I have a confession to make. I miss the evangelical megachurch I grew up attending. I don’t miss the beliefs or the sermons, of course. I’m not talking about missing doctrine or anything like that. I’m talking about missing the community a megachurch provides, and the community it offered me and my family growing up. All that was necessary to gain access to the community the megachurch had to offer was sharing its evangelical beliefs. Once you were in the “community of faith,” you entered a very real physical community too, a community that could be felt, seen, and enjoyed. It was in this community that I grew up, and that church was my home.
Monique El-Faizy has written that the evangelical megachurch has thrived in recent decades because it provides a ready-built community to Americans ever more on the move. While young families in times gone by remained in the communities they grew up in, families today are often launched into new areas of the country. El-Faizy argues that the megachurch offers these newcomers a ready place to plug in, a ready-built community right there and waiting for them. I have to say I completely agree. I’m going to take a moment here to outline some aspects of that community.
Sunday church services serve as a place where church members can come together as one, receive teaching, participate in worship, and fellowship with each other after services. Given that I was homeschooled and therefore did not see my friends daily, Sundays were the highlight of my week and a key part of my socialization. It was at church that we saw our friends, planned get-togethers, and shared the latest news. Church was an important social function for our parents as well.
Interestingly, church was probably the place I saw the most people gathered together, as the halls and fellowship areas filled with hundreds and even thousands of people. I loved the buzz and the energy. Church was my place, something that belonged to me. It was a place where I felt comfortable and a part of something larger than myself.
Because of their size, Megachurches like the one I grew up in have the resources and personnel to offer a wide variety of classes and groups, some on Sunday mornings and others during the weeks, thus allowing church members to pick and choose which they like.
In the megachurch where I grew up, these classes ranged in topic from single parenting or parenting teens to creation science or evangelization tactics. There were classes and groups that dealt with missions, theology, and worldview training. There were classes and groups looking at the end times and training in Christian apologetics. There were classes and groups for men and for women.
And of course, there was also Sunday school and youth group for children and teens.
Because it was so huge, my megachurch, like most other megachurch, also offered “small groups” for its members. You could form a small group from an existing circle of friends or put your name on a list to be assigned to a small group. These small groups generally involved ten or fifteen adults, whether singles or families, and met in each other’s homes outside of church. These small groups form a sort of extended family of church members.
My parents’ small group met in our house; the adults participated in various Bible studies together, along with prayer time, and we children played. Because my parents formed their small group based on an existing circle of friends, the other families all had numerous children, and there were sometimes as many as thirty children present during small group. This meant that small group also served a key social function for us children, as well as for our parents, and we looked forward to it every week.
Megachurches like the one I grew up in also offer numerous ministry and service opportunities. These range from inner city missions to short term mission trips to outreaches to international students, and many, many more. Once again, the wide range of opportunities for involvement allow church members to easily plug in and to choose where they want to be involved.
Camps, Sports, Preschool
The megachurch I grew up in also offered summer camps, sports leagues, and preschool. It also offered weekend retreats of all sorts, some for men, some for women, and others for couples. As for the sports leagues, children of members could participate in basketball, soccer, and much more, all within the safe confines of the church grounds and under the safe tutelage of church members. While my megachurch did not have a school, it did have a preschool, and it had a cooperative venture with a local Christian school. Children who participated in the church preschool and local Christian school could be even further interwoven into a comprehensive Christian community.
The megachurch I grew up in had numerous personnel, including the head pastor, several associate pastors, a children’s director and a youth director, a women’s pastor, and professional counselors. Couples with marriage trouble could bring their difficulties to the pastor or the church’s several on-staff counselors and (ostensibly) receive advice and help, all without going outside of the confines of the church.
One benefit of the megachurch was that its size made it impossible for a pastor, whether the head pastor or associate pastors, to know everyone. This meant that, at least in my experience, the level of pastoral control over (and sometimes abuse of) the laypeople seen in many smaller churches did not occur. At a megachurch, you can drift in and out without necessarily being noticed or singled out. There are multiple services and services are huge, so if you miss church one week, no one notices. A megachurch allows for all the benefits of community without the drawbacks of control or manipulation.
Now of course, if you were close to or involved in leadership or somehow became caught up in church discipline or sought counseling, this might change. I’ve heard of abuse occurring in megachurches like Mars Hill, after all. I think, though, that it’s probably nevertheless safe to say that megachurches’ size makes it much more difficult for them to control the lives of ordinary members the way a pastor of a small church can.
Megachurches give their members an instant and all-encompassing community, complete with youth ministries, classes for adults, service opportunities, and support groups. They offer one-stop shopping for all your community needs. And today, I miss that. It’s a lot harder to build your own community from scratch than it is to plug in to one that already exists. And then there are the things I didn’t even mention here: the feeling of a higher purpose, the feeling of solidarity with other church members, the sense of mission.
I sometimes think about trying the local Unitarian Universalist church in an effort to find some of what I miss. What bothers me about the UU church, though, is its insistence on replicating church-like rituals and practices, such as the church service and the existence of pastors. What I really want is the fellowship, community, and resources without the church-like trappings.
I sometimes wonder if it could be possible for Humanists to form community centers where they have “meetings” rather than church services and “directors” rather than pastors. They could offer classes, groups, and programs for children. They could give members ways to plug in to service opportunities and offer retreats and camps. They could be organic and creative, making use of the talents of their members.
As much as I like the idea, I do wonder if a Humanist community center would be problematic in that it would separate atheists and agnostics from the rest of the community – a problem megachurches face as well. The best solution, for me at least at this point, seems to be to seek out groups I can be a part of (the Le Leche League?), find opportunities for my daughter (soccer with the parks and recreational services?), and find service opportunities to be involved in (serving as a CASA volunteer perhaps?) – all within the local community.
I must build a community for myself piece by piece, and doing so will never be as easy as the one-stop-shopping and instant community evangelical megachurches provide.