LAT uncovers California megachurches

Alco Products ImageEver get the feeling like the MSM just doesn’t get evangelicals?

I mean, this isn’t a regular theme here on GetReligion. This isn’t something that has been an issue for years and years and years. Oh, it is? No kidding.

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.

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  • zman

    “They organize parishioners into small “life” groups that study Scripture.”

    The use of the word “parishioners” is one more example. Very few evangelical mega-churches refer to their members as parishioners. Most are simply “members,” whether they’re actually on some sort of membership role or not.

  • http://finley.im James Finley

    “Caught up in,” could be also phrased raptured or seized. I feel, personally, that one can be caught up in the music, especially if the Holy Spirit is behind it. Music is older than Creation itself, and, I feel, speaks directly to the soul. They may have intended it to be an eye-roll statement, but I believe that it fits our worship of God perfectly.

  • KKairos

    I have to agree that it’s rather funny to see this stuff being talked about as something new given that almost all of it has been happening to greater or lesser degrees in almost every evangelical church in Christianity (by this I mean the five or six “they do this, they do that” items.)

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    This is the section that I’d have liked to read more about:

    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.

    California has 12 million more people than Texas – but only 2 more megachurches? I would expect CA to have more of everything than any other US state, simply because it’s the largest state. This makes me wonder where CA falls in terms of megachurches per capita.

  • Jay

    Brad, the way you were mocking the clueless MSM reporter, I could have sworn I was reading the amazing Miss Z, er, Momma H.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Not that I’m practicing the art of imitation, Jay, but thanks for the compliment.

  • Jerry

    CA falls in terms of megachurches per capita.

    Considering what “flyover country” thinks of us out here, it’s a fun question to consider. But I guess cultural anthropologists find interesting facts when studying us natives. Just think of what would happen to the media if LA disappeared tomorrow and the more interesting tribes were not available for study!

  • Bern

    I’m pleased to learn from the LAT’s definiation that I do indeed belong to megachurch–my ex-urban East Coast (RC) parish claims 2000+–and it sure feels like it in the parking lot, particularly you-know-when.

    The story strikes me as a sort of fluffer/filler that writer, editor, and owner(s) of LAT would be saddened to hear does not pass muster with GR. They did TRY. :-)

  • Stoo

    Given that we don’t know the existence of any sort of spirit for a fact, its moving of people shouldn’t be reported as an event happening. The caption could mention someone *claiming* they were moved, of course.

    Also tho “get caught up in” seems neutral enough to me. Emotion, music, strong feelings, whatevers flying around. That may (or not) be divinely inspired.

  • Tyson K

    I’m with Bern on this mega-church issue. Surely there’s got to be some sort of doctrinal something that defines a mega-church beyond just size. Otherwise, not only does his Catholic parish qualify, my rural midwestern completely un-evangelical-in-the-media-sense MO Synod Lutheran congregation, where you’d get frightening looks if you started swaying to the music (err… the hymns) does too, with over 2200 baptized members. So would the local Catholic parish in the same town, which is even bigger. The popular image of “mega-church” is also highly suburban, I would imagine. Keep in mind that both the churches I just mentioned are in a town with a population of 7500.

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