Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Megachurch Miracle

By Kayte VanScoy

DECEMBER 22, 1997: 

And the Lord added to the church daily. -- Acts 2:47

Shirley Ferk says that five years ago she was just a "housewife in the pasture stretching goat wire" in a small East Texas town, as unmoved by the Holy Spirit as the animals she kept. Church had not played a big part in her upbringing, Ferk says, and she had been uninspired by the Church of Christ she sporadically attended with her husband. When her marriage ended in divorce, Ferk moved to Austin and a friend brought her to Great Hills Baptist Church in Northwest Austin. Within the cavernous expanse of one of the city's largest houses of worship, Ferk says, she was overwhelmed by a religious stirring in her soul. "I felt like I had to come," Ferk recalls, her throat tightening against a well of emotion. "I felt like God was talking to me on how to live my life." That Great Hills boasts over 2,500 active members never intimidated Ferk. In fact, she insists she did not even notice the size. "I didn't know this was a 'superchurch,' a big church," she says. "I think it's just like a store. One store handles this kind of product, and one handles that kind, but God distributes the message everywhere."

Ferk has now joined the ranks of thousands of Austinites who are discovering, or rediscovering, religion as members of a new kind of church known as a "mega-church."

Just as the only commonality in the umbrella-term "Christianity" is the central tenet that its followers worship Jesus Christ, by the same token, a precise description of what constitutes a "megachurch" is a point of debate. But everyone can agree, megachurches are big and getting bigger. At least a dozen churches across the country seat over 10,000 worshippers every Sunday. And while Austin's faithful have not yet swelled to those numbers, churches all over town have been taking tips from the church growth revolution, raising money and raising roofs for 2,500-, 3,000-, even 5,000-seat sanctuaries. (Seecharts for local and national numbers.)

Apart from its enormous scale, what traditionalists find most strange about the mega-church movement is its decidedly modern twist on the church experience. Everything from the hymnal book to the symbol of the cross have been swept aside to attract the greatest number of people possible -- people who might be made uncomfortable by a statue of a bleeding Jesus, or who prefer big screen TVs to following along in books. Ominous, Gothic houses of the Lord are scrapped in favor of Wal-Mart-looking structures in which the worship of God is not an archaic ritual, but is as familiar and non-threatening as a trip to the mall.


Pastor Harol O'Chester stirs a 2,500-plus crowd at Great Hill Baptist Church.

photograph by Jana Birchum

That Great Hills Baptist is part of a nationwide revolution in religious tradition doesn't faze Ferk one bit. She notes: "God said, 'You are going to be a peculiar people.' And we are."

Many are quick to suspect that insincerity or some kind of earthly materialism necessarily lurks at the heart of such a mass movement. However, it appears that megachurches have a nationwide resurgence in spiritual faith (witness the popularity of television shows such as Touched by an Angel) to thank for their burgeoning memberships. But while this newfound religious fervor has sparked a church growth boom for some parishes in Austin, other, more traditional houses of worship are left feeling empty.

For the time will come when men will... gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. -- 2 Timothy 4:3

The success of the mega- church movement has capitalism to thank as much as Christianity. Though their message is Biblically based, megachurches are nothing if not carefully planned and marketed businesses. A cottage industry of books, seminars, cassettes, and webpages has sprung up to fill the seemingly endless demand for guidance in "intentional" church-growing. The Purpose-Driven Church by Rick Warren, senior minister of San Diego's 20,000-member Saddleback Valley Community Church, has generated so much interest that the Saddleback webpage (http://www.saddleback.com) opens onto this caveat: "Due to the significant quantity of questions sent to our staff... asking how Saddleback Church operates, we are not able to respond to them at this time... Saddleback has organized church growth conferences," it offers, and recommends booking space at the for-profit conferences months in advance. Although every megachurch tends to differ theologically from its mega-brethren, at the heart of each is a keen interest in the model provided by pioneering churches like Saddleback and the 15,000-member Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago.

"Helping churches turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ" is Willow Creek's stated mission. The challenge would sound familiar to any marketing student trained to sell customers on the necessity of products which they have not yet learned to want. How to accomplish this with a product that can seem more like a medicine than a treat? Make it palatable. "From the beginning of Willow Creek, its leaders have strived to remove every offense possible, except the offense of the cross," the Willow Creek webpage (http://www.willowcreek.com) proclaims.

What are those offenses? Denominational baggage, architectural symbolism such as crucifixes and stained glass, and traditional services with old hymns and predictable sermons, to name just a few. What Willow Creek originated, and other churches across the country have duplicated, is a church which responds to the comfort level of the skeptic and the church-phobic. Megachurches do this by dropping the exclusionary denominational talk, singing contemporary religious music (with the words to the songs projected onto large screens to minimize page-flipping) rather than those old out-of-touch hymns, giving sermons which diverge from the traditional Bible-verse cycle of the Lectionary to allow more spontaneity in the service, and most importantly, providing dozens of ways to plug in to the church outside of Sunday service.



Empty pews at the traditional University Baptist Church on Sunday morning.
photograph by Jana Birchum



Since more people means more resources in the collection plate, megachurches can afford (and find it profitable) to offer one-stop shopping for nearly all of their parishioners' needs -- from take-out restaurants to Christian rock concerts. Add in self-help groups, Bible studies, aerobics classes, and choir practice, and megachurch members can find themselves "going to church" anywhere from three to seven days a week. What could be more time-saving and convenient for the consumer in this busy day and age than dropping the kids at Mother's Day Off and saving their souls at the same time? And in a world in which communities have fallen apart and individuals have become more isolated, isn't it nice to know that the fellow on the stairmaster next to you at the gym (at your church!) shares at least some of the same core values you have?

That's another thing about megachurches -- each one sort of builds its own belief system. Some extend their marketing strategy of inclusion into a more liberal reading of the Bible, others use rock bands and multimedia sermons as spoonfuls of sugar to help the faithful swallow hard-line traditionalism. Because non-denominational churches are independent, they are free to shape their own doctrines. Willow Creek, for example, preaches against divorce, abortion, and homosexuality, but ordains women -- a decision with which some churches would strongly disagree.

The megachurch movement has been national news since the early Nineties, but until recently, Austin has remained relatively untouched by the trend. The clergy of Austin readily admit that this bastion of Texan liberalism has never been much for church-going in the past, but they say that increasing population and prosperity in the region has created an environment ripe for church growth. Taken as part of what by most accounts is a nationwide spiritual reawakening -- evidenced by high profile Christian events like the recent Promise Keepers march on Washington -- Austin's growing numbers of faithful can be viewed as merely a drop in the baptismal waters. There is even doubt as to whether the trend reflects an influx of new believers at all; whether in fact that growth is coming at the expense of smaller, more "boring" congregations. All agree that huge church buildings are popping up all over town, and this story takes a look at several of the biggest. The question is, what is attracting Austinites to these huge, non-traditional megachurches?

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. -- Mark 2:27

At first glance, it might seem unlikely that the starkly non-traditional Christian Faith Center (CFC) would be hard at work on what will become the largest sanctuary in the city. In a run-down shopping strip at 9414 Parkfield Road, the 3,500-member CFC currently shares the Quail Creek Plaza marquee with Domino's Pizza, Town House Liquors, and the Hunan Dragon Chinese restaurant. By spring of 1998, the church will move to its new digs on FM1325, which will feature a 5,000-seat sanctuary and two 21-foot-wide television screens behind the pulpit. No crosses or an altar -- just big screen TVs. "For all intents and purposes, we have a rock & roll church," boasts assistant pastor D.R. Dickey. "What we have done is repackaged [church]. Our philosophy is to reach out to a sight and sound generation."

CFC's non-denominational doctrine holds to an orthodox "Born Again" take on the Bible in a distinctly unorthodox setting. CFC is selling this strict doctrine without any of the normal trappings of faith. With interior design equally as unadorned as its facade, CFC's current sanctuary has no stained glass or pews -- it's nothing more than a large room with metal chairs and a few cheap decorations. "The building that we're building now is less symbolic than it is functional," explains Dickey. "Part of the reason for [the plain architecture] is a change in the concept that tradition is an important thing."

Dickey explains that CFC's anti-traditionalist atmosphere attracts those who have been turned off by church, either because of a lack of early religious education or because of negative church experiences. Creating an environment very much of this world, CFC is still able to deliver hard-line Christianity unimpeded by possible triggers for fear or cynicism. "We blend in with the culture while not becoming shaped by the culture," he says, explaining that CFC learned the trick by modeling on the strategies of missionaries in non-Christian countries.

A recent Sunday's no-frills CFC sermon was right in line with that attitude of staying in tune with the culture. With Christmas just three weeks away, rather than delivering a lofty lesson that harkened back to the days of yore, Pastor Rob offered up a simple and immediate anecdote about the power of prayer. (CFC literature consistently refers to its founders as "Pastor Rob and Laura," never offering the couple's last name.) Pastor Rob explained to the congregation that when he had recently lost his television remote control, Laura encouraged him to "pray on it." Pastor Rob said he begrudgingly obliged his wife's silly suggestion, and what do you know? "Right after I prayed, God gave me the idea of where it was!"

CFC's congregation was as informal as the pastor's message. Several members attended services in jeans or sweat suits, and many wandered in late or left early. There was even a contingent of Christian-converted bikers sporting Harley Davidson accessories and black trench coats. Where else would such "rebels" go, other than to a non-traditional church like CFC?


Bible study at Riverbend Church pulls about 75 peple even on a Wednesday night.

photograph byJana Birchum



CFC's unpretentious atmosphere is definitely attracting its intended target -- hundreds of what appear to be primarily middle class families of all races and creeds. Considering the Rev. Martin Luther King's well-known observation that 11am Sunday is "the most segregated hour in America," that accomplishment alone is noteworthy. Members of Pastor Rob's congregation say there is an obvious reason for the church's flock of many colors. "It's just probability. Once you get non-denominational, the races are gonna mix too," suggests Kio Kendrick, a regular attendee who dropped by to hear the sermon and headed out before the service was over. Church as the great democratic ideal: wear what you want, come and go when you want, and no high-falutin' liturgy to get in the way of God's message.

And while some megachurches offer a wide range of extra-church activities, others like CFC take a different tack. Not even Sunday school, that most basic of Sunday traditions, is available there. Instead, building on a model that many megachurches use to break down impersonal congregations into bite-size chunks, 10- to 20-member groups meet in parishioners' homes throughout the week for Bible study and fellowship. By gathering in small groups, known at CFC as "home groups," megachurchers accustomed to a more intimate church experience can make personal connections. "Home groups gets you to where you know a few people," says elderly CFC member Roger Evans.

"This is a really small church in a big setting," CFC-ite Sunni Campbell adds.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. -- Romans 12:2

"Good morning, Pastor Carson," chimes a chorus of uniformed children, walking obediently in line through the halls of the Praise Tabernacle Outreach and Family Worship Center in northeast Austin. One boy pulls at his pastor's pant leg for a hug, and then it starts. Everyone's got to have one and Dr. Dana Carson is quickly transformed into a Christmas tree of adoring children. "There are not many places that African-American kids can come to get this kind of love," Carson explains, after the children troop off with their teacher. "The majority of these children don't even know what it feels like to get a hug from a male."

Carson started Praise in 1986 with a congregation of nine people in a parishioner's home. Today that parishioner works in a $4 million complex which sports an 1,800-seat sanctuary, set in the generic aesthetic of a high-tech firm. In the year since the building's completion, Praise's congregation, which numbered 400 in 1996, has more than doubled to over 1,000 parishioners. Carson has done this by offering not just hugs, but also a multitude of outreach services in the community. These include hitting the streets in an RV and setting up shop with a full choir and a souped-up sound system, offering flu shots to neighborhood kids, and counseling teens to stay in school. Carson believes he has a special calling to revitalize African-American communities by challenging its members to make a personal change. To make that necessary change, Carson offers a megachurch hallmark: a non-traditional, non-denominational worship experience.

Sticking with his theme of connecting with the community, Carson offers more than just a handshake and a two-page program at his Sunday services. Praise Tabernacle's bookstore is stocked with Carson's books, workbooks, and tapes, and his church boasts a multimedia center which outpaces some of the wealthiest churches in town. Broadcast across four states, Carson's sermons come hot off the dubbing machine as audio and video cassettes, ready for purchase only minutes after his sermons are complete.

Carson's style is as modern as his equipment, backing up his dynamic sermons with a full rock band playing contemporary gospel music. The aggressively friendly church staff is strategically positioned during services to act like rock concert ushers, ready to intercept the uninitiated and guide them to seats through what can be an overwhelming cacophony of dancing, singing, and tambourine shaking.

With its ambitious community outreach services, Carson's ministry maintains a high profile outside the church, a fact that brings it many new members. But Praise Tabernacle's high visibility can backfire, especially with surrounding neighborhoods. Friction between Praise and its neighborhood recently came to a head when the church backed an affordable apartment development in the area. While neighbors fought the housing project, in which many Praise Tabernacle members had planned to live, councilmembers worried privately over rumors that Praise was some kind of cult. In the end, councilmembers honored the neighborhood's request and sank the project. "For this area we've been very intimidating," Carson laments.



"The majority of these children don't even know what it feels like to get a hug from a male," says Dr. Dana Carson of Praise Tabernacle.
photograph by Jana Birchum



The charge that Carson's church is a personality-driven "cult" is a familiar one that haunts the megachurch movement. Many megachurches, just like many churches, are centered around a dynamic leader. But there's something naturally suspect when a minister directs the spiritual lives of say, 15,000 parishioners rather than the usual 350. It's just a numbers thing, say megachurchers. Meanwhile, leaders like Praise's Carson don't help matters much when they play themselves up. Carson's framed visage graces more walls around Praise than the Marlboro Man does along the highway, but Carson doesn't apologize for his leadership style. "Any vision needs a visionary," he says. "It needs to have somebody pumping it."

Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins.... No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. -- Matthew 12:6

Some suspect that Dr. Ger- ald Mann had a vision of Austin's church growth years ahead of his colleagues. Mann, senior pastor of the 5,000-member Riverbend Church in northwest Austin, has been a minister in Austin for over 25 years, though not always of large congregations. In fact, Mann left the small congregation of University Baptist Church in 1979 to found Riverbend in a schoolhouse on donated land.

"I did not anticipate the megachurch movement," Mann insists. "My calling was to build [Riverbend] and let God determine the size." Apparently God was well-pleased with Riverbend, because the church's new 3,000-seat sanctuary is set to open next Easter.

Riverbend's doctrine is distinctly to the left of most non-denominational churches. Mann says his target audience is "believers who don't go to church," people he calls the 4Bs: "the bruised, the battered, the broken, and the bored." Locally infamous for his broad-minded interpretation of Christianity, Mann's message is more about the Bible's overarching themes than the specific rules it dictates. "Riverbend is controversial in the eyes... of those who have reduced religion to a Sacred Society of Secluded Saints," Mann insists.



When it is finished next Spring, the new Christian Faith Center will seat 5,000.

photograph by Jana Birchum

To get the 4Bs through the doors, Mann has stripped away many "offenses." Not only did Riverbend drop the "Baptist" from its name a few years back, but Mann keeps the sermons short, the music of professional caliber, and the crosses out of the building. But while the de-iconizing of megachurch buildings like the Christian Faith Center can leave them with all the charm of a fast food joint, Riverbend's feel is more Hill Country spa. Rolling green vistas stretching beyond limestone-framed windows suggest that God's handiwork is appreciated best when unimpeded by architectural interpretation. In light-flooded chambers of rugged timber-and-stone simplicity, Riverbend provides an environment perfectly suited to the comfort level of its upscale flock.

"God was not a word I wanted to hear. Jesus Christ? You can forget that," admits Riverbend convert Don Fehd, who started attending after a 30-year break from religion. "But Gerald Mann said 'Choose your own concept of God.'" Fehd, who admits he only brought his family to church to keep them from sleeping past noon on Sundays, says Mann's message was non-threatening, even to a card-carrying cynic. And Fehd's family, including two teenagers, have all found some kind of activity or a group at the church that keeps them coming back.

Wherein lies the genius of Riverbend. Offering more plug-in opportunities than any other church in town, the litany of free self-help classes, support groups, 12-step programs, day care, physical fitness classes, and every imaginable slant on Bible study from historical to personal growth, makes it virtually impossible for the seeker not to find what he or she is looking for at Riverbend. A legendary singles program boasting thousands of participants draws non-church members from all over the city.

Such crossover appeal to other churches' congregations is the reason Riverbend is likely to continue growing. Mann holds to the basic tenet of megachurching -- that if a church doesn't grow, it shrinks. And he points out that, when adjusted for population base, Riverbend is already as large as Saddleback Valley in San Diego and Willow Creek outside Chicago. "Our goal," he explains, "is to be as large as God wants us to be."

For wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leads to destruction. -- Matthew 7:13

"It's not that I prefer a big church to a small church," explains one newcomer to Great Hills Baptist Church -- it's the message of moral conservatism that keeps her coming back. "A lot of the other [churches] have let go of tradition," she complains. "But Great Hills goes by the Bible, and that's what it's all about."

One of the givens of the megachurch movement is that late-Nineties seekers come craving structure -- and strict guidelines for their lives. Megachurch leaders argue that their pews are filling up with a culture hungry for a religious backbone. Baby boomers come seeking guidance for raising children, twenty-somethings come to find mates away from an increasingly amoral culture, and a wave of teenagers in want of an ethical framework either drag their parents along or show up without them.

"Not only are baby boomers coming back to church," says Collin Lambert, director of Great Hills' Media Ministries, "But they want black and white, they don't want any grey."

And Great Hills gives the people what they want. Aligned with the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention, Great Hills manages to pack its Sunday services without encouraging parishioners, such as those at Riverbend, to "choose their own concept of God." Lambert argues that the difference at Great Hills is its source material. "The Bible is the book that we're teaching... because we believe it is the 100% inspired word of God."

But Great Hills also knows that it is warm bodies who put the fund in fundamentalism, so the church has mastered the art of candy coating the hard sell without compromising its message. Lambert calls it "event evangelism," but to the unschooled masses it's plain entertainment. One example is the Great Hills "House Party" -- essentially the Lollapalooza of "Praise rock" -- which sells out weeks in advance to 3,200 teens who are no doubt as eager to experience the sheer magnitude of a concert showcase as their heathenistic peers. But teens at the House Party get something extra for their ticket price: Christian motivational speakers between acts.

Another performance spectacle that practically the whole city shows up for is the Great Hills Christmas pageant, which Rev. Harold O'Chester spends hours hyping every year on the popular Sammy and Bob morning call-in show on KVET 98.1 FM. "You do have to do more extra things today to get people into church because there are so many things vying for their time," Lambert explains.

Great Hills has lifted not only the more garish outreach ploys from the megachurch movement, but also some of the movement's more subtle tactics. The sheer expanse of the Great Hills sanctuary distracts from the fact that it is almost entirely without Christian symbology. No stained glass or even windows distract from the focal point, a large stage where a 40-piece orchestra and 250-member choir perform every Sunday. "I don't ever call it a production, but there is a lot of stuff going on," concedes Lambert, who coordinates the weekly six-camera live broadcast to KVUE-24. So, as tightly as Great Hills cleaves to the bosom of Southern Baptist orthodoxy, Lambert readily acknowledges that other churches in town are far more "traditional" than Great Hills.

But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens... cannot contain Him. How much less this temple I have built! -- 1 Kings 8:27

In fact, if flashy shows are the way to pack them in, then the congregations of Hyde Park Baptist Church and St. Louis Catholic Church are truly miracles, both boasting over 10,000 members apiece with what are essentially traditional ministries. The Baptist "three-hymns-two-prayers-and-a-sermon" standard has successfully busted the seams on four Hyde Park sanctuaries since its founding in 1894, the latest being a 2,600-seater completed way back in 1983. Sheer size dictates that Hyde Park install a state of the art sound system, but that's about all the flash Sunday service offers. Hyde Park's outreach is also by-the-book Baptist -- Bible studies, choir, and foreign missionary work are the core of plug-in opportunities for members.



Praise Tabernacle offers computer classes along with a host of other ways to plug in to church life.
photograph by Jana Birchum

But even Hyde Park knows that families these days are looking for more than just a Sunday service and a cafeteria-style Wednesday fellowship dinner. Hemmed in at its 3901 Speedway site by the Hyde Park neighborhood, the church expanded its recreational facilities to the Quarries -- 56 acres northwest of US183 at Mopac -- successfully banking on the old-fashioned appeal of working up a sweat in the out of doors. The popularity of the Quarries, with its many sports fields, already has surrounding neighborhoods wringing their hands over what Hyde Park Baptist may do in the future that would bring in more people and traffic to the area. And although the chairman of Hyde Park's long-range planning committee, Bob Livermore, says Hyde Park Baptist has no immediate plans to build a mega-size sanctuary on the site, the fact that the church already offers four Sunday services suggests that it may be time to expand again soon. The church has already "planted" 10 seed churches around town as overflow from its congregation. So, if entertainment value isn't packing them in at Hyde Park, what accounts for the constant growth? "I think it's pretty scriptural," Livermore says. "When you preach God's word, there are people out there hungry for it."

Father Larry Covington of St. Louis Catholic Church, on Burnet Road across from Northcross Mall, would certainly agree with that sentiment. In Protestant territory like Texas, some may be surprised to find a Catholic church with such a large congregation -- and St. Louis does it without even trying. "We're not going to do outrageous things to fill the pews," says Father Larry. "Our problem is where we're going to get the money to build a new church." With five services on the weekends, St. Louis is struggling to serve its growing church family in its current 1,000-seat sanctuary which, unlike most megachurches, is decked out with all the ornate accoutrements of the Catholic faith. In fact, the church doesn't seem to want to follow in the megachurch footsteps at all, if it can help it. Father Larry admits he plans to build a 2,500-seat sanctuary out of necessity, but he doesn't want to get much larger -- even if the congregation demands it. "The problem [with larger sanctuaries] is that you lose a sense of any kind of intimacy," he says. "The service would cease to be a celebration of the body of Christ and become a spectator event."

Although the most popular service at St. Louis is the Christian rock service on Sunday nights, earlier services are all "choir and robes." Father Larry insists that the "centrality of the mass" is unchanged in every service. "I don't have to be topical," he claims. "There's not a contemporary situation that the Word does not speak to." He concedes that the "powerful personal outreach" of megachurches "speaks to one of the greatest needs in our society today -- loneliness," but he says loneliness is nothing new to God.

For where two or three have gathered in My name, I am there with them. -- Matthew 18:19-20

Here's the church, here's the steeple. Open it up and where's all the people? Dr. Larry Bethune has to be wondering the same thing right about now, as his congregation at University Baptist Church slowly dwindles away. Although UBC's 75-year old sanctuary is large enough to seat 1,100, Sunday services recently have drawn a mere 250 to worship. Bethune is well aware of the megachurch movement, and the strategies he could employ to get what some call the 2Bs -- bucks and butts -- through the church doors, but he is not interested.

The irony of UBC is that in the most traditionally ornate surroundings, and with a modest version of the three-hymns standard service, UBC is the most theologically controversial church in town. Four years ago, UBC made news by ordaining a gay man as a church deacon, and being summarily booted from the Austin Baptist Association as a result. "I could probably not have chosen a more unpopular issue, but Jesus stood with the despised and rejected," he argues. "We're not just repeating values people want to hear."

Bethune's stance has not been a popular one. The church lost many families in the early Eighties when Mann split to form Riverbend, and the already small church again lost half its congregation over the issue of homosexual membership. And although Bethune says he is concerned with growing the church, he says he will not take unusual measures to do so. "In the Christian faith our value is not success, it's faithfulness," Bethune says. "We have a danger of easily translating the values of American capitalism into the church, and those are not the church values."

Although evangelizing is important, Bethune says, there are other values in the church. "A small church is a place where community can happen," he says, arguing that in larger churches parishioners may know as many as 100 people, but they'll all be of the same age.

Bethune further worries that megachurches will duck the tough challenges presented by Christianity, avoiding controversial issues to keep people in the pews. "Our mission is to call out to people that want to be in a place where they're expected to think with their faith."

And, for now, Bethune is satisfied that at least 250 feel drawn to that mission. "Just about all our members drive past megachurches on their way here," he says. "Small churches are deeper and richer in a lot of ways. If you're not there on Sunday, you'll be missed."

Bethune takes comfort in the history of UBC, which has prided itself for decades on progressivism. "As unpopular as this church has been over the years, it's had a message that other churches have needed to hear." In the Forties, when UBC was the first to desegregate seating, it experienced a similar dip in church rolls. The story goes that the pastor at the time, Blake Smith, held his ground, saying, "I can't think of a better way for a church to die than by being Christian."

Wherefore, by their fruits you shall know them.
-- Matthew 7:20

But will smaller churches be run out of business by megachurches popping up on every street corner like so many Starbucks? The average church in America still has a congregation of between 100 and 200 people, but those churches are feeling the pressure to either change or die. "There are only so many religious people in the world," says Bethune, arguing that megachurches are merely tapping smaller congregations instead of recruiting thousands of new churchgoers, as megachurches claim.

However, megachurch pastors insist that tapping out already established church communities is never their intention. CFC's Dickey argues that his church's growth comes at the expense of nothing but secular life. "Our competition is Sixth Street and the bars. We don't actively or inactively try to draw members from other churches," he says. "That, to us, is a loss."

Chuck Minnich, pastor of the mid-size University United Methodist Church, agrees that the struggle of traditional churches to keep up their rolls reflects the pull of a secular culture rather than competition with megachurches. "The fact that most people are not in mainstream churches does not mean they're in non-denominational churches," says Minnich. "Most people just don't go to church."

The reason new believers choose megachurches over their smaller counterparts, Dickey insists, is because the megachurches have changed with the times. Smaller churches "seem to think there is life in their traditions," shrugs CFC's Dickey.

Some say it is inevitable that the fad of megachurching will die down with time. "I think there will always be a place for the smaller church," says Don Bobb, pastor of the 100-member Hyde Park Presbyterian. "A lot of people who have not been to church or who have rebelled against the church are attracted to megachurches," Bobb says. "But after that they may want something smaller and more family-oriented."

Jeff Black, an Episcopalian minister who has co-opted some megachurch strategies, argues that both kinds of churches will have to learn from each other in order to survive. "The challenge of the megachurch is the challenge of humility. If they become self-satisfied success factories, then within a couple of generations they'll become cold, and people will walk out of them," he says, adding, "But that applies to the little denominational churches too. If we're too proud to go and learn from people doing ministry on a much larger scale, well, we're finished too."


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