as one of the faithful put it: “If you don’t like being amongst a lot of people worshipping God, you are not going to like heaven.”