Well, here’s another one of those reporter-as-anthropologist stories. You wouldn’t believe the primitive creatures that Los Angeles Times religion reporter Duke Helfand discovered in his own backyard:
Once again, the Sunday faithful have packed the cavernous sanctuary at Shepherd of the Hills Church in the San Fernando Valley, clapping and swaying for Jesus as a band rocks the hall.
“Come bless the Lord,” the worshipers sing. “Praise his name to the ends of the Earth.”
Most churches would be thrilled to fill their sanctuaries any day of the year.
Shepherd of the Hills, a nondenominational church in Porter Ranch, does it six times a weekend, attracting 8,000 people to its energetic services and offering a lesson about the growth of evangelical Christianity in California.
Thanks to good weather, sprawling suburbs and a number of charismatic pastors, the Golden State has more of these megachurches — defined as those with at least 2,000 congregants — than any other state. California is home to 193, slightly more than Texas with 191, according to the most recent survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, one of the nation’s leading authorities on megachurches.
The majority of these congregations are in the suburbs between Los Angeles and San Diego, an area that some who study the phenomenon call the Southern California Bible Belt.
At first blush, that’s not such a terrible lede. But something doesn’t sit right. It feels … just … so … foreign. It’s as if the LA Times has just learned of megachurches, and their readers will be surprised to learn of them, too.
I assumed, though, that as I continued reading this story I’d get to the news. Maybe there’d be a massive, trans-denominational gathering of megachurches. (Though many are non-denominational, that is not always true.) Or maybe leaders of these churches were mobilizing “the masses” for social change.
I see a mention of Saddleback Church and the Rev. Rick Warren. That name sounds familiar. And there are a few good lines about Southern California’s history as an incubator for megachurches. What else?
The megachurches are expanding by adapting to changing times and tastes, scholars say. Many have jettisoned formal rituals such as organs and hymns in favor of Christian rock music and overhead projection screens that display lyrics and prayers.
They deliver upbeat biblical messages about applying faith in everyday life and building a personal relationship with God. They organize parishioners into small “life” groups that study Scripture. And they encourage their followers to recruit new members.
Stop the presses!
Adapting to changing times, rocking out with contemporary music, encouraging evangelism. What brilliant scholars picked up on that? Somebody give them tenure and a three-book contract — stat.
But fear not, enlightened reader. These wild creatures are most likely to be found in the suburbs of conservative Southern California.
Regular readers might recall that I’m an evangelical. In fact, I attend one of those megachurches, though Bel Air Presbyterian is not in the suburbs and is more traditional than the megachurches Helfand mentions.
Maybe my favorite part of this story was the caption for the lead photo online. It showed a middle-aged woman with her hands above her head and her eyes closed and, possibly, her tongue partially sticking out. She looked a bit like she was in a trance. It wasn’t a particularly good photo. In fact, it was a pretty pedestrian picture. But the caption, written by a copy editor, not the reporter, seemed to belie a belief that this praise and worship thing was a bit wacky:
A worshiper gets caught up in the music at Shepherd of the Hills
I don’t typically have such a reaction, but the moment I read that, I could perceive the copy editor rolling their eyes. Caught up in — that’s an expression I’ve never heard anyone use to describe worshiping God. People get caught up in the moment and make irrational decisions; they are moved by the Spirit.