Sacred spaces? Let Dallas be Dallas

gene002101203Anyone who knows anything about church growth in America knows that, when it comes to studying big churches, all roads lead to Texas (surprise, surprise) and sooner or later (surprise, surprise) you’re going to end up in Dallas, which some people call the capital of American evangelicalism. If you doubt me, click here.

The researchers call them “megachurches.” Just how big a church has to be to earn that label is somewhat in dispute. But, suffice it to say, when your church sanctuary seats 2,000-plus you know you’re in the right ballpark. If you hit 5,000 you have entered the big leagues. There are so many big churches in Texas that there are even liberal megachurches, including the famous lesbigay friendly Cathedral of Hope.

But most of the Dallas megachurches are packed with evangelicals, of one stripe or another (although that label is problematic). Dallas is, well, Dallas. There’s the famous Potter’s House led by the Pentecostal giant Bishop T.D. Jakes and the powerful Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship (photo) led by Dr. Tony Evans. There are huge United Methodist congregations, such as the famous Highland Park United Methodist Church, and cathedrals of various kinds — Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, you name it. Among Southern Baptists there’s the old megachurch at First Baptist and the gigantic modern one at Prestonwood (photo number two).

Now, I realize that megachurches are not for everyone. Frankly, they kind of spook me when it comes to atmosphere and architecture. If you want to roam around a bit in the 7,000-seat Prestonwood sanctuary, click here and hang on.

Some people think these places are ugly. But many, many people (including a few who still subscribe to newspapers) think they are the most beautiful places on earth — modern cathedrals for the age of giant video screens and the worship services that go with them. They are big, dramatic places and I have seen photo essays that — for better or for worse — do them justice.

But not this past weekend in the Dallas Morning News.

This is where things get a bit complicated and, if you work in this embattled newspaper’s circulation department, a bit depressing.

Year after year, the News wins national awards because of the high quality of its religion coverage. However, there are those who wonder whether this religion-news section is a national section or a local section. This is a question I have raised here at GetReligion. There is no question about the quality of the work. The question is whether the News remains dedicated to covering religion news in the Dallas that most people who live in Dallas would recognize as Dallas.

If you read these pages week after week (as any sane person interested in religion news would), you will read about all kinds of religious groups, and this is good. The problem is that you will find a stunningly low percentage of articles about the changes, trends, problems and triumphs of the largest and most powerful religious groups IN DALLAS.

Prestonwood Baptist Church2This weekend offered a perfect symbolic example of this syndrome, entitled “Sacred Spaces,” that probably made some telephones ring at the News. Or, let’s put it this way: If this feature did not make the telephones ring, then that would be really bad news. Why? That would tell us how few people in the biggest churches in Dallas still read the Dallas Morning News.

Here is the prologue to this photo-and-text feature:

What makes a place sacred?

Some — for instance, Jerusalem — are sacred because the faithful believe divine manifestations have occurred there. Some religious edifices are imposing, designed and consecrated in accordance with ancient traditions. Sometimes, a simple, quiet spot invites visitors to step out of their routines and into prayer or reflection. And sometimes, tragedy turns ordinary space into hallowed ground — like Ground Zero in New York, or the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial in downtown Dallas.

We visited seven “sacred spaces” in the greater Dallas area and brought back these images and impressions.

Thus, the News team visited the Cistercian Abbey in Irving, Temple Emanu-El Mausoleum, the Thanks-Giving Square, the St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, the Hare Krishna Temple, the Anjuman-E-Najmi Mosque in Irving and the Lien Hoa Buddhist Monastery in Irving.

Again let me stress (before people start leaving comments) that the question is not whether it was good or bad for the Dallas Morning News to focus on these particular “sacred spaces.” The question is why these talented journalists appear to have avoided other “sacred spaces,” including some of the most prominent religious sanctuaries in the entire United States of America.

I am sure that, in part, the goal was diversity. Fantastic! The question is whether what ended up on the printed page actually offered a diverse and balanced look at faith in Dallas. Was this feature diverse? Did it offer an accurate, sensible look at “sacred spaces” in the greater Dallas area?

Let me end with a question for the News circulation staff: If you were, let’s say, a Southern Baptist leader in Dallas and you happened to pick up this issue of this newspaper, what would you think the journalists who produced it were saying about your life, your churches and your faith?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • brian

    Cleary all valid questions, Terry.

    But I have to wonder if the Baptist worship centers you reference are really “sacred spaces?”

    I mean does it matter theologically if the space is sacred or not. It’s just space. Is the Great Western Forum a sacred space or a big arena where people get together for worship now.

    You wrote that many people consider these worship spaces bad or ugly. Are they just bad and ugly? Or are they also theologically bad? Or if not theologically bad, are they just not sacred?

    I mean, it doesn’t seem necessary that the space be sacred to serve it’s function as a place for assembly.

  • Bob Smietana

    “But many, many people (including a few who still subscribe to newspapers) think they are the most beautiful places on earth — modern cathedrals for the age of giant video screens and the worship services that go with them.”

    Terry, in the words of the immortal Barbara Nicolosi, you’ve got to “smoking crack” to wax poetically about the beauty of megachurches, most of which are modeled after movie theaters, malls, and corporate headquarters, and which purposefully removed all sense of “sacred space” from their architechture. Perhaps that’s why why the Dallas Morning News staff avoided Protestant megachurches. There’s nothing in them. from an architechtural standpoint, that the average Morning News reader wouldn’t see during a visit to the movies or the mall, or during their work day.

    Megachurches do many great things, and gather vasts numbers of believers in a time when many churches are in decline, and that’s admirable. But they are not, by intentional choice, sacred spaces.

  • tmatt

    How do you think the people (and newspaper consumers) who worship in those spaces would answer your questions?

    And does YOUR judgment or the EDITOR’S judgment decide this issue?

    Are you, in effect, saying that God does not consider these places sacred?

    Now THERE’S a claim for a newspaper to make.

  • tmatt


    Read my post. Where did it say that I think they are beautiful? I said that the millions of people who worship in them think they are sacred spaces and some of them think they are, in this day and age, beautiful.

    What is your definition of a “sacred space”? One hallowed by prayer? Please go tell T.D. Jakes that he does not worship in a “sacred space.” Can I watch while you tell him this?

    As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I have rather high standards for this. But that is not the issue. The issue is the newspaper trying to cover its region and its people.

  • Russ Pulliam

    I think the circulation department down there ought to send Terry a fee for some very wise consulting advice. Very good point, just about how people read newspapers.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I didn’t write it so I got no personal dog in this fight. But Terry, do you really think the DMN in general or the Religion section in specific have neglected Cathedral of Hope, Potter’s House, Prestonwood, etc etc etc? Do you have access to Nexis? If so, do the search and stand back. Those places have been covered by us extensively and from a variety of angles. Including, in at least two cases I know of because I wrote ‘em, the architecture. (And as for the fact that Dallas is a sort of religious Disneyland where many of the nation’s largest churches, synagogues and mosques are located — I wrote that one, too, a few years back. And I’m not the only DMN religion reporter who has…No kidding: How often should we retell the same tale? At some point it’s time to revisit. But how long between visits? )
    The places selected for last week’s feature are locations that would not be so overwhelmingly familiar to our readers IN DALLAS. Which I hope made it more *interesting* to our readers IN DALLAS…
    And btw, at the DMN as at other major newspapers, the circulation department does not dictate or even suggest coverage to the news side. May that wall remain forever, world without end.

    Jeffrey Weiss

  • tmatt


    I would be the last person to suggest that circulation departments drive coverage. Then again, I do not think it is irrelevant that many people say newspapers are disconnected from their lives. I know that you know the details of the Pew studies and all the others that came before them. I think these are issues worthy of debate.

    And, yes, I read the Dallas Morning News pretty carefully from a distance. My comments there must stand, as my own opinion. I speak pretty fluent Texan…..

    However, you just said:

    “The places selected for last week’s feature are locations that would not be so overwhelmingly familiar to our readers IN DALLAS…”

    Did I miss a note online saying that? Did I misquote the prologue to the piece?

    Perhaps there was language in the dead-tree-pulp edition that did not make it into the online version.

    If so, please let us know.

  • Ryan Richard Overbey

    Excellent point by Mr. Mattingly. The last thing I would want to see is a journalist or an editor deciding what the word “sacred” means in a programmatic way.

    As for Mr. Smietana’s point, yes, of course, megachurches look like malls or corporate headquarters or movie theaters. But isn’t that the very point? That the things believers today are construing as “sacred”, the very stuff of their faith, are all very tellingly revealed by the structures they build?

    So yes, the megachurches have a radically different conception of sacred space than, say, La Sagrada Familia. But that’s not a reason to condemn their spaces as not sacred. It’s a way of getting at the far more interesting question: what constitutes the sacred and the ideal for the community in question? For Gaudi, it’s an otherworldly, terrifying imposition of awe. For the megachurches, it’s suburban familiarity, institutional cleanliness, box seating, and video consumption. You can tell a lot about a community’s ideals not just from their theology, but the kinds of things they build.

    But then, if the Dallas Morning News addressed *that* side of the question, I think Terry’s hypothetical reader might be even more offended…

  • Avram

    Interesting post.

    Did everyone here click through to the article (it asked me to register, I used a BugMeNot name and password) and look at the photos? Looks to me like the photography was driving that article.

    All of the photos showed scenes of either the sort of stark simplicity that generally evoked humility, or a sort of ancient-looking complexity that evokes antiquity. In some cases, both. Judging from the two photos Terry chose as illustrations, megachurches are too grand to seem humble and too modern to seem ancient. I’d guess that just didn’t seem sacred to the photographer or art director. Though I’m sure a good photographer could have found a way to get a megachurch photo that fit into that aesthetic, if he’d been asked to.

  • Julie D.

    As an actual reader, rather than the hypothetical one, I actually was curious to see what the inside of some of these places looked like.

    I have heard of Cistercian Abbey, the Hare Krishna Temple, and the Lien Hoa Buddhist Monastery in Irving so was pleased to see the photos as I probably will never bestir myself to visit those places unless invited and that is not very likely.

    Now, I am not exactly like your hypothetical reader as I’m Catholic, not Baptist, but I already know what a lot of Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and other churches look like on the inside. I wanted to see something different … “exotic” if you will … than the usual. They didn’t say it but that IS what I was looking for … and found.

  • Bob Smietana


    Since TD Jakes promotes his church’s buidlings as conference center on Potter’s House website, I would have no problem questioning whether his congregation’s auditorium is a “sacred space.”

    My guess is that he’d give me a similiar answer to the one that Bishop Kenneth Ulmer did, about why his congregations rents out the Forum–their meeting spaces–to secular concerts and atheltic event–ie, that the facility itself is not a “sanctuary” or sacred space but that the worship service itself is a sacred event.

    My definition of “sacred space” is one set aside for worship and not used as a multipurpose facility.

    Most megachurches, especially those of the seeker sensitive variety–have intentionally built spaces with no religious symbolism–not even a cross. They have decided to build user friendly, non sacred spaces, that look and feel like malls. Many megachurches, like Willow Creek in my neck of the woods, are open and up front about this. They would, most likely, take pride that their buildings are not “sacred spaces.”

    I’m not condeming their spaces as “non sacred” but rather pointing out that megachuches as a whole don’t build sacred spaces. And they are proud of the fact they don’t build sacred spaces, because a sacred space doesn’t fit their mission or self idenity as churches for people who “hate church” or find church “boring.”

    As a longtime reader and fan of GetReligion, I’m disappointed in your post because the facts don’t fit your point. The point you seem to be making is that a concern for diversity in religion coverage leads to smaller faith groups getting a disproportionate amount of coverage. That may or may not be true, but this feature doesn’t prove your point.

    The facts and the details matter Terry. This isn’t a judgement question–it’s a question of listening to what the leaders of megachurches say about their buildings and looking objectively at the kinds of buildings they build and how they treat those buildings. If building a non churchy mall-like structure fits a megachurch’s vision and mission, then more power to them. If their buildings don’t make a list of “sacred spaces,” that’s a consequence of the architechtural choices that megachurches make, not some “diversity” driven agenda.

  • brian

    Am I, in effect, saying that God does not consider these spaces sacred?

    No. Nothing of the sort. I’m the type of person who believes God considers every space sacred.

    Oncea friend made a reference to the liturgical calendar: “How dare we call any of it ordinary time,” he said.

    But my point and my question is how sacred do members of some of these megachurches consider their worship spaces? Do they even call them sanctuaries?

    I would even wonder what research there is to quantify the “many, many people (including a few who still subscribe to newspapers) think they are the most beautiful places on earth…”

    I’m a former religion reporter. I’ve been in lots of megachurches. And they almost all look the same. They’re functional, but that’s about it aesthetically.

    I don’t mean to denigrate the beauty of anyone’s church, but I wonder if beauty really matters in some churches.

  • Kelly

    I am an architect that grew up in Dallas and worked there briefly some years ago, I feel compelled to comment on this. In addition to having a unique, high-quality religion section, the DMN has also historically had high quality coverage of architecture. Maybe this article should have been in the arts section because clearly it is about great architecture for sacred spaces.

    I know a few of these places and they are real gems. I’ve also seen some of these megachurches and they are, shall we say, not architectural gems. The article simply judged these places on standards of architectural quality unrelated to the popularity of the places. If it had used the word ‘sacred’ to mean places where church-y things happened then maybe it should have done a survey that included megachurches. But clearly it used the word ‘sacred’ as a description of the aesthetic of these widely varied spaces.

    I think what you are pointing out here is a non-issue. Would you really prefer to open your newspaper on Sunday and see photos of the interiors of megachurches rather than these photos?

  • Bruce Tomaso

    When I became religion editor of The Dallas Morning News three years ago, a member of our staff told me that there were 4,000 places of worship in the greater Dallas area. I haven’t counted, but no one since has refuted that number, and it seems about right, so it’s the one I keep quoting.

    In our story, “Sacred Spaces,” we spent a few moments visiting SEVEN local places of worship. I submit that whatever seven we chose, someone could have made an articulate, even compelling, argument for the inclusion of one or more of the remaining 3,993(give or take a few dozen).

    In selecting the spaces that we did, we were seeking, among other things, diversity — and not merely for diversity’s sake, but to reflect the religious richness of our region. And, even though we didn’t spell this out in the intro to the piece, we did hope to surprise our readers with at least a few of our selections; we were looking, at least in part, for hidden gems.

    I think my colleague Jeff Weiss is correct that anyone who’s so much as glanced at our religion coverage over the past few years is aware of the presence and influence of the huge churches in our region. At the risk of sounding defensive, in the past three months alone we’ve had cover stories that either focused on or prominently mentioned many of the biggest churches in town: Denny Davis’ St. John Missionary Baptist Church; First Baptist Church of Dallas; St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church; Fellowship Bible Church; First Presbyterian Church of Dallas; and the Potter’s House (more than once). In the three months before that, we spotlighted Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church (OK, it’s in Houston, not Dallas, but Osteen is a national figure from Texas); Rickie Rush’s Inspiring Body of Christ Church; and Concord Missionary Baptist Church. In addition, we’ve had cover “shorts” about Prestonwood Baptist Church and Fellowship Church. We illustrated a story this past week, on the changes wrought within Catholicism by Vatican II, with photos from the downtown Catholic Cathedral.

    None of which is to say we can’t do better at covering megachurches. We surely can. With 4,000 choices at our fingertips, there is always room for improvment in our coverage. (And, as I hope this string demosntates, for lively, constructive discussion.)

    – Bruce Tomaso

  • Avram

    I dunno, Kelly. One of those photos was of a very plain-looking floor mat. I’m pretty sure that, had the art director and photographer wised to, they could have found a way to take an interesting image of a megachurch.

  • Deborah

    I’m tempted to say “yeah, what HE said” to Bob Smietana’s comments. I think megachurches, by their choice of language and deliberate non-use of symbolic architecture, have really brought this on themselves. Most megachurches I’ve attended call their gathering places “worship centers” or “conference centers” or “auditoriums” – not a “sanctuary” in the bunch. There’s nothing about the aesthetics of your average megachurch that encourages one to sit alone within one to pray or meditate. And given the anti-sacramental theology of that brand of evangelicalism, is that really surprising?

  • tmatt

    Once again, I plead for readers to actually respond to the post that I wrote.

    As I said, I am well aware that some people believe megachurches are ugly. I am one of them, as I said.

    However, taking the article at its word, I believed it to be a look at “sacred places” in Dallas. As a long-time reader of the Dallas Morning News (roughly since 1974), I stand by my comments on the newspaper’s tendancies to go national at all costs.

    I cannot dispute the presence of articles in the newspaper on megachurches, from time to time. I would urge executives at the News to talk to the leaders of traditional, even conservative, congregations on a regular basis to get their impressions of the newspaper’s coverage of their churches and beliefs. As I said, Dallas is Dallas.

    But I stand by my post as written. I do not believe my reaction was too over the top, since I was reacting to the “Sacred Space” article and photo essay, as it was written.

    And, by the way, I have seen some amazing photos of megachurches — some disturbing, even. You can take photos that show that people use spaces in ways that they believe are sacred.

    I think Dallas is one of the most interesting religion towns in America. I enjoy reading about it. You have to read a wide range of publications to try to keep up with religion in Dallas and, yes, the News is one of them.

    At this point, I would urge executives at the News to integrate some form of week-long religion news index into its website. I see many of the religion-beat stories that run on days other than Saturday. I would welcome a chance to see them all.

    BTW, Brian, I was talking to a leader of one of America’s biggest evangelical megachurches today. She asked if I had seen their new sanctuary. I said I had not. She said I really needed to come see it, because it’s really beautiful. Yes, that is what she said.

  • Avram

    That paragraph you quoted is pretty key, Terry. Notice the four examples they give of reasons a place might be sacred: divine manifestations, ancient traditions, quiet reflection, and history-making tragedy. None of them are common, everyday things. It’s like the author believed that religion was exotic and unusual.

  • Kelly


    I understand that you think the DMN religion section should be more specifically local and that megachurches are an undeniable part of the local religious landscape in Dallas (though probably not as central to it as they seem from a distance). What I was trying to articulate, however, was that you are holding this particular article to a standard that is foreign to it.

    If you wanted a balanced survey of the places people worship in the greater Dallas area, as indicated by your question “Did it offer an accurate, sensible look at ‘sacred spaces’ in the greater Dallas area?”, then this article clearly failed. Nothing, however, in the text you quoted suggests that this was the goal of the article. As I said before, the author is clearly using ‘sacred’ as a term of aesthetic evaluation – a fairly common and legitimate use of the word.

    This article and the images are more akin to something from an Arts or Travel section rather than hard news. The author has specifically highlighted spaces that he considers worthy of readers’ attention. If a travel section had to be ‘fair and balanced’ it would have to talk about Disney World all the time. If an arts section had to be accurate and sensible about all the arts in a city you would probably see a lot more articles about the touring ice capades.

    I, for one, feel that a newspaper making evaluative aesthetic judgments about religious spaces is a valid pursuit, assuming it is balanced with many other types of religious coverage. Having said that, however, this article doesn’t seem to be a stellar example. The author tries too hard to be multi-cultural and the photographer(s) tries to be too artsy and doesn’t do the spaces justice.

    By the way, the Cistercian Abbey in Irving is worth visiting if you go to Dallas and it’s on the way from the airport into town.

  • Steve

    I think the primary reason there’s not much story in Dallas, is because Dallas is such a spiritually dead city.

    It’s almost impossible to find a decent church that uses expository preaching, even with the Dallas Theological Seminary sending out so many graduates.

    I used to live in Dallas and my parents still do. They know so many people who are dissatisfied with where they are and can’t find a church.


  • Charlie

    Kelly makes good points about the aesthetic of these particular places. Terry, you ask why the journalists “avoided” the megachurches. From the photos it seems apparent that the sort of spaces they sought to highlight were those that had the ability to bring a single believer into an intimate setting that shuts out the world and makes meditation and contemplation possible.

    All of these photos are rich in the symbolism of faith, even the prayer rug worn by the use of the faithful. These photos suggest a faith that touches us on a personal level, not in the mass gathering of the entire church.

    Most megachurches fail to create a sense of intimacy for the individual believer, and they are often devoid of the rich and historic symbolism that these places seem to capture.