Saturday, April 16, 2005

Community in different forms

The New York Times ran an article about Megachurches. Megachurches are the new form of church sprouting up in the new subrubs everywhere. They are notable for looking like the big box consolidated retail that already exists out in the 'burbs. They tend to be fundamentalist Christian churches with only a loose denominational affiliation. The case study in the article reflected this trend.

More interesting to me than which denomination or how to define megahurches however is how they are marketed. In order to appeal to those who aren't religious or have been turned off by religion in the past, many of these churches work on the soft sell. In the NYT article, the preacher wore a Jimmy Buffet inspired getup of hawaiin shirts and casual pants. The religion may tend toward the feelgood as well. But they also provide a variety of services that will draw people in, even if the Sunday worship service does not. This is where the theology interest ends and the sociology interest begins.

They offer workout classes for moms with children. They offer Tuesday night pickup ball for dads. They offer financial counseling, marriage counseling, substance abuse counseling. They offer daycare. Anything that might be useful to their future congregants is offered. On the one hand, this is certainly helpful for ppl. On the other hand, the marketing hand, this gets ppl in the door. Folks who might not go to worship may stop by for daycare or perhaps counseling. This begins integrating them into the community, allaying whatever fears they may have had regarding worship. Provide services, make a friendly welcoming environment, that is emotionally supportive, and folks will find their way to the Sunday service.

These churches, where successful, bring in thousands of worshipers every weekend. They can run several services, and all of them will be packed. Why are they so successful? Part of it is smart marketing. But part of it is also where they are. As the NYT article is subtitled "The Soul of Exurbia," these churches arise in the farthest out, newest, largest suburbs in the megacities of our nation.

As the NYT and demographers will tell you Americans move all the time. The average American moves almost every 5 years. So in these brand new subdivisions you are faced with thousands of new residents and families, many of whom have moved from somewhere else. As such they may not know anyone in town. They may have no family in town. They lack the networks of kin and community that knit an aggregation of people into a community.

This is where the "get them in the door" services are interesting. Help with children, help with marriage, help with finances are all things that would have been provided through kin and community relations in the past. So these new churches are bringing ppl in the door by providing them the services that they lack for being highly mobile Americans. These churches are succesful partly bcause they manufacture community.

This isn't that different from earlier churches. Urban neighborhoods throughout the US from the late 1800s and early 1900s also often focused on churches. These churches also were centers of community life. The same thing is true of the small town heartland. The church was the site of the obvious rituals, baptisms, weddings, funerals. But it was also where the bazaar was held every summer. It is where ppl got together for bingo. It is where the school fundraiser brought everyone together for bad food twice a year. And the school itself. As a service to bring children up to value their parents' religious traditions, religious schools were one thing. But they also served the purpose of knitting together the whole community. And as the residents cycled through their lives, generations of families could have proceeded through these schools, had their lives' moments celebrated at these churches, met spouses through their events. The church as site for creating bonds builds all those community and kin networks that we understand as (C)ommunity.

You can see it too, as some of these small towns and urban churches decline. You now that when the school is closed, the community is suffering. You know that the neighborhood has lost vitality. When the church is consolidated, then you know the town is toast.

I would argue the megachurches then are not that different from older churches. They build themselves by providing the requirements to build communities for their new residents. They do this partly out of a sense of mission to be certain, but they also do it because it is what makes them successful.

The real difference is one of scale. As you drive past (never walk) one of these, the feeling is the same as driving past a Home Depot/ Wal Mart superblock. Thinking of the old neighborhood church, the grocery, the hardware store with the creaky floors one wonders - can we really live this way?

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