How many atheists does it take to form a ‘megachurch?’

In pitching a trend story for a national audience, a headline-friendly catchphrase goes a long way.

Take the expression “atheist megachurch,” for example. That’s sure to grab editors’ attention, right?

Such was the case over the weekend as The Associated Press reported on what it characterized as atheist megachurches “taking root across the U.S. and around the world.”

The top of the story:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.

Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.

Now, the AP doesn’t actually quote any supporters or detractors who use that term, so we’ll have to take the wire service’s word for it.

As I began reading the story, the idea of “atheist mega-churches” intrigued me. In my time with AP in Texas, I reported on a number of megachurches, from Joel Olsteen’s Lakewood Church to T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House to the two Ed Youngs’ disparate Baptist congregations. In more recent times, I reported on megachurch seminaries and pastor training for Christianity Today.

Based on my past reporting, I know that the term “megachurch” has a specific meaning. The Religion Newswriters Association’s Religion Stylebook defines it this way:

megachurches

Generally defined as a Christian church that has a weekly sustained attendance of 2,000 or more. Although megachurches existed in some form in the United States throughout the 20th century, in recent decades they have flourished. Megachurches are often Protestant, evangelical, Catholic or Pentecostal, and many are theologically conservative. Many are nondenominational or Southern Baptist.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research provides more details on megachurches:

Q: What’s the definition of a megachurch, and how many are there in the United States?
A:  Megachurches are not all alike, but they do share some common features. Hartford Seminary Sociologist Scott Thumma who, with Warren Bird, compiled the 2011 “Megachurches Today” research report defines a megachurch as a congregation with at least 2,000 people attending each weekend. These churches tend to have a charismatic senior minister and an active array of social and outreach ministries seven days a week.

As of 2012, there were roughly 1,600 Protestant churches in the United States with a weekly attendance of 2,000 people or more. That’s nearly 25% more than 2005, suggesting people continue to be receptive to this large-scale way of worshipping. The average megachurch had a Sunday attendance of 3,597. But not all megachurches are mega. The survey found that just 20 percent of megachurches had 5,000 people in attendance on a given Sunday.

So how many thousands of non-worshipers did the Los Angeles “atheist megachurch” draw?

Let’s read on:

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Warming the chair? WSJ laments the loss of the pew

It’s five minutes past the hour, and you’re late for services. The cat insisted on one last pass around your leg, and you had to extricate the lint brush from the back of the junk drawer, and in the process you found that key to the shed you’d been looking for forever. But you couldn’t be sure it was the key until you tried it.

Anyway … you’re late. You park farther from the building than you’d like, hustle in, smile at the eyebrows-raised usher and slip surreptitiously into the back … chair? If you’re a Wall Street Journal reader, that’s where you sit. Not the pew, mind you, but the chair.

From the top:

WINDHAM, Maine — At first, it just didn’t sit well with Nancy Shane when her church decided to switch from pews to chairs.

“My generation grew up in pews,” the grandmother of three says. She worried the sanctuary of the Windham First Church of the Nazarene would resemble a movie theater.

Yet, when the pews were removed in September and replaced with burgundy-cushioned chairs, she says she decided God didn’t care whether she prayed from a pew, a chair or even the floor. “I walked in Wednesday night for a prayer meeting and the chairs were there, and they were beautiful,” she says. “I thought, ‘Nancy Shane, even at 68 years old, young woman, you can change.’ “

She isn’t the only churchgoer being asked to take a stand on new Sunday seating arrangements. Pews have been part of the Western world’s religious landscape for centuries, but now a growing number of churches in the U.S. and U.K. are opting for chairs, sometimes chairs equipped with kneelers.

The  Journal’s emphasis, in spite of its award-winning news coverage and compelling features, has always been and likely will always be economics and business. That’s its bread and butter, the Pulitzer-winning coverage it provides so well. The bottom line, to borrow a business phrase. So I’ll skip to the bottom line here and say this particular “worship wars” story seems stale and a bit forced.

Worshipers have been sitting in chairs instead of pews in some parts of the U.S. and the U.K. and around the globe for years. Decades even, in some regions. Evangelical church plants of the 1990s sprung up with chairs because leaders wanted to attract a younger demographic, and chairs shout change. Pews don’t shout much. They sort of whisper. The sound is a good one, granted, but it has to be listened for and appreciated.

Pews are traditional. They’re beautiful, and they tell stories of centuries of heritage, of intergenerational families all lined up in their polished best. Chairs are flexible. They can be reconfigured to give worship space a different feel or stacked aside if the area is needed for a different purpose. And these chairs tell the story of the last few years, young seekers and non-traditionalists melding with time-tested, gray-haired faith.

Therein lies the rub, the WSJ says:

[Read more...]


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