Saturday, March 14, 2009

Back-to-Back Megachurch Mayhem

At the North Point Community Church we spoke with an extremely knowledgeable older man who worked in the bookstore. He offered to give us a tour once we told him that we were conducting research about houses of worship. He informed us that the church operates by using the culture that the youth is involved with and then adapting it to suit their needs. About 600-700 high schoolers participate in the church's activities and those events are designed, “so you wouldn't be embarrassed to bring your non-Christian friends. They would see some cool-factor in it.” He also expounded on culture at large, “Technology and culture is part of our DNA.”

When we spoke about the Sunday services at the church, we were told, “If you don't like the loud music then this is not the place to come. If you think rock 'n roll music is the Devil's spawn, this is not the place to come.”

The most interesting thing I heard at the North Point Community Church came right out of the mouth of our tour guide: “The Bible can be used out of context rightly or wrongly, but can be used to argue back.” Meaning, just as Scripture can be used as support for any claim, a counterclaim can be made with just as much validity. Doesn't that sort of toss everything out the window? Our guide used rock music as an example, as North Point and all other megachurches that we've visited have an impressive band and sound system. He said, “The idea that loud music is awful can be quoted from Bible, but it could be counter-argued in another chapter, like 'All God creates is good'... It's one of those things.”

We got a little bit of bio on the man, also. He went to Catholic schools from kindergarten to 12th grade with “all the rules, guilt, cans and can'ts” and when he got out of high school he decided he was “through with that.” He took off, but when he started a family he knew he should get his children exposed to the church. He needed to teach them right from wrong, and in his opinion, not belonging to church divorces you from community and moral ground. He said, “Religion teaches a basis for why something is right and why something is wrong. It may not be definitive by everyone's measure, but it at least gives you some stake in the ground.”

His daughter came to Christ at the University of Georgia. When he visited for parents nights, that's when he first started coming back to the church worship services. It was his first time outside the Catholic church, and the people worshiping god were listening to non-ritualistic messages, so “they actually were there because they wanted to be.” Our guide was excited by the teachings and the community. “Once you get that feeling you might start rethinking the whole eternity thing... Why am I here? and all that... I came back, kept coming a little bit more, and they kept teaching a little bit more truth.” Now he began talking specifically about North Point, “We don't care if you sit in the back and listen to the music. We're content for people to feel comfortable and come back. And one day Andy [the pastor] will say something right out of the bible that will hit you right between the eyes, and you'll think, he's talking to me personally.” The church focuses on allowing new members to take “baby steps.”

The tour of the facility included a survey of the youth facilities, one of which was described verbatim as “little Disney World.” The comparison there is as adequate as ever. The design of the children's area was extremely imaginative, sculptural protrusions ran off the walls, colorful forests were painted, and toys were everywhere. It was easy to understand why parents would want to give their children these resources. Not only could parents secure the educational and social requirements for their kids, but they could support the church at the same time by being a member. They are doing right by God, fulfilling their religious drive, and giving their children everything they need.

The “Virtue of the Month” series kicked off with a huge multimedia party this month. The virtue was hope, and there were videos, music, and dancing to drive home the virtue. The church used to do this every Sunday, but now there is one huge production a month and everything else is web-based.

The church has also begun outreach programs to assist the large Hispanic population. The pastor, Andy Stanley, is pretty famous. The church sends Andy's series to Hollywood to be overdubbed in Spanish. Our guide said, “Everyone loves Andy. Now we have Spanish Andy.” The church has multiple outposts and reaches globally. There are factions of North Point in Eastern Europe. If Andy is speaking at any campus, he is broadcast through video and can be seen on enormous screens at the others. North Point was the second place anywhere to have high-def video screens, they installed theirs after NASA. The screens are a little bit smaller than the average movie screen.

Our guide was surprisingly knowledgeable considering he only worked in the bookstore. He was able to answer just about every question we had. When we pressed on about his return to Christianity, he said, “Something happens in your life: a death, a birth, those things that happen to anybody. It makes you look for something else.” The most troubling thing about our conversation occurred when he asked us what religion we were. After some minor points he turned to me, stared into my eyes and said, “I'm worried for your soul."

The visit to North Point was depressing. All of the artwork around the church was chosen for its size instead of its aesthetic, and there was the overwhelming feeling that if you did not believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior, your life was utterly meaningless. I had to put the Grateful Dead on the in car when we left and nap off my ill feelings. Listening to the Dead made me reconsider something-- the idea of prodigy. Prodigy and prodigal son are pretty close. tells me that prodigy can mean something extraordinary regarded as of prophetic significance, or an act or event so extraordinary or rare as to inspire wonder. Choosing prodigy as a substitute for prodigal son is a compelling switch when you consider purpose in life. In my mind, there is a Venn diagram: the two main circles represent academia and religion, and the small midsection holds the few who have managed to combine religion and academics in their daily life. I'm not sure exactly what that means for everyone, but I feel like I've chosen science and philosophy over religious dogma. Instead of feeling like my life is meaningless because I don't worship Jesus Christ, I am empowered to create my own meaning through whatever medium I choose. I can maintain a sense of spirituality without subscribing to the teachings of anything in particular. In this way, I would argue that instead of my life being without purpose, I am free to adopt or create any purpose. I deeply resented being told that my soul was something to be worried about, especially by a stranger with absolutely no understanding of what I hold dear on this earth.

At the next church, New Spring Community, our guide worked as an intern for the church and was the first guide to be a peer of ours. He was really excited about the space, as we all were, because it was awesome. It was the church we felt the most comfortable in, because it had anything you could ever want out of a community venue. Think of what one space would look like that had a gymnasium, coffee shop, four children's theaters for different age groups, a bookstore, two huge multi-tiered auditoriums with stages and musical instruments, about 30 different well-equipped rooms for young children, offices, and several huge luxuriously upholstered lounges that serve refreshments and offer a view of a pastoral landscape.

The intern excitedly told us that the building we were standing in cost 15 million dollars to build. Though there were a few private donors who remained anonymous, their total donation only came to about 2.5 million. The rest of the money was raised through memberships and a “Capital Campaign”. He told us the donors only gave what God asked them to.

“We can't take any credit for this. We're just seeking God and listening,” he said, “I mean, let's be real, this is Anderson. How else could we have over 10,000 members if it wasn't Jesus?” The Sunday service is more like a rock concert, because New Spring plays secular music, too. On Easter, they are planning to do a cover of ACDC's Highway to Hell. One of the pastors, Lee McDermot, was descirbed as an anointed man who's “very well connected” with god, and a gifted pianist.

The church started when the most senior pastor, Perry, went to Anderson College (now Anderson University). He was an RA leader who started Bible study with 15 people in 1999. The group jumped to a church service of 50 before long, and by January of 2000, 102 people were showing up to hear Perry preach while they worshiped with him and his acoustic guitar.

Since then, “it went nuts.” In 2006, they got a building on the main drag of Anderson. They were hoping for something on M81, and “by the grace of God” they landed there. They had almost outgrown the facility before they moved. “Before we moved over here we were averaging 4000 people.” By the Fall of 2006, their marriage series “Lord of the Rings” brought in even more worshipers. The facility where the church is now is only 3 years old.

Our friendly, energetic guide has been attending New Spring since 2006. It was clear how incredible he thought the place was, it was as if he was working at a concert venue that consistently housed his favorite band of all time. He heard about the church through word-of-mouth and had a friend who said he had to check the place out because “it's awesome.” The church views every member as a deacon and operates internally in a unique way. There is a Senior Management team comprised of 6 men who are all paid CEO full-time members. They don't have associate pastor titles, only senior media, communications, graphic design titles, etc. All design is done in-house but printed somewhere else. There are only 100 paid employees. All of the jobs that aren't covered by the paid employees are handled by volunteers. There are 1,000 volunteers giving up personal time every week to work for the church. It's like religious socialism. The volunteers, with absolutely no financial incentive, create an army of a work-force.

Volunteers greet you in the parking lot, open doors, usher people to their seats, and work at the information desk. The sound/production/graphic designers have worked for huge companies before and now deal with pay cuts to work for New Spring. As an intern, our guide worked with guest services and would like to keep working for the church after he graduates from Clemson College. He said, “The holy spirit speaks through Perry really genuinely. You feel like he's talking to you. If you need something... I mean, mine was for rebellion. First 3 or 4 Sundays I was here it was like a nail on the head. Perry said, 'you're running away from God and you need to stop, and you know you are.' He asked us to stand up and he prayed over us from up there.” He continued, “You always see people and get to know each other by what service they attend.” Perry “brings it real... attacks the real life: money, sex... how often do you hear a senior pastor talk about sex on stage for four weeks?” Perry discusses “stuff the world would talk about, but churches won't.” New Spring is progressive when it comes to developing religious series. They offered programs called "Where's My Bailout" and "" that were advertised on billboards. These programs relate to current events and personal struggles, while ultimately delivering religious messages.

Our guide went on, “Perry talks about how he'd come before the church opened and just pray about it. He sat on stage and asked 'what in the world am I doing?'” There were enough members to fill the church before anybody moved in. “That's a whole lot of people to have already outgrown it before you preach in it. That's just God. The only other time that many people meet is for a football game. Let's be real. This is South Carolina.” The congregation does have a “whole bunch of rednecks” but it seemed more diverse than that. Despite being warned that yes, some church goers have shotguns in the back of their trucks, there were also people in their 70s rocking out in the front row.

The New Spring Church was different because it was a lot less gaudy than the others. The church was designed primarily for use, while also being somewhat of an architectural marvel. When we viewed the spaces for children, it was hard not to agree that the church provided an incredible amount of enjoyment and stimulation for youth. They can't be bored and getting into trouble if they're hanging out playing Guitar Hero and skeeball at New Spring. The church also accommodates children with special needs. The volunteers who work with the children are trained specifically for that purpose. It seemed that no child would be turned away or told they could not be provided for.

In one year, the number of students enrolled at New Spring jumped from 200-810. The church hopes to open another outpost in Columbia, S.C. by the end of the year. Our guide said, “It's Jesus and the Holy Spirit, to be honest with you.” While I do not necessarily agree that this is the case, it was obvious how comprehensively the church was filling the needs of the community. Not only was it providing a place for worship, but it provided counseling and educational programs for youth and adults. Plans have even been set in motion to create a football field where spectators can watch from bleachers and the balcony of the teen center. New Spring wasn't anywhere near as ostentatious as North Point, the art and children's arenas were attractive in a way that made sense, and nobody asked us what religion we were. We showed up the day after the Unleashed Conference, an event church officials from all over the country attend to see how New Spring does its thing. Our guide told us that while he has grown accustomed to the place, he understands how first-time visitors are amazed. “It's not normal, that's what they say” he said, “and I understand that.”

You can't really criticize a place that so clearly assists such a large number of people in a well-organized manner. You can disagree with the messages or the absolutist take on the Bible, but the place itself is succeeding in social service in a way that simply is not paralleled by any other community spaces. The Disney aesthetic works for kids, that's no great leap, and when implanted in a church setting it makes children actually want to attend church. The Xboxes and flatscreen TVs seduce older kids, as does a full indoor basketball court and swanky lounge area. If you can make the church itself a fun place to return to, inevitably the teaching of Christ will catch on. With pastors of celebrity status, this seems to be the main point of the megachurch. Can you blame them for doing what works?

See the church websites: &
See my pictures of the churches:
North Point
New Spring

1 comment:

  1. Sounds a lot like group think. If you agree with the masses, there will be games and toys and rock concerts in an otherwise bleak, boring landscape. If you don't, you're banished. So who is it working for? How would you feel if you lived in that community and most people were church members but you weren't?