Before going into any significant exploration of the dynamics of small congregations, I initiated a participant-observer site visit at the single largest and most materially successful congregation in my region.
That congregation is Mclean Bible Church, the 800 pound Jeezilla in the Washington Metropolitan Area. It's a megachurch in every way, shape, and form. It's got a huge new honking main campus near Tysons Corner. It has several satellite campuses. It has scores of ministries, and scores of pastors. It has tens of thousands who attend regularly, or, at least, semi-regularly. They are the AmeriChrist Inc. Industry Standard, as ranked by J.D. Power and Associates.
Having been a lifelong Presbyterian, growing up in urban social-justice congregations, I’d never engaged with anything that could be described as a megachurch prior to this visit. I’d been to biggish churches, sure, with attendance in the high hundreds or a couple of thousand. But unlike a large number of Americans, the Jesus MegaCenter experience was not something I could claim to ever have had.
Before I went, I spent some time getting myself centered and focused. Do not prejudge. Do not enter with preconceptions. Cleanse your mind, and enter as if you had no knowledge of this place.
I spent some time in prayer. I spent some time reading scripture. I girded my loins. Or at least took a shower and put on some fresh underwear. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
I got in my car, and trundled off to meet Goliath.
Being open to the positive is important, as was being systematic. I arrived early, and spent time both before and after the worship event I attended to fully survey the facility and observe the dynamics of their Sunday worship traffic.
First, I noted the things that MBC does well.
The first moments of my arrival at Mclean Bible surfaced the first thing they do right: parking. They have parking down to a science. They have to. When you're trying to transition tens of thousands of people out of the 9:00 AM service and transition in tens of thousands of people for a 10:45 AM service, things need to go like clockwork. That's some serious believer volume to turn over. I arrived a tick early, so finding a spot was easy. It was a bit of a zoo when I left...I'm not used to sitting in traffic for five minutes just to get out of church...but the whole experience had a "leaving the stadium after the big game" sort of feel. The combination their parking lot volunteers and the law enforcement folks directing traffic for the church out on Route 7 make things work as well as you could reasonably expect.
It might seem flippant, but what that speaks to is a deep commitment to organization at every level of encounter. The experience of the megachurch is a carefully managed and structured one, at every possible level of engagement.
As I walked into the campus from the two-level parking garage, I noted the next thing they do right: facility. It's highly functional, and very familiar. From the exterior, the building gives off none of the classical visual cues that would make you think "house of worship." Honestly, it looks more like a Nordstrom. When one enters, the interior is instantly familiar to any American. It's like some combination of a Cineplex and a Mall. There are nicely produced displays everywhere. The smell of coffee from the coffee bar fills the air on the lower level. Wending your way upstairs, the large airy lobby has arrays of volunteers sitting behind an elegantly curving information desk. It's like the rental car booths at a nice mid-sized regional airport.
Entering the cavernous primary sanctuary is like entering a theater. It is an immense windowless auditorium, festooned with a half dozen large screens. At the front of the sanctuary, diaphanous scrims were illuminated with simple images of vines. On the walls of sanctuary, crosses were integrated into the sound damping elements. The sanctuary was designed by the same architectural firm that created the Strathmore theater, one of the best venues for the arts in the DC area. The firm lists Mclean Bible Church as one of it's performing arts clients. It's very well done. As it cost $90 million dollars, you’d hope so.
The displays tastefully distributed throughout the building told the story of another MBC skillset: breadth. They do everything. There's a ministry for everyone. There are ministries of service. Ethnic ministries. Cultural ministries. There's a gigantonormous hippity happenin' youth ministry. There are small groups and a "university," there are umpty-zillion support groups and book groups. I suspect they may be lacking a Gay Men's Chorus, but outside of that, there's something for almost everyone. They have a ferociously entrepreneurial approach to ministry...and it clearly succeeds in building up the church.
As I settled into a seat in the upper tiers of the sanctuary, I waited for things to begin, and when they did, I discovered the next thing that MBC does right: music. The guitarist who opened up with an acoustic version of a hymn precisely five minutes before the service was really very solid. The praise team that came out to begin the service with several Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) tunes was also solid, and not nearly as overbrimming with weepy-emo Jesusness as I'd feared. Unlike many of my Presbyterian comrades, I know this music from my time at my first congregation. The only song I didn't already know was one that had been written for the church, and it was melodically simple enough that I could follow it even on the practice run-through. CCM is not and will never be my first preference in worship, but I like it well enough, and sang along robustly. It worked.
With the service now cranking into full swing, another MBC strength surfaced: choreography. I'm not talking about dancing, although there was a troupe of multiethnic munchkins who came out and did an It's-A-Small-World-After-Jesus routine that wouldn't have felt out of place at Disney. I mean the seamlessness of the event. Everything worked. The timing of transitions between one element of the service and another was perfect. The transitions between worship leaders was without flaw. The highly complex presentation used to augment the service...which required coordination of varying images across multiple screens...were sharp, seamless and thoroughly professional. MBC openly declares excellence as a primary governing ethic, and it shows throughout their worship. It exudes a sleek competence. As toight as a toiger, as they say.
Related to this focus on excellence is another evident strength: brand identity. The service I attended was running simultaneously with an EXTREEEME youth service in a smaller, 500 seat venue on site. Separate services on five other campuses in two neighboring counties were also cranking at the same time. But when time comes for the message, it's exactly the same everywhere. Outside of the primary sanctuary, MBC worshippers look up at the big screen at the appointed time, and get the same perfectly produced and packaged message that you'd get at the auditorium in the mothership. It's all MBC...and that's smart branding.
As the service progressed, I looked around at the now-packed sanctuary. Here, I saw yet another strength, one that's a serious kick in the ovaries for progressive Jesus people: diversity. MBC is a poster child for the multiethnic church. The largest group in attendance was Anglo...but just barely. There was a large Asian contingent, many African-Americans, and an impressive array of families that mixed ethnicity. There were young adults, young families, and middle-aged folk. The only group that seemed underrepresented were old white people. Guess we oldliners have to have some niche. It was as diverse as the throng you might see milling about in a mall in a major metropolitan area. It was radically different presenting community than my own denomination, which for all of its earnest talk about diversity somehow manages to be 90% white.
Let's see. Hmmm. Anything else? Possibly...but those are the primary strengths I observed in the half-day I spent reviewing the facility and its operations.
The weaknesses of Mclean Bible Church are harder to ascertain, and easy to miss in the great shiny intensity of this behemoth of a congregation.
First, Mclean Bible Church is not a community. It is simply too vast to serve that purpose. You are as acquainted with the people around you as you would be at the Multiplex, or as you wend your way through Black Friday crowds at the mall. Observing the behavior of most of the folks in attendance, that's precisely what was going on. There were little clusters of folks who knew one another, but there was no sense of connectedness between the clusters. It's an easy place to disappear, to be both nameless and faceless.
That is, quite frankly, the challenge in any megachurch. MBC's leadership knows this, and relentlessly pitches small groups and study groups and ministries to help folks connect to a sub-community within the church. Their carefully constructed small groups methodology is clearly a priority. In articulating their hope to create meaningful life transformation, they say the following:
We believe that this is best done in relational environments where biblical disciples can be made. Groups are the primary vehicle by which we carry out the mission of McLean Bible Church.
Our groups are led by intentional leaders and meet weekly in homes around the DC area and at MBC Tysons. The group provides opportunity for honest, transparent, and authentic relationships where each member is actively becoming a disciple who makes disciples of Jesus Christ.
But it is easy, oh so easy, to move through the church like a shadow. Or, more significantly, to have nothing meaningful to do with folks who are different from you or don't share your particular interests. That's a problem in smaller churches too, of course. But a ministry that is intentionally structured around appealing to particular demographic categories or areas of affinity...and provides little opportunity for transforming relationships in the broader life of the church...runs the strong risk of being "diverse" in the way a high school cafeteria is diverse. Or, again, as a mall is diverse.
Second, and this is a matter of aesthetics, MBC's facility really doesn't present like sacred space. It is an unquestionably utilitarian building, and well-designed for it's purpose. But it's also essentially secular in appearance. There is no significant design feature in the building itself that contributes to a sense of being on holy ground, unless you consider Nordstrom to be holy ground. Ultimately, this doesn't bother most folks. Being American and all, we like the practical and the useful and the immediate. You can worship anywhere, and God is present wherever you seek God's presence. It is, as they say, what's inside that counts.
I came away from my Mclean Bible Church site visit in much the same way I came away from my reading of Joel Osteen’s “Your Best Life Now.” Meaning, I found in it more that was graceful and good than I'd expected. The essential teachings of Jesus were there, up to a point, most likely in enough quantity that lives are being transformed and conformed to His grace. Westboro Baptist it most certainly is not.
It skillfully uses the tools of the marketplace, it has wildly succeeded according to the terms of the marketplace. But...as the early church learned when it conformed itself to the power of the state and reaped worldly prosperity...sometimes that comes with a cost.
And that poses a challenge for the folks who yearn for communities that are more intimate, that are more organic, that are less visible manifestations of material success.
It’s easy to look to such a congregation, and assume that this is goal. Here, thousands upon thousands, getting exactly what they want. Here, the message of the Gospel is being spread with the precision and efficiency of a rapidly spreading new franchise.
What ground do we have to stand on, if we want to offer something very, very different?For that, let’s look to where scripture offers us theologies of intimacy, and the spirituality of the small.
LINK TO CHAPTER FIVE
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION:
- What is the largest congregation or faith community you’ve ever participated in? Share with one another what that experience was like.
- Large congregations, in order to engage membership and sustain relationships, often create smaller communities within themselves. What are some examples you can think of/imagine? How are those “little churches in the big church” different from a free-standing small community?
- What are some of the benefits of a larger faith gathering? What are the weaknesses?
- One observation made during the site-visit/participant observer case study laid out in this chapter was that every aspect of the life of the megachurch was perfectly, seamlessly choreographed and planned. Is this appealing? If so, why? If not, why not?