How does size affect religion? How does size affect South Beach? The churches that we have been visiting are so attractive to many people precisely because of their size; the same can be said for South Beach. The idea of bigger and better is appealing, because it signals progress and forward movement. In exploring both places, my question is does form and structure play a similar role in these two very different structures?
South Beach is famous because of its grandiose proportions. In the area where we are staying, on 63rd and Collins Avenue, we are surrounded by towering hotels and condos, each one’s penthouse farther up than the next. (Our hotel is a mere three floors). With names like ‘Fontaine Bleu,’ ‘W’ and the ‘Gansevoort’, these luxury hotels sound exotic and mysterious- you want to spend all your time there. They are beautifully constructed both inside and out, but their size is rather intimidating. Inside there are stacks upon stacks of people spending inordinate amounts of money for ocean views. They zoom up towards the sky, blocking the sun and making it difficult to access the beach. The theme seems to be, “Look, but don’t touch. Unless you can afford me.”
The rest of South Beach, at least the part frequented by tourists, is clubs and restaurants, and follows this theme. From a distance, these dining and dancing establishments look glamorous yet accessible. Close up, however, the glossy veil is lifted. The restaurants are huge, their outdoor dining area taking up a good third of a city block. Standing outside of most of them are hostess frantically trying to sell you their menu- they do so by shoving food items in your face as you walk by. Lobsters, cooked by the sun, and melting ice cream sundaes completely detract from the appeal of these restaurants. Despite the obvious lack of haute cuisine, everything is expensive. Your eyes can feast, but only those willing to pay the price can actually indulge.
The clubs are cavernous. As we walked by a megaclub called “Mansion,” the other night, we were struck by its size and the line of antsy, fake-ID armed college students that snaked around the block. Everyone has to dress up in a certain way to even be considered for entrance; once near the bouncer you are given the one-up and then asked to fork over around fifty dollars. The size of these places is intimidating, and the price even more so. South Beach is an exclusive, albeit temporary club. You have to really want to be wanted by Miami to enjoy most of its offerings.
In my opinion, some of the megachurches we have visited feel like intimidating structures, difficult to appreciate if you don’t believe, particularly the Christ Fellowship Church. From the outside, the church didn’t look huge. The walls were a pretty peach color, there were lovely gardens around it, and it looked awfully, well, cute. Inside, we were greeted by a cafeteria of Herculean proportions, and an even larger worship center. I have never felt entirely comfortable in megachurches precisely because of the intimidating size. I feel invisible, lost in translation and unknown as soon as I join a crowd of several thousand. Perhaps because I do not consider myself a particularly religious person, I have never understood how people feel a personal connection to God in a gigantic auditorium.
The New Birth Baptist Church was different. Still considered a megachurch, they have just under two thousand worshippers that attend services on Sunday. While the worship center can comfortably seat these people, the room felt smaller and cozier. The pews hugged the stage in a snug semi-circle, making the room feel much more connected. There were no individual chairs and the pews were rather close to each other. Indeed, New Birth Baptist seemed to be set up the exact opposite of all the other megachurches we have thus visited. This, of course, has to do with the fact that they cater to a smaller number of people. I asked the assistant pastor what she thought of the overwhelming size of megachurches, and if that affects people’s spiritual experience. “I don’t think that’s an issue,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter where you are sitting, God can reach you anywhere. You could be sitting all the way in the back row here and He could still come and touch you.”
The New Birth Baptist Church seemed very conscious of separating religion and spirituality from the physical structure of their location. Christianity can exist without the form and structure of a church; it is a spiritual belief that is embodied in each member of New Birth. Obviously, the church is integral in bringing together a group of worshippers, but religion is something that doesn’t stay in the church. The opposite is true of South Beach. The whole hedonistic lifestyle of partying and eating and tanning could not exist without the physical layout that is already in place. People come from all over the world to indulge in what is South Beach, but they cannot bring home these clubs and lobsters and ocean views. Although we may find some similarities between churches and Miami, the long term benefits that they offer cannot be compared.