Missing My Megachurch

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. 

Church

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.

Classes

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.

Small Groups

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.

Ministries

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.

Counseling

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.

Distant Pastor

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.

Conclusion

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.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com JW

    You can still belong to a megachurch and not necessarily be a christian. Think about it, how often does someone really ask you about your born again experience in mega churches? You will hear people talk about what God has done in their lives and some people will ask for testimonies but you won’t be pushed for yours. I think the worst case scenerio is that you would be annoyed with the Jesus testimonials because that is what the church is all about yet you can still do things with the people. You just have to be careful how to say things in the community.

    Personally, I don’t like mega churches because you can really be lost in the crowd. Even if you join some group within the church the majority of the church crowd will not know who you are unless the pastor brings up on stage to celebrate some acheievement. I have been a part of a mega church which essentially disbanded. I don’t know if you have ever heard of the ‘Laughing revival’ with Rodney Howard Browne but he brought that mess to a church I went to before Toronto. THe associate pastor of the church really changed after that for the worse, in my opinion. Ironically, through all the nonsense prophecy that came through that place it was eventually sold and the chruch split into 2 churches in 2 different cities. THe church is Pentecostal/Charismatic and they have strong ties to Rhema Bible college and Oral Roberts U. I will quit here before I ramble on and on and on……..

    JW

  • Nadine

    I’d encourage you to try the UU church. I was unsure about it at first too for the same reasons – I didn’t feel like I wanted to go to church services, either. But I’ve found that the tone and experience is so different from a church service that it works for me as a non-believer. At the first service I went to at our UU church, the kids in the church were giving short speeches about their personal credos after going through a program, and over half of them expressed that they weren’t sure they believed in god. Just the idea that that could exist in a community like that one made me tear up.
    Our church also has lots of events and programs to keep members busy; there’s a humanist book club, dinners and lunches, Sunday school, social events and more (sometimes they organize protests in the name of social justice, which I also think is great). The variety of membership and views makes me comfortable instead of uncomfortable – I appreciate that all of these people of different ages are exploring, trying to decide their own morality, and working to make the world a better place.

    • Ruthie

      Spot on Nadine. UU has been the perfect solution to wanting to gather with like-minded people without compromising my agnostic ideals.

    • flapdog

      Thank you for describing the UU church. I’ve considered attending a service (do they call it that?) because of the very reasons given by Libby Anne. I don’t miss any of the religious teaching in church, but I honestly miss the community, even after being away from it for 20 years. Looking back, when I was a very young mom and military spouse 30 years ago, my church gave me a feeling of security and belonging. Without that, life would have been much harder. Now I have different needs, but I still sometimes want to form the connections.

  • machintelligence

    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

    I think you are on to something there. In-group loyalty and solidarity are often purchased at the expense of out-group xenophobia and paranoia. Back in my grandparent’s day, Sunday church service was the bright spot on the social calendar. Automobiles were scarce, and one did not travel to town without good reason in rural areas. It was a pretty parochial existence, though, and there was deep seated distrust and dislike between the Protestants and Catholics. My mother often expressed the opinion that none of us should even consider marrying a Catholic. One of my sisters married a Muslim (a very secular, non-devout one) and that was apparently OK since he wasn’t Catholic.

    I have been an atheist since my early teens, and am something of a loner. I do not want and would not feel comfortable in a large community organization.

  • Steve

    The large number of activities they offer, serves to counteract the lack of direct control by the head pastor though. And part of that is deliberate. They make you dependent on the church for all kinda of activities that aren’t even necessarily unique to the church. It may be stuff that’s available elsewhere without the church flavor. And while the head pastor does not personally know everyone, he has tons of henchmen who wield more immediate power and who report to him.

    But really, it’s all about the money for them. The more people do more stuff, the more money they get from their flock.

  • H

    My husband and I have often discussed the lack of a built-in community for non-theists. Most cities have community centers, offering classes and things for people of various ages, plus there are probably volunteering opportunities in the area. My area has at least two groups that organize volunteers for a variety of causes.
    I’ve always been suspicious of groups/group activities, which might be one reason why I never got into religion (after a briefly devout phase as a young child). I tend to feel more alone in large groups than when I’m by myself, and I never liked to do things just because that’s what everyone else was doing.

  • smrnda

    I take a more cynical view that churches exploit the lack of community in the same way that they exploit social or personal tragedies, poverty or a lack of technology and medicine in developing nations. I don’t think they consciously do it, but the clear plan is that they get people in the door for reasons that have nothing to do with the person wanting to explore religious beliefs and then they have a captive audience.

    At the same time, in many regions of the US there probably are not other options for community. Suburbs are pretty insular places and they lack any type of real public spaces. I’ve lived either in a large city or in college towns where you can find many other ways to meet people but in a suburb or rural area there just aren’t any scenes to be a part of. Living where I do I’ve found lots of places to meet people but I think the type of place I live now (a liberal college town) is pretty atypical.

    I think a difficulty with getting a humanist organization off the ground is that many humanists are already doing things as part of other organizations, like political organizations, non-religious volunteer groups, local art and music scenes and things like that. But in an area that’s more overtly religious I think the need is really there but that it’s tough to be openly humanist in a highly religious area.

  • http://cfiottawa.com Theo Bromine

    Certainly there can be a bunch of negatives on the flipside of having cohesive community, but that is certainly what I miss most from the ~20 years I spent as an active member of a (mainstream, medium-sized) church. The church was very liberal, both doctrinally and politically, but still had a strong sense of community. I know there are a lot of secular activities available that are equivalent to those offered by churches, which is all very well and good when you are looking for like-minded groups of people with whom to volunteer, play sports, sing, discuss books, eat, etc. But what’s missing is the social support aspect. When I was a member of the church, I always knew that I could find someone who would look after my kids if my spouse was ill and I needed to visit him at the hospital; someone to bring casseroles if there was a death in the family, or someone had become temporarily or permanently disabled (and that I would also be available to be the someone who did those things for others). Now, I no longer have this sort of safety net . I personally do not like large groups, but still feel like I need community (I find I can cope with participating in groups if I have a designated function/role to play, which has the ironic effect that I tend to volunteer to do things, and end up in positions of leadership.)

  • Camilla

    I came to a smallish (~80 members) UU church as a lifelong atheist. I would say that the limit on the social support that my church offers is that almost all the members who have cars work full time. Which means that if you need something a teenager can do (like babysit during after-school hours, or shovel snow), you can find that sort of help, and we do casseroles and other caregiving stuff, but there’s no deep pool of manpower for someone who needs a lot of rides to draw on.
    I’ve noticed that there’s members who more often than not find somewhere else to be during the service; if I do food for coffee hour, it’s not unlikely that I’ll end up chatting in the kitchen with a friend for the whole of the service. It’s not like someone is taking attendance, though I admit it would be odd for a new member to only ever come to coffee hour.

    I’m specifically at a church because I wanted (and found) community that spans age groups; almost all the particular interests I cultivated seemed to either match me with people of the same age (or whose children were age-matched to mine) or leave me the odd-one-out age-wise. I needed (especially during my firstborn’s babyhood) parents of older children, as part of my community.

  • Rosa

    I think one reason secular humanists don’t have these kinds of organizations is that it would be reinventing the wheel. We already have secular community organizations by the dozen, both nonprofits and city government functions. Even in the small town I grew up in, you could join any number of clubs, sports teams, arts groups or political groups.

    In my city, young parents can join parent-child groups or take classes through Early Childhood Education Services (I think that’s from the school district, but it might be the city or county); anyone can join a sports team through the city Parks & Recreation department; community education classes are available for all ages through the city, the library system, the university, the science museum, the historical society, the planetarium society. You can join a community garden group, a city tree watering group, a Great Books circle, a pub trivia team, a child care coop. The opportunities for volunteering are basically endless – each neighborhood has a neighborhood organization that organizes events and needs volunteer time. Each school has a PTA, there are the Volunteers of America, Habitat for Humanity, settlement/community houses…and that’s before you get into affinity groups like unions and political parties. I don’t think I could list them all.

    The difference to me is that these groups aren’t evangelical; they do a little bit of outreach but their main goal isn’t to suck in new members, so you have to actually go find them. Only the churches come door to door (though the school district & parks do run radio and print ads listing their services for elderly people & kids, especially this time of year.)

  • Kristen

    If you don’t mind my asking, what is it about the church-like trapping of UUs that bothers you? I can see how it could be triggering or meaningless or even patronizing. That being said, if it’s something that isn’t a deal-breaker, I really think you should give your local UU community a try. (Full disclosure — I’m a UU, of course!). I think it really varies from place to place. There are definitely some UU pastors who are more formal and even more outwardly Christian in their teachings, but most of the ones I’ve met are more like religious studies professors than typical pastors. Our pastor is intelligent and well-educated in comparative theology, history, and ethics. He doesn’t do unlicensed therapy (unlike some unscrupulous pastors I know), but he meets with members who are having religious issues with family or other problems that church members could help solve. He’s being paid to deliver thoughtful, well-researched sermons about contemporary issues. Recent sermon topics have covered race and the criminal justice system, the concept of grace in various religions, spirituality and neuroscience, and feminist poetry. He teaches classes on things like religious history in America. It’s certainly not a cult of personality, but I don’t think the community would function as smoothly without the pastor and other staff to organize everything.

    There are also some advantages to having a church-like structure in other ways, as well. You could get this through a humanist community center, but I honestly think it wouldn’t get much traction in areas where there are UU communities because there would be so much overlap. There is a sense of permanency and continuity to have an endowment and a paid staff whose job it is to keep the community thriving. Barring unforseen circumstances, I know the church and its programs will still be around when my son is a teenager, for example. We have a great children’s religious education program, which is really about religious literacy, art and music, and character development. Finances and major decisions are handled by a board of trustees. The level of funding allows us to do a lot of service work (and not the kind that’s proselytizing in disguise).

    Anyway, I’m sorry to be essentially plugging the UU church. It’s not for everybody and as an atheist, I would have laughed if you told me five years ago that I would be regularly attending church, but having that community of people has really enriched my life.

    • Tricia

      This was fascinating for me to read. Thank you for posting it. I’m a Christian but I think I would really like a group like what you described here. I prefer to think out my theology for myself than to have it spoon fed or hammered into my head by a pastor, and I hate that agreement on the kinds of opinions that are really so far removed from the core of a person becomes a prerequisite for experiencing connection in many groups. Nice to know that there are things like this out there. Maybe someday.

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  • http://leavingfundamentalism.wordpress.com Jonny Scaramanga

    I’ve spoken to some secular Quakers, and it seems that what they have going on is very cool. I haven’t been to a meeting, but from speaking to people who have, it seems they’re just a very inclusive bunch of people who know how to make everyone feel welcome.

  • aaron

    Wow, I was just thinking about this today. For all the crazy baffonary of the evangelical churches I grew up in, I definitely miss the community. Maybe we need to make our community centers more like mega churches somehow, that way everyone can participate, faith or no faith.

  • http://www.femmemobile.wordpress.com JB

    Hi!

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog, and found this post. I’m not aethesist; I consider myself “highly spiritual” and have yet to find a religion I can deal with. I’ve been to the UU church here, and had the same problem with it you describe; it felt like Christianity-lite, and there wasn’t much of a community feel, anyway. I came from LA, and the mega-non-Christian-church “Agape,” which is run by Rev. Beckwith. If you’re in that area, I highly recommend it; it has the pros you’re talking about, and the sermons range from talking about Jesus’ teachings to Buddha’s teachings to modern-day thinkers, so I never felt like it was Christianity-lite.

    Mostly, though, I’m popping in to say that there ARE Humanist… ah, ‘churches’ for lack of a better term. There’s one in Oakland, CA, near San Francisco. I saw advertisements for another in SoCal. Maybe it’s only a California thing, and maybe you aren’t in Cali (though I think I read somewhere that you are), but look around. They’re there! Not common, maybe, but I’ve seen them (and seriously considered going). Neither of the ones I saw were big (or rather, one isn’t big and the other didn’t seem big), but it’s at least a community.

    JB

  • http://steamtunnelpilot.blogspot.com Sergius Martin-George

    “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.”

    Though I think I get the thrust of the piece and can appreciate where you’re coming from, I still couldn’t but be taken aback by the statement above, made without even the slightest hint of irony. My, what a testament to how things have changed! The pastor can’t know everyone — and that’s a benefit! But sadly, given the tsunami of church abuse in recent years, a perfectly understandable sentiment.

  • vertlizard

    Depending on where you live, you might be able to find some of that community when your daughter goes to school. I’m 23 years old and the oldest of four, and my atheist/agnostic parents were involved with a lot of our school activities — PTA, soccer club, band and vocal music fundraising, set builders for drama club. Just by being involved with their children’s education and recreational activity (note: my siblings and I attended public schools), they met a lot of people whom they became close friends with. The one funny thing is that their friendships don’t necessarily have any relation to our friendships; whenever I call home my mom dutifully updates me on a variety of old classmates whom I was never friends with and don’t particularly care about. But I know she likes talking to their parents about us, so I listen anyway.

  • http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com Bill Baar

    I’m a UU in Chicago’s burbs and can assure you there are many kinds of UU Churches just in Chicago Metro area. You probably could find one you’d feel at home in although it might not be around the corner. UUism also has Fellowships without ordained Ministers. There’s also a Church of the Larger Fellowship for people not close to a UU Church. You might want to explore a bit in your own area.

  • Dawn

    As backwards as it sounds, Houston has a “Church of Freethought.” The only reason they used the word church was to get the tax deduction. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, including the fact that childcare is available. I have a 5yo and a newborn. My 5yo has ADHD. There’s no possible way I’d be able to sit and listen to a lecture with him in tow. I wanted to go when I lived in Houston, but it was over an hour away from me. Money was too tight to spend on gas to go that far. :(

    http://hcof.org

    I’ve moved to a much, much smaller community where even thinking you may be an atheist will get you looked at like you just ate a child. There’s no way a church of freethought would survive down here. Even so, there is a UU church which I do attend regularly just to be able to say I attend church. I only have two criticisms. There really isn’t too many things offered for kids there at this time, but it’s also probably due to the lack of attendance also due to the fact that you have to really be a critical thinker to want to accept this type of church. They’ve been really kind to me when it comes to my son’s ADHD and allowing me to keep him in the nursery to where he is better suited emotionally (I don’t think there’s a child under 3 there as I keep the newborn with me). He doesn’t even have to leave the nursery for the kids part of the service. The other is that it all seems so dry, but then again I come from a UPC Pentecostal background where people danced the aisles “in the spirit.” I’ve attended the adult education class and it’s completely fascinating. Right now we’re studying the beginnings of the Christian church as it pertains to Unitarianism and Universalism before they merged. There’s so much that went on that we weren’t told about how the Bible was written, etc, in the way we grew up and they’re not afraid to tell us. I absolutely love it, probably more than the church service itself.

    One more thought, if you don’t want to check out the UU church, you may find an atheist meetup on Meetup.Com. Even my podunk town has an atheist meetup. I haven’t attended yet and again it’s because of my 5yo. My hubby has to get up for work at 3am and the meetups are at 5pm. I don’t think I can get my son to be still in a restaurant for an hour or two, unfortunately. I went to one once and it was great. A bunch of non believers having dinner expressing thoughts and ideas about a vast variety of topics. Very highly recommended!

  • kevin peterson

    the immigrants in my neighborhood seem to have more community than the mega-church I go to.
    They get together at the near by park for cook outs and volleyball every weekend, and on many week nights.
    Now that’s the kind of community I would love to join.

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  • AK

    There is also a humanist “church” called The Ethical Society that has meetings in many urban areas. It sounds like the kind of thing you may be looking for.


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