Walking into the McLean Bible Church reminded me a lot of walking through a big box store, like Target or WalMart. The building itself is secondary to the enormous parking lot that greets you when you drive into the megachurch complex. This two-tiered parking structure made me think of arriving at a mall more than anything, and there was a constant flow of cars going in the same direction we were, all of them full of punctual folks like ourselves.
My most surprising moment came when it was actually time to go inside. The entrance itself was completely indistinguishable from that of a mall, and if you asked me to differentiate between the two in a side-by-side comparison, there’s a pretty solid likelihood that I wouldn’t answer correctly.
The major hallways themselves were relatively nondescript, but the individual spaces that they connected were incredibly varied, and not unlike IKEA. To the left was a space designated for the high school set, designed to look like Discovery Zone, complete with brightly colored furniture and a half-court basketball setup. To the right was a secondary worship space, which, although huge by my personal church standards, was dwarfed in comparison to the major chapel.
However, the characteristics that made the space most like a mall were the attractions we ran into throughout these hallways. The McLean Bible Church is home to not only multiple chapels and childcare centers, but a coffee shop called “Journeys,” a combination bookstore and gift shop, and a big old cafeteria. In passing, these things all look like they provide relatively normal church activities and products, but the scale on which they are conducted and the spaces they are in lend themselves more to a mall or big box store.
Where there might normally be a few seniors volunteering to make coffee for the congregation, here there was practically a Starbucks outpost. Instead of a tray of post-sermon refreshments, there is a whole food court supplied by a vast array of vending machines. And should you find that the sermon didn’t quite ease your worries about the financial crisis, there’s a money management section in the bookstore just steps from the chapel.
The church was kind of like a one-stop shop for all of you religious needs; where people might go to WalMart SuperCenter because they can get their groceries, clothes, and electronics all in the same place, people seem attracted to the McLean Bible Church for the full service approach it takes towards faith. On any given Sunday morning, a parishoner can count on the church to sufficiently entertain their children of all ages, caffeinate them, get closer in touch with God, and provide them with weeks of reading material.
After experiencing this one church, I’m wondering if it might have been more fitting to compare a bunch of different megachurches with a series of different malls and department stores. It’s much too soon to be drawing any conclusions about anything, but I was struck both by the spectacle of the whole situation and it’s vocally commercial focus.