Worship, etc., on grand scale

Mega-churches: A recent trend in U.S. religion is vast buildings with huge congregations and non-traditional amenities.
The Baltimore Sun, Aug. 17, 2002
By Candus Thomson
Sun National Staff

GLENDALE, Ariz. – From the outside, the Community Church of Joy looks like an upscale mall. On the inside, it resembles the campus of a small community college.

It is, says senior pastor Walt Kallestad, a house of worship for “the unchurched,” people who never found a religion that spoke to them or who drifted away because they didn’t like what they heard.

Kallestad’s message has apparently found its flock. Community Church of Joy, now in its fourth decade, has 11,000 members who like the variety offered at five weekend services and the wide range of secular-style activities and programs.

The suburban Phoenix church is one of nearly 700 “mega-churches” in the country, each with a congregation in excess of 2,000 and an average income of $4.8 million, that account for about 2 million parishioners.

Mega-churches have fitness centers, upscale coffee shops and cafes, hair salons and job counseling services. At Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, you can grab lunch at a church-owned McDonald’s right next to the sanctuary.

“They are as much a product of society as malls or multiplexes or large hotels,” says Dr. Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. “They are re-creating a communal space that’s not unlike a green in a small New England town.”

At Joy, three giant screens fill the 2,200-seat sanctuary with images from the stage: ministers with hand-held wireless microphones preach an upbeat, folksy message; a trio backed by a rock or country band sings praises to the Lord; lyrics and videotape snippets flash.

Don’t look for hymnbooks, altar or organ. There aren’t any.

When parishioners aren’t worshipping, they go to cookouts, self-improvement classes, aerobics and crafts. They send their youngsters to Kid Kountry – one of the largest day-care centers in Arizona – then on to preschool and the K-8 school.

And when they die, their bodies often go first to the on-site mortuary and then to the cemetery across campus.

But that’s only the beginning in Joy’s $300 million cradle-to-grave plan on its 184-acre site. In Kallestad’s office are blueprints for a housing development, marina, hotel and Joyland, an aquatic amusement park.

“What we’re doing here is so old, it’s new,” says Kallestad. “It’s a destination, like the old-fashioned missions, which built schools and hospitals. This is an opportunity to build a community.”

National building boom

Mega-church construction is also helping to fuel a national church-building boom. Construction of religious buildings was $8.8 billion in May, up from $7.6 billion in May 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Thumma says the number of mega-churches has doubled in the past decade; many reported two years ago that they were strapped for worship and education space.

The very size of these churches has overwhelmed some communities and so angered others that they’ve taken legal action.

“There are two kinds of people,” says Thumma, who has studied the trend since the 1980s. “People who love mega-churches and people who hate them. There isn’t somebody who goes, ‘This isn’t too bad.'”

In Atlanta, the 9,000-member Ben Hill United Methodist Church was forced to buy an empty five-building corporate campus after neighbors fought expansion plans.

One 32-year resident told The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, “If they move, we will keep our serenity, not have to deal with traffic and pollution, and be able to build the neighborhood back in terms of unity.”

A plan by Church On The Move in Hanover Township, Pa., to build a 2,500-seat auditorium, ball fields and a cafeteria was rejected by town supervisors, who said it violated zoning laws.

Officials in Cypress, Calif., have gone to court to prevent Cottonwood Christian Center from developing 18 acres as its new campus. The city says a church, which does not pay taxes, is not in keeping with its downtown redevelopment plan, which includes construction of a Costco on the site instead.

Critics also say selling Happy Meals is a great way to make money, but it detracts from the major mission of churches: feeding the soul.

Writing in Sightings, a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School, James L. Evans, pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala., called the mixing of commerce and religion “sad.”

“The Christian faith began as a movement born out of the pain and suffering of the founder, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, in order to maintain its membership, churches become purveyors of convenience. The symbol of the cross is superseded by the ubiquitous golden arches.”

Kallestad disagrees. “Jesus spent his life in the marketplace. Starbucks and McDonald’s provide an opportunity to reach out and build community. Churches used to be criticized for being cloistered, shut off from the world. To survive, we have to recast the vision to go where the people are.”

For that reason, he says, all of his church’s programs and facilities – from fishing trips to Minnesota, to concerts by Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), to the future housing and water park – are open to nonmembers as well.

Efforts by neighborhoods and governments to rein in mega-church growth often backfire, says Thumma.

“A lot of mega-churches thrive on that tension. It gives them a slight ‘rebel’ label and that label is enough for people to say, ‘This isn’t my church. My church wouldn’t make waves. This must be something unique.'”

Change of congregation

A part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Church of Joy was founded in 1974. Kallestad joined the staff four years later, when the congregation was about 200.

“He grew it from 200 members to 100,” jokes Kallestad’s son, Patrick, who handles public relations for Joy.

The senior Kallestad shakes his head as he recalls those “painful” times.

“I was accused of building a kingdom, of building my ego, of not preaching the Gospel,” he recalls. “Not everybody was excited about this. Some people were happier with predictable, convenient, comfortable surroundings. Well, I don’t see those listed as virtues in the Bible.”

The 100 people who were put off by Kallestad’s vision were replaced over the next five years by 2,900 new members. The numbers have continued to grow, forcing the church to move to larger quarters before buying the present tract adjacent to a major highway.

Many mega-churches are either nondenominational or soft-pedal their religious affiliation. The 2,500-member Valley Cathedral in Phoenix bills itself as “a forgiveness center, and not a guilt center, a city of refuge.” The Community Church of Joy says it is “a place for fellowship, celebration, reflection and worship … a place where you’re always welcome.”

Several members of Joy say they were attracted to the church before they knew what denomination it was.

“This church has something for everybody,” says Kathy Cox, who joined Joy a year ago with her husband, a retired Air Force officer. “I was a Methodist my whole life. My husband was, too. We met at our old church. This is different. Here, I feel like God is talking to me.”

Kallestad and other ministers of mega-churches say that in addition to filling a spiritual need, they are addressing a need that neighborhoods no longer do.

“People are clamoring for community. It’s lonely. It’s empty. It’s not safe,” says Kallestad. “They can come here and be safe and not be judged or condemned.”

Most mega-churches are in the Sun Belt and Deep South. But, says Thumma, the newest growth spikes are along both coasts and in the Midwest.

Maryland has 23 mega-churches, the largest being the 7,000-member Jericho City of Praise in Landover, right near the Redskins’ home at FedEx Field. In Baltimore, the largest is the 5,000-member Bethel AME Church.

Neither Kallestad nor Thumma sees mega-churches and their commercial endeavors shrinking anytime soon.

“Most people today have been nurtured in a society of large institutions,” says Thumma.

“They were born in a big hospital, went to a high school with thousands and thousands. They’re comfortable going into a mega-mall and by extension the mega-church.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 19, 2002.
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