The Next Church

Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities around the country the old order gives way to the new

NO spires. No crosses. No robes. No clerical collars. No hard pews. No kneelers. No biblical gobbledygook. No prayerly rote. No fire, no brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary eighteenth-century hymns. No forced solemnity. No Sunday finery. No collection plates.

The list has asterisks and exceptions, but its meaning is clear. Centuries of European tradition and Christian habit are deliberately being abandoned, clearing the way for new, contemporary forms of worship and belonging.

The Next Church, as the independent and entrepreneurial congregations that are adopting these new forms might collectively be called, is drawing lots of people, including many Americans with patchy or blank histories of churchgoing. It constitutes, its champions believe, a distinctly American reformation of church life, one that transcends denominations and the bounds of traditional churchly behavior. As such, it represents something more: a reconfiguration of secular communities, not just sacred ones.

Social institutions that once held civic life together--schools, families, governments, companies, neighborhoods, and even old-style churches--are not what they used to be (if ever they were what we imagined). The new congregations are reorganizing religious life to fill that void. The Next Church in its fully realized state can be the clearest approximation of community, and perhaps the most important civic structure, that a whole generation is likely to have known or likely to find anywhere in an impersonal, transient nation.

The churches are remarkable chiefly for their size. Many of these (mostly Protestant) congregations count thousands of people in attendance on a weekend--in some cases more than 10,000. For their hugeness they are often known, and often chagrined to be known, as megachurches. Among the other labels one hears are full-service churches, seven-day-a-week churches, pastoral churches, apostolic churches, "new tribe" churches, new paradigm churches, seeker-sensitive churches, shopping-mall churches. No two of these terms mean quite the same thing, but together, like the blind men with the elephant, they describe the beast rather well. These very large and dynamic congregations may at the moment number no more than 400, but they are the fastest-growing ones in the country. Half of all churchgoing Americans, to cite a figure treasured in the Next Church community, are attending only 12 percent of the nation's 400,000 churches. To look at it another way, half of American Protestant churches have fewer than seventy-five congregants.

Big congregations endow a church with critical mass, which makes possible sizable budgets and economic efficiencies (such as very low staffing ratios) and formidable volunteer pools, and thus the capacity to diversify almost infinitely in order to develop new "product lines" that meet the congregation's needs and involve members in unpaid service.

Still, to understand what the Next Church means, one cannot ignore hundreds more churches that are small to middling but willing and determined (or desperate) to think big--to be "intentional" about growing, to use an adjective commonly heard in their midst. For these churches this is not an abstract decision. The mainline denominations are bleeding. Their churches have more pew than flock, and unless they change, they have more history than future. Little congregations of fewer than a hundred at worship, in rural communities and inner cities, are shutting their doors at the rate of fifty a week, by one estimate.

The Next Church movement makes many traditional church leaders, and many active Christians, nervous, because it implies a rejection of the tried and the once-true and the somehow holy; it also suggests to many people an unseemly market-driven approach to building the Kingdom of Heaven. But its obvious success in building congregations and communities alike is making many believers out of skeptics.

For the past year I've been visiting these churches and talking to their pastors and members to understand what makes them work.


I APPROACHED Mariners Church, on a gentle hill above Newport Beach, California, through its parking lot. At the entrances to the asphalt expanse men and women in reflective orange jackets waved on a procession of hundreds of cars entering by twos the acres of parking places being vacated by the outflow from the earlier service. Mercifully, confusion did not reign.

The new architecture of faith is inconspicuous. The seven-year-old sanctuary of Mariners is an understated horizontal brick pile with barely a peak in its auditorium roof, let alone anything suggesting a spire. Walking from my car, I realized that no door to the church building was visible--a mischievous design considering that Mariners, like other churches of this ilk, has figurative doors that are uncountable. And on the side away from the parking lot are real glass ones constantly admitting people--these days 3,500 at four services every weekend, and many hundreds more during the week. The Next Church rarely sleeps.

The doors of Mariners open onto a tree-lined semicircular courtyard that was packed that Sunday morning with hundreds of people standing and talking together in the sunshine. A few, wearing name tags, approached and shook hands with everyone arriving; in the case of a stranger they gave a simple friendly greeting and no more. An orchestra played upbeat soft rock somewhere within, wafting melody and song to the outside. The dress was California casual. Children scurried everywhere. A cappuccino cart with parasol stood to one side, dispensing the secular sacrament. And along the periphery of the courtyard one shaded table after another announced the church's various "ministries," support groups, and fellowship opportunities--each a point of entry into the Mariners community.

To name a few open for inspection and inquiry that morning: a seminar on effective single parenting; twelve-step recovery meetings by category (alcohol, drugs, abuse) and freeway coordinates; a parents-of-adolescents meeting; a class for premarital couples; another for "homebuilders"; something called Bunko Night ("Tired of shopping? Low on funds?"); a "women in the workplace" brunch; a "fellowshippers" (seniors) meeting; a men's retreat ("Anchoring Deep"); women's Bible studies; a baseball league; a passel of Generation X activities; "grief support ministries"; worship music, drama, and dance; "discovering divorce dynamics"; a "belong class" for new members; and "life development" ("You will learn to know yourself and begin to see where God has a place of service for you. This is a can't miss class"). Needless to say, Mariners is also the home seven days a week of kid-oriented activity--a lot of it.

Wandering away from this bazaar, I climbed a few steps to another part of the grounds and happened upon a clutch of men and women, mostly in their twenties and thirties, standing together in shorts and T-shirts around a baptismal pool--actually a turquoise hot tub. A pastor in shirtsleeves called them one by one, and they came forward and declared to their attending friends and families, seated in folding chairs before them, "My name is ------, and I accept Jesus Christ as my savior" or "my personal savior." Then, one arm gripped by the pastor, each stepped down and into what, it became clear from their looks of surprise, was a very cold bath. Just as the baptist gave their heads a final push to total immersion, they would grab their noses. When they came up shivering and born again, their friends and family were applauding.

I made my way with hundreds of others to the sanctuary and found a seat along a carpeted aisle. I was in a handsome and dramatically sloped modern amphitheater. After some energetic songs of celebration, led by a sextet of male and female singers and a twelve-piece orchestra of saxophones, synthesizers, guitars, and drums (none of the songs composed before 1990, and all of them of club quality), the people of Mariners heard from a few of their number.

A tall and smartly dressed woman shared a little about her Bible-study experience, and the help she got from the Bible in accepting her husband instead of trying to change him. A couple talked about the new-members' class they had just completed. The wife explained that she had gone from saying "I go to Mariners Church" to "I belong to Mariners Church." The husband was asked how he and his wife had made "a small place out of this big place"--a fair and worrisome question that many newcomers wonder about. He spoke of finding "a sense of connectedness" in the small-group activities he had joined and a "new purpose in serving God in several ministries."

Then we heard from the forty-one-year-old senior pastor of Mariners, Kenton Beshore, who spoke discursively and often wittily on "Enclaves and Community." One riff caught my attention. It drew on the Scriptures: "I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it." Beshore explained to his flock, "Hell wants to build walls all around this church, and every church in our community, so the world doesn't see. It doesn't see our love and fellowship . . . it doesn't see our unity."

"Hell," he went on, "is about building gates. Hell," he said again, pausing a beat, "is a gated community."

The laughter rose slowly from the crowd. "No, no, no," Beshore said abashedly, after letting the mirth coalesce. "If you live in a gated community, I'm not saying that."

But he was, in a way. "Not only does Hell want to build walls around a church, but it wants to build walls around you . . . because if you become a little private gated community . . . you're not going to be generous; you're going to live in fear." Jesus, he told them, "tears down walls between you and between you and the community."

The jest about gated communities must have hit home with hundreds of people there who do, at various levels of middle-class attainment, live in secure communities widely decried as an emblem of modern isolation and of class and racial mistrust. A church like Mariners--indeed, any church--is inevitably a gathering of like-minded people who may also be demographically alike. That makes for insiders and outsiders.

Beshore's discussion of walls suggested both the appeal of the Next Church and its constant challenge. These busy and tight-knit congregations of thousands, inside and outside traditional Protestant denominations, have become sanctuaries from the world ("islands in the stream," to use a phrase often heard in these parts), and as such they are proving themselves to be breeding grounds for personal renewal and human connectedness. Yet they stay alive and purposeful--and true to God's will, as they see it--only by growing: by remaining vigilantly open and aggressively attractive to the world.

Following Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, they seek to be "all things to all men"--not forgetting the rest of the sentence, "that some might be saved." By taking on roles as various as those of the Welcome Wagon, the USO, the Rotary, the quilting bee, the book club, the coffee shop, and the mixer--and, of course, the traditional family and school--they have become much more than the traditional churches that many Americans grew up in and have long since lost. Belonging to Mariners or any other large church conveys membership in a community, with its benefits of friends and solace and purpose and the deep satisfaction of service to others.

When we were talking in his office one day, Beshore described the Next Church strategy as succinctly as I was to hear it. "We give them what they want," he said, "and we give them what they didn't know they wanted--a life change."

One recently returned churchgoer at Mariners, Bonnie Leetmaa, described the phenomenon this way: "Our government has let us down. Our workplace is not secure. Our communities are falling apart. Churches and synagogues are serving the community." She added, "It's been the best-kept secret of the last couple of decades."


BOB Buford, a Texas businessman and author who became one of my guides in the world of the Next Church, showed me a handsome framed woodcut on the wall of his study, in Dallas's exclusive Turtle Creek district, one day. It read, "What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?"

The words come from Peter Drucker, the high priest of management theory, who has recognized the pastoral-church phenomenon as one of the signal events of the late twentieth century--part of a sweeping and spontaneous reorganization of social structures and relationships.

"What is our business?" That would be FDFX. I saw this mysterious acronym on a T-shirt, and eventually figured out what it meant. It comes from a chronically invoked Next Church mission statement: turning irreligious or unchurched people into Fully Devoted Followers of Christ.

"Who is our customer?" That would be Baby Boomers, mostly. This is not exactly niche marketing. The postwar birth cohort, after all, is the biggest and currently the most powerful one out there, the flushest and the most fecund. Boomers are a needy and a motivated bunch--with lots of experience in shopping for spiritual comfort. Many of today's new churchgoers trafficked in heightened awareness in the 1960s, gravitated to gurus and self-actualization movements in the 1970s, and dabbled in New Age nostrums in the 1980s. Members of the same generation that cleaved to Robert Bly's "Iron John" and embraced Bill Moyers's Joseph Campbell now read James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy and have taken a fancy to angels. Might God have a market opportunity here?

Churches like Mariners are drawing a flock of previously unchurched or unhappily churched people by being relentlessly creative about developing forms of worship--most symbolically and definingly, music--that are contemporary, accessible, "authentic." Next Church services are multimedia affairs. Overhead projectors allow the preacher to sketch his point the way a teacher would on a chalkboard, or to illustrate his message with a cartoon, an apt quotation, or a video clip. Lyle E. Schaller, an independent scholar and the author of dozens of books on the large-church movement, suggests that these are the descendants of the stained-glass window, another nonverbal storytelling device. (Overhead projectors are also used instead of hymnals and prayer books, and to project the Scriptures of the day.)A personal testimonial, or a two- or three-person dramatic sketch, illustrates with true-life vignettes the point the pastor is making in his message (it's almost never called a sermon).

In congregations of this size communion at the altar can be impractical; the communion services I saw were special rather than regular occasions, and because kneeling sequentially in such numbers is logistically tricky, the sacraments are administered standing up at strategic locations in the amphitheater.

A leading pastor in this movement, Leith Anderson, of Wooddale Church, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, likes to talk about "reading the culture" and "translating the culture." The culture is suspicious of old-church "European" atmospherics, ritual, and language--suspicious of old institutions in general.

Some of these churches "are dramatizing a truth that missionaries have known for decades," the church scholar George Hunter writes in his new book, Church for the Unchurched. "To reach nonChristian populations, it is necessary for a church to become culturally indigenous to its `mission field'"--whether that is Asia, Africa, Latin America, or Exurbia. "When the church's communication forms are alien to the host population, they may never perceive that Christianity's God is for people like them."

Christian denominations in America are among the few institutional expressions of European culture still left standing, and their bulwarks of belief and tradition are mighty. The Anglican liturgy and music that I grew up with, for instance, and that I still savor on Sunday mornings for their grandeur and familiarity, seem to me to have the air of eternity. But they are, after all, a fairly recent expression of the faith.

Anderson, in his recent book A Church for the 21st Century, put this in perspective.

While the New Testament speaks often about churches, it is surprisingly silent about many matters that we associate with church structure and life. There is no mention of architecture, pulpits, lengths of typical sermons, or rules for having a Sunday school. Little is said about style of music, order of worship, or times of church gatherings. There were no Bibles, denominations, camps, pastors' conferences, or board meeting minutes. Those who strive to be New Testament churches must seek to live its principles and absolutes, not reproduce the details. We don't know many of the details, and if we reproduced the ones we do know, we would end up with synagogues, speaking Greek, and the divisive sins of the Corinthians.

Hunter points out that Martin Luther translated the Scriptures into German vernacular, and the Lutheran Church adapted then-contemporary folk music, including drinking songs. The Methodists under the Wesley brothers "agreed to become more vile" to reach the common people--preaching in fields and town squares. They coached their adherents to speak "in the most obvious, easy, common words, wherein our meaning can be conveyed." General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, memorably said, "Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?"

To illustrate what he sees as the absurdity of institutional resistance to new forms of worship and service, Schaller recalled for me some earlier controversies that divided churches: "Should we have a telephone in the church building? Should we have indoor plumbing? You don't want them doing that in God's house!" This is not ancient history. I met the young pastor of a Church of Christ congregation who was lamenting that his denomination still forbids the use of any musical instruments in its worship services.

In fact it is music, more than any other issue or symbol, that divides congregations on the cusp of growth. The pipe organ, the old hymnal, and the robed choir are emblems of continuity and cohesion to those who uphold tradition, of encrustation and exclusion to those who don't. Whether a church uses contemporary music or not defines which kind of people it wants. When it uses contemporary music, it's saying it wants unchurched people--particularly those of childbearing and child-rearing age.

Proponents of culturally "authentic" church music can be blunt. Howard Clark, the pastor of the Northwest Bible Church, in Dallas, remembers a young staff member saying to him, "I don't have an organ. None of my friends has an organ. Why should I listen to an organ on Sunday?" Chuck Fromm, who is the chairman of Maranatha! Music, a company that supplies churches with contemporary praise and worship music, told me, "We better think about our sound and how we are reaching our community, or we will be the Amish of the twenty-first century."


ONE young woman who recently joined Mariners Church after shopping around for a few years remarked to me that when she first saw "all the Beemers and Jaguars in the parking lot, I wondered, How could these people love God?" Mariners (now Mariners Southcoast Church, since its merger with a neighboring megachurch) draws from one of the wealthiest and most Republican precincts in America--southern Orange County, California. "They're the new rich," Kenton Beshore told me. "Many in our church run companies, and are high-paid guys who went to Princeton or Harvard or Stanford. They're executives and entrepreneurs."

He was not (just) boasting. He was making a point: "They got the world they wanted. But it wasn't the world they wanted." Many of his parishioners have tried everything else--money especially, and maybe booze or drugs or infidelity or overeating. "The Alcoholics Anonymous definition of insanity,"he said, "is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, Illinois, the country's ultimate megachurch, described this as "success panic," and he doesn't restrict the syndrome to the affluent.

One Sunday morning at Willow Creek, I heard a message from a breezy, funny speaker named John Ortberg. Quoting Ecclesiastes 6:7, he said, "All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied." He told the congregation of 2,400, "Your cravings, if you could get to the heart of them, are for the eternal."

Bonnie Leetmaa, the returned churchgoer at Mariners, remembers how her brother brought the question down to earth: "As soon as people realize they're going to die, they go back to church."

That reckoning often follows from parenthood. Children have brought many unchurched people or lapsed Christians back to churches they felt they had no need for without progeny. The story and the ritual and even the community of church remind parents and children of eternal continuities and provide them with a fairly well tested cheat sheet of moral precepts. Rules are in vogue, and we are enjoying a tonic renaissance of belief in sin and virtue. (The source of wisdom cited most frequently in my conversations, after God, was William Bennett.)

Even the most stubbornly traditional churches, if they have any critical mass at all, are putting children's education, child care, and teen activities up there with music as essential ingredients to attract Boomer families and, in the years ahead, the following generation, usually called Busters (for the post-Boom baby "bust," born after 1964). The new churches understand something about their demographic target market which Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, describes in his excellent study of Boomer spirituality, A Generation of Seekers.

[Their] concern is to experience life directly, to have an encounter with God or the divine, or simply with nature and other people, without the intervention of inherited beliefs, ideas, and concepts. Such striving is understandable, not simply because secondhand religion can be empty of meaning, but because only personal experience is in some sense authentic and empowering.

Its means may be market-driven, culturally sensitive, and cutting-edge, but this does not make the Next Church "progressive" or "liberal" on the fundamentals.

What the new churches are is expressed well by the Fellowship of Las Colinas, in Irving, Texas, in its official statement of purpose:"We exist to reach up--which is worship (expressing love to God); to reach out--which is evangelism (or sharing Christ with others); and to reach in--which is discipleship (becoming fully devoted followers of Christ)." Although not usually fundamentalist in the sense so poorly received in liberal churchgoing and secular America, these churches are proudly evangelical--that is, they are devoted to missions and conversion--and take the Bible very seriously if not always literally. God's word is the only thing about these churches that is considered sacred, and yet their people invoke Jesus as often and as familiarly as other people talk about their friends.

These are not television ministries; they are cohesive congregations. Their adherents are not the people who faint in revival tents, who knock on one's door with pamphlets, or who demonstrate at abortion clinics. The average megachurch person, no matter how intense his or her love of God, is a more buttoned-up, socially inhibited person--an average American, that is. A woman I met at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, in suburban Minneapolis, told me, "We don't throw up our hands and act crazy. We're Lutherans, after all."


BOOMERS as customers are accustomed to eclecticism, which is the embodiment of choice. In spontaneous imitation of that other late-century cathedral, the mall, the megachurch offers a panoply of choices under one roof--from worship styles to boutique ministries, plus plenty of parking, clean bathrooms, and the likelihood that you'll find something you want and come back again. This is what the customer considers value. I saw written up in the local paper a smallish Episcopal church in Orange County that every Sunday morning offers a traditional service, a contemporary service, and a charismatic service. Another minister I met, Stanley Copeland, of Pollard United Methodist Church, in Tyler, Texas, referred to his own worship menu as "chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry." He told me, "We do not want to be a church just for people who are already Christian. We are not a church of the Way. We are a church of options."

I saw lots of options in my travels.

Ed Young, the dynamic young pastor of the Fellowship of Las Colinas, has a particular zest for marketing his business through direct-mail drops touting Las Colinas's popular Saturday-evening service and messages ("A Succsexful Marriage") to targeted ZIP codes in his area. More than 3,000 people worship at one of Las Colinas's four weekend services, owing at least in part to enormous mailings such as the 92,000-piece mail drop on Young's Easter series "The Future of the Family."

Sports are a big deal at Las Colinas. The church organizes a thirty-eight-team basketball league, starting with children of both sexes in grades one through six. It has sponsored a baseball clinic led by the New York Yankees. To anticipate the objections of just about every male Texan, services conclude in time for watching parties for the Dallas Cowboys football games--which are on view on a big screen outside the sanctuary for church attendees to take in as part of their post-worship fellowship. For those for whom Sundays are truly sacred, Las Colinas offers the Saturday-night service.

People may drive forty-five minutes to an hour to get to a church like this--but then, as normal Americans, they're in the habit. Bob Buford explains, "People don't work in their neighborhoods. People don't shop in their neighborhoods. People don't go to the movies in their neighborhoods. So why should anyone expect them to go to church in their neighborhoods? They'll drive right by small churches in their neighborhood to get to attend a larger one that offers more in the way of services or programs."

He shook his head at the contrast between Ed Young's operation and the "stone church on the corner where the guy is preaching on the Hittites." "The program offerings are overwhelming" at Las Colinas, he said. "The sound systems are state-of-the-art; the message is relevant and well communicated. People will demand from their church all the Willow Creek stuff, and if they don't get it, they'll go to Willow Creek. It's Wal-Mart versus the corner grocery. It ain't a fair fight."

Probably the most spiritually energized and musically charged service I attended was in Minneapolis, at the Church of the Open Door. David Johnson's congregation of several thousand meets three times a weekend in a somewhat blighted former high school in the northwestern blue-collar reaches of the city.

It was eight o'clock one rainy winter morning when I drove there, parked in a muddy lot, and hustled inside down grim tiled corridors lined with rusty lockers. Upstairs, through a room with dozens of (by now familiar) booths advertising the activities and help that the church offers during the week, I found my way into a cavernous gymnasium arrayed with folding chairs down the center and basketball bleachers along either side. The congregation, unlike many of the Dockers-clad Volvo drivers of more-prosperous megachurches, was mostly in jeans and wool shirts.

For all its simplicity, the Church of the Open Door used overhead projectors for Scripture and song lyrics. This may seem a luxury, but it is cheaper than buying 2,000 hymnals and 2,000 prayer books. It's also smarter: for one thing, projecting words and lyrics on a screen means no mass page-flipping by parishioners with their heads bowed. I don't think it's an accident that the singing I heard in all these churches was booming and enthusiastic--partly because of the simplicity and almost childish repetitiveness of the music, but also because the people had their chins up and their hands free. Thus the spontaneous clapping and swaying of hips and, occasionally, the single hand outstretched to God.

At the Church of the Open Door that morning there was singing for forty minutes straight. It was indescribably uplifting, sore legs notwithstanding, and a programmatic mark of this kind of church--sustained celebration in song. The outstanding lead vocalist carried the energy of her praise to the limits of modesty. Exhausted from her song, she whispered into her microphone to a hushed auditorium, "Thank you, Lord, for the victory."

Johnson then appeared and presented one in a series of messages on money, in which he explored all the barriers to giving to the church and what he took to be the cause: his parishioners' ongoing "struggle with financial bondage." Unlike many big-church orators, who have a cool, crisp, Lettermanesque manner, Johnson was animated and often shouting--Jimmy Swaggart without the sweat and tears. But his manner was Next Church in its heavy dose of comic attitude. Roaming the stage histrionically around his clear-plastic lectern, Johnson spoke, like Jesus, in tongues the people before him could understand--indeed, in an array of over-the-top voices: I could hear the motivational speakers of late-night television, along with Joe Pesci and Robin Williams. Johnson interrupted himself, the way stand-up comics do, to introduce another deep-voiced character who said, "Gee, Dave--this doesn't sound very spiritual." Johnson as Johnson answered, "Somebody better talk about this stuff. This is God stuff. It's not a money thing. It's not a sex thing. It's a character thing. A spiritual thing. A God thing."

The membership of most of the churches I visited was predominantly white, although in almost every one I could see a sprinkling of black and brown and Asian families. Most pastors plead that they attract the people who happen to live in their communities (defined as an agglomeration of ZIP codes). But they don't look happy about it.

Lyle Schaller, the church scholar, told me that race and ethnicity are "still a very significant line of demarcation" in most of American church life (except for very large, multicultural, charismatic congregations). The same impulse that drives people to worship with their own social kind, or to make the choice of a church a statement about the way they see themselves in the world, keeps them racially unmixed. In this sense the gated community lives. One way these churches address the problem and meet the need is to plant their own minority-specific churches.

The rise of Afrocentric thinking has found powerful expression in hundreds of newer and larger black churches in America. At Concord Missionary Baptist Church, in South Dallas, the Reverend E. K. Bailey is content to be a magnet for what he calls "buppies"--black upwardly mobile professionals. They need the specialized ministry that an African-American church like Concord can deliver, he says. "They're often one of a kind in a white organization. They're all stressed-out in that culture. Here they can be who they are, feel they have something to add as much as anyone else."

Concord's worship rituals don't look exactly like those at the typical large churches, but that reflects the fact that the black church in America long ago tapped its culture, and developed a form of worship and a gospel-music tradition that now seem almost as timeless as the King James Version.

In Next Church circles there is a keen interest in creating churches, or services within churches, that minister to Americans in their twenties. I heard more than one exegesis of the differences in tastes and expectations, spiritual and otherwise, between Boomers and Busters. Carol Childress, who has studied generational preferences, says that Busters as churchgoers tend to be skeptical of the megachurch excesses and seek "authenticity"above all else. Other differences in tastes and expectations, I suspect, are merely those between twenty-five-year-olds and forty-five-year-olds at any point in time.

But I did glimpse something of the Buster style in Chris Seay, the pastor of the University Baptist Church, in Waco, Texas, who is mellow as only a twenty-four-year-old can be. Seay ministers to a flock of twentysomethings and younger people that has grown to 1,200 in just twelve months of meeting in an old downtown movie theater.

When we met, in Dallas last year, Seay told me about a couple of attractions that University Church is known for. He said it offered the best rock music by the best rock musicians in Waco. He talked about their "sound"--"a cross between Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish." His church also offers small groups, or "cells," called together, say, to watch the television program Friends and then discuss it among themselves, before Bible study. (In Boomer congregations the program of choice is Cheers, in reruns, with its theme song of connectedness in a world of anomie:"where everybody knows your name . . .")

At University Church on Sundays the seamlessness of the Boomer church gives way to something like spontaneity. Seay says of his worship services, "We don't know what's going to happen next--or we make it seem like we don't know what's going to happen next."

Seay, a third-generation pastor, says this about Busters: "It's not that we don't trust God; it's that we don't trust the institutions. They've let us down. But I don't think Busters have rejected Christ." His mission is to "communicate to seekers in a safe place," he says. "They need a place where it's safe to say, `I don't believe this whole God thing. I think it's a lot of malarkey.'"

Like the mainline denominations, though perhaps with more success, new, large, independent churches attempt to live with intense divisions among their flock over abortion and homosexuality. Some, like Michael Foss, the pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, in suburban Minneapolis, are fiercely agnostic. "I'm convinced you can be a Christian on either side of those issues," Foss told me when we talked last fall. "One of the tragedies of the culture is the tendency to draw lines where they needn't be drawn. Christians ought to quit throwing rocks at Christians. We don't have to agree on everything. And these are side issues. What we're about is spiritual renewal."

Such dangerously free thinking is not always apparent among the Next Church pastors I spoke to. Like politicians, they put varying degrees of emphasis on teaching people the biblical injunctions on these matters, and in their hands Scripture stacks up pretty heavily against people who terminate viable pregnancies or enjoy nonprocreative sexual relations of any type. But it seemed to me also that their conclusion was always that compassion was necessary--vigilance against the sin, forgiveness for the sinner.

This is a matter of common sense to many of the Next Church pastors I met. Randy Frazee, the pastor of Pantego Bible Church, in Arlington, Texas, told me, "I think we've got to redefine church. There are a whole lot of people out there with a major failure in their lives--and they never find themselves acceptable in church again. They're spiritually hungry, but they feel like second-class citizens."

Many of them, he said, grew up in the Catholic Church; indeed, lapsed or renounced Catholics contribute mightily to the ranks in Protestant megachurches. Many of Frazee's congregation were living out of wedlock, and "I was willing to accept them for who they are. The church is not for those that are perfect."


WHEN I asked Ed Young, the pastor of Las Colinas, if his church could keep getting bigger and bigger, he answered, "As long as we keep getting smaller and smaller." The riddle is worth pondering.

Growing churches and congregations, like growing businesses, have a reflexive thirst for market share. They tend to equate rising numbers with self-worth and bricks and mortar with godliness. But growth is also an expression of the evangelical mission. When I marveled to Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek, about his church's phenomenal growth and size--more than 15,000 attend a worship service every weekend--he frowned. "There are two million people within a one-hour drive of this place," he said. "In business parlance, we've got two percent of market share. We've got a long way to go."

Not only self-styled evangelicals are growth-minded. Bill Tully, the rector of St. Bartholomew's, a distinguished old mainline Episcopal church in New York City, is watching the large-church "restoration acts" across the country with an appreciation of the inherent tensions of growth.

"People come to church to be touched, to belong," he told me in an E-mail message one day. "We form local congregations as if they were clubs. And then we behave as if they were clubs. But clubs are anti-growth." Tully added, "Working to keep a church at a comfortable number is almost always self-defeating. Organically, that's stasis, and it spells death eventually. A church that consciously grows will learn to ask of everything that it pursues, Does this help us grow? or does this keep us the way we are?"

It is not accidental that the latest generation of large churches, with their huge auditoriums and balconied atriums, some with food courts and fountains, resemble secular gathering places. (Banks and colleges used to build their buildings to look like Gothic cathedrals.) Walking into a church like Mariners, or Willow Creek, one can easily imagine oneself in a corporate headquarters or a convention hotel.

By adopting nonthreatening architecture, the large churches are finding another way to lower psychological barriers against the church edifice. The multi-use church facilities, often the biggest and finest in their communities (Willow Creek has the largest auditorium in metropolitan Chicago), open their doors to every kind of community group for meetings. Once people get used to hanging around a nice building, the theory goes, they may take a flyer on something deeper.

Big congregations, far from being a deterrent, are a marketing asset: they lend the anonymity that allows newcomers, shoppers, the curious ("seekers," in the parlance), to feel comfortable checking out a new church. (When, last March, I walked into a little country church in Virginia just before the service started, every head turned to see who had come in.) The rule is that newcomers do not wish to be singled out for attention--until such time, of course, as they do.

Experience has taught these churches that after the initial exposure, size can soon alienate the potential new member. At Willow Creek a while ago word came back that some newcomers felt overwhelmed by the size of the church, and even some members who were trying hard and sounded cheerful actually despaired of ever finding a place in its vast and impersonal honeycomb of God-driven busyness.

As it sought to address this problem, Willow Creek found echoes of the solution in the secular world. Lee Strobel, a Willow Creek leader who wrote one of the best-selling books in megachurch literature, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, likes to illustrate the concept by referring to an ad for the Continental Bank of Chicago (now BankAmerica)that confronted popular mistrust of huge, impersonal institutions. Continental, the campaign said, was "the big bank with the little bank inside."

The small-group system that Willow Creek gave its own expression to, which has itself been widely adopted by even not-so-mega churches, encourages every new member to join a cell of usually no more than ten people, led by a lay person. Such a cell, says Willow Creek's small-groups czar, Jim Mellado, "is the basic unit of church life." Some 10,500 of the more than 15,000 worshippers at Willow Creek, and comparable proportions at other churches, belong to small groups--some for singles, some for couples, some by sex and age, many by location. The old men who push Willow Creek's fleet of fifty industrial vacuum cleaners down the miles of halls every night are part of hall-vacuuming small groups. Whatever its affinity, every small group includes some Bible study and God talk--which are, after all, the point of the exercise.

The perfume of these groups may be Christian, but their integument is social. Ideally if not always practically, your cellmates are the ones who are there for you when your parent dies, or when you're lugging your stuff to a new apartment, or when you have to go to the doctor all of a sudden and you need someone to pick up the kids after school. Relationships, that is. Neighbors. Family, when so many people seem not to have a family anymore. What used to happen naturally, at least in the small-town America we mythologize, today needs a little more deliberateness. "We have to work at keeping the village," a small-group enthusiast at a church in Minneapolis told me.

These churches' need to shore up smallness in the tide of bigness echoes such management nostrums as creative teams at ad agencies and quality circles on assembly lines, and such marketing conceits as designer boutiques within department stores and editors' imprints within publishing behemoths. Whether the churches maintain formal ties to their denominations or never had any to begin with, they reflect the impulse to customize, to bring institutions closer to their clientele, and to design them on a scale that will be not only approachable but ultimately irresistible.


WHAT may at first go unremarked when one beholds all the small-grouping and service being provided for people who come to these churches is the service being provided by all those people who are already there. Teaching Sunday school and arranging flowers and passing the plate have long been the formal obligations of any Protestant congregation's core. But the degree and intensity of participation in the Next Church is on a wholly different scale. The churches, even the ones with enormous paid staffs (Willow Creek has nearly 200 full-time paid employees), can truly be said to be led and staffed by their laity.

The overwhelming reality is that the bulk of the people who make the church function are volunteers. Some of these churches have adopted the pitch, "At ------ you won't have to sign anything, sing anything, say anything, or give anything"(until you are ready to, that is). But once people have learned the secret handshake, as it were, they are expected and asked to play an active role--and many of them are eager to be put to work. (To the list of reasons that send Boomers to church from the wasteland of their unchurched life I would add: gratitude.) Just as significant as the existence of 1,400 small groups of seven to ten people each at Willow Creek is the work of 1,400 small-group leaders, each one responsible to team leaders and on up the line to the pastoral staff.

One of the basic elements of large-church management is identifying the "gifts" of people in order to fit them to the church's various ministries. The larger the church population, the more ambitious the church mission, the more customized the service, the more rewarding the ministry. Willow Creek, for example, is famous for its active car-repair ministry, in which weekend grease jockeys fix up the cars of fellow parishioners who can't afford professional service or restore clunkers to life and donate them to the poor.

Service is its own reward. Hybels remarked to me, "There isn't a personality charismatic enough to get a volunteer to vacuum the floors of the church at night. Something has to be going on in his heart."

What brings people to their gift of service is a desire to do something that--perhaps unlike their day job, perhaps unlike their evenings--matters. Among the things that they didn't realize they wanted when they came back to church, in the view of many people I met, was not just a changed life but the chance to change the lives of others.

Peter Drucker has written approvingly of what he calls the pastoral churches as yeasty new sources of nonprofit-sector volunteerism. In the view of Drucker and some of his disciples, Bob Buford among them, these churches are an integral part of a potent and largely unseen "third force" of volunteer productivity and philanthropy that is picking up what the private sector has forsaken and the public sector has squandered. The potential may be dazzling, but the current base line is impressive too: giving to religious institutions in 1993 made up 61 percent of all household charitable giving; the average contribution from households where no one volunteered was $425, and from households where someone did, $1,193.

Collection plates may have been replaced in many large churches by less threatening buckets at the door for exiting churchgoers. But the preponderance of the giving that supports these big institutions--and churches in general--is not so spontaneous. Well-organized stewardship ministries promote the virtues of tithing and orchestrate high levels of donor participation and dollar contributions. The giving makes possible such imposing places as Saddleback Valley Community Church, in Mission Viejo, California, whose seventy-nine-acre campus, now under construction, will eventually include a 10,000-seat auditorium, a fellowship hall, a day-care center, and office quarters. The price, borne by the more than 11,000 worshippers at Saddleback, is likely to exceed $50 million.

Drucker says that Americans today go to church for reasons very different from those of two generations ago. Then attendance was steered by heritage, habit, and social status. "Now," he told me recently, "it is an act of commitment, and therefore meaningful. It is no longer an act of conformity, and therefore meaningless. People need community, yes, and they need a spiritual identity, yes, but they also need responsibility. They need the feeling that they contribute."

Reminding me that "this is not a church story, it's a volunteer story," Drucker told me about a woman he knew who was a senior vice-president in a Fortune 500 company and left her job to run a social-service agency for two years. When he asked her why, she said, "Look. The company pays me very well. I enjoy it. But I'm Goddamned if I know what the company is trying to do. At the agency it took me two years to straighten it out, and I can see the results."


WILLOW Creek Community Church, the Fellowship of Las Colinas, Saddleback Valley Community Church, Mariners Church, Wooddale Church, Calvary Chapel, the Church of the Open Door, the Community of Joy, House of Hope, Gateway Cathedral, New Life Fellowship . . . these places have something in common:they whisper no word of a denomination.

In some cases that's because the church belongs to none. The Next Church is sui generis, a house built of local materials and independent pluck and zeal. In other cases the church would just as soon not mention that it owes allegiance to any remote earthly institution. In a few cases the church doesn't even call itself a church.

At Wooddale Church the "Baptist" is silent. When I visited him there, Leith Anderson showed me the results of a focus group he mined some years ago. A randomly selected group of local residents was asked to react to a list of names that Wooddale Baptist Church was considering in conjunction with its move to spacious (and now already overcrowded) new acreage. He found, as have others across the country, that putting "Baptist" in a name is to the unchurched about the surest turnoff there is.

Though many congregations in the Next Church retain nominal membership in mainline or evangelical denominations, and some are thriving as parts of a greater ecclesiastical whole, what they are concealing in the names they have chosen is at the heart of the great convulsion going on in American church life: the challenge to denominations.

Unaffiliated churches have led the way in acting independently, creatively, aggressively, competitively, intentionally, to build huge communities of people whose lives orbit the church seven days a week. In most cases they have had no help from denominations--no staffing, liturgy, financing, or brand recognition. Indeed, a few dozen of these churches are big and influential enough to constitute denominations in everything but name: they train pastors and lay leaders, they "plant" and counsel churches, they publish their vision, and they seek new followers.

One midwestern Episcopal rector I met, who later asked for anonymity, took the long view. "Denominations as we know them are a historical anomaly," he said to me recently. "The very large churches are becoming the new dioceses--and they don't take a big cut of your income to do it."

Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, in California, one of the granddaddies of the large-church movement (it began as the home of the "Jesus people," sometimes called "Jesus freaks," of the 1960s), has spawned some 700 other Calvary Chapels across the United States and abroad. About forty of them have congregations numbering in the thousands. Calvary Chapels would be a small denomination if it wanted to call itself one.

Willow Creek is a more contemporary example of the new proto-denomination. As it grew and its renown spread in the church world, Willow Creek soon felt overwhelmed --not just by the numbers of people flocking to its worship and other ministries but also by the numbers of pastors and church elders from around the world who wanted to hear the story, learn the lessons, and receive the wisdom.

To handle these professional seekers, Willow Creek created a kind of parachurch organization called the Willow Creek Association, a group of churches from more than sixty denominations (or none), whose membership now numbers 1,700. Their leaders, clergy and lay, come to Willow Creek by the thousands for seminars, and receive continuing education and advice from newsletters, books, audiotapes and videotapes, and specialized consulting from Hybels and his staff. The clientele can pick and choose from a cafeteria of concepts and strategies and materials that Willow Creek has developed, from using short dramatic sketches in worship services to organizing small groups to reaching the unchurched and developing FDFX.

This is no Vatican. The big "teaching churches" like Willow Creek, Saddleback, Wooddale, and a few dozen others emphasize to their pupils the need to customize an approach to the market. Hybels is quick to say that he does not wish to create many little Willow Creeks, and several other pastors, unprompted, ticked off lists of differences between the way they do things and the way Willow Creek does things. (It's not always fun being the big boy on the block: when Hybels gave an interview to Christianity Today, the cover line accompanying his photo was "Selling Out the House of God?")

The teaching churches also share strategies and lessons among themselves, and across denominational lines, through such organizations as Teaching Church Network, founded by Leith Anderson, and Leadership Network, established by Bob Buford. One of the tools Leadership Network uses is NetFax, a series of one-page briefings, pointers, lists, and quotable quotes from the likes of Peter Drucker, Ken Blanchard, Lyle Schaller, and Alvin Toffler, which regularly reaches 3,800 pastors and others.

"The fact is, these large churches have more in common with each other than with other churches in their denomination," Buford told me, as we drove down the freeway to our third worship service of the morning one Sunday last summer.

Just as significant for the next generation of these large churches, and for the established Protestant denominations, is that they are training their pastoral staffs themselves. They would rather identify their own best pastors and create a priesthood (another word they don't use) in their own image than take whichever stranger the bishop wants to send their way every five years.

Next Church pastors may go outside for some limited academic seminary training, but their real education began the day they joined the church and started growing in its midst. The most fully developed follower of Christ, in the prevailing theologies of these places, is one who becomes a minister himself or herself, forsaking all other occupations for the ultimate mid-career change and act of faith. Willow Creek is led by such as Greg Hawkins, who left a career trajectory that included a Stanford M.B.A. and a position at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and Lee Strobel, probably the only reporter and editor on a major U.S. daily paper (The Chicago Tribune) to switch careers and become a religious leader. Drucker would consider such trajectories a large-church archetype.

These new pastors may join the staff of the church or lead a church plant--be it geographic, to serve a new community, or ethnic, to serve a growing minority, or demographic, to serve a new generation. Before podding off from Wooddale Church, Leith Anderson told me, the designated pastor is given a "hunting license" to scout the parent congregation for a core group with all the essential knowledge and skills to form the new church. He and other church leaders at Wooddale are currently planning the first church plant into another denomination.

"We are not in the business of building denominations," Anderson told me over dinner one evening in St. Paul with his wife, Charleen. "We are in the business of building the kingdom of God."


I HAD a telephone conversation last spring with Loren Mead, a pioneering church consultant and the founder of The Alban Institute, an ecumenical think tank, in Bethesda, Maryland. Mead described his years of attendance at an Episcopal church in Washington that in the 1960s and 1970s was famous for breaking ground with its contemporary worship services. A Washingtonian and an Episcopalian, I remembered it too, as a place with guitars for sound and five-grain bread for the host and a fearless crusader against injustice for a priest.

I told Mead that in that era, when I was a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, my friends and I had been involved in creating and leading experimental worship services in the old school church. Our challenge from Edward Stone Gleason, the school minister, was to reach our fellow students, newly unshackled from Exeter's nearly 200-year-old church-attendance requirement and, as adolescents in the late sixties, in no frame of mind to worship voluntarily. As "deacons" of the church, we tried to break through to them in worship services by singing Beatles songs and performing scenes from Samuel Beckett and slipping in as much Holy Scripture as we could. We built it, and they did come--some of them.

Yet Mead and I--and Gleason, too--have long since returned to traditional, old-fashioned churches with eighteenth-century hymns and stained-glass windows and beautiful prayers we can recite without even thinking. Mead and I traded notes on the phone about the contemporary music we'd heard in the megachurches we'd visited. "I could like it," he said, "but I have a feeling I couldn't like it long. It's like the Top Forty." He is comfortable now in the traditional church he has returned to in Washington. He said, "I like the familiarity. When I go to church, I'm going home in a way."

As an old-fashioned Episcopalian who has seen and admired examples of the Next Church across the country, I returned from my reporting feeling more impatient with the creaky, lazy, obscure, complacent, and sometimes forbidding dimensions of my familiar church. I also came away with a new appreciation for the interior logic of evangelism.

Evangelicals are about the business of growing the flock, broadening God's market share, spawning new Christians and leading them to a mature faith and a life of service. The Next Church leaders and their congregations are willing to say so, and to act accordingly, in ways that would scare many of the people in my church out of their wits. For old-church people like me, the church provides safety from those who believe other than we do, and safety from pressure to act on our supposed convictions and faith by seeking out others to share them. A gated community, in other words. In familiar and safe surroundings, I understand, we take comfort and draw closer to God. But might we be missing something--something as important as giving as good as we're getting?

I'm not a natural mark for megachurch membership. Along with the crankiest old codgers I bemoaned the mild changes made to the Book of Common Prayer in 1979 to render it more intelligible and more inclusive in its language. I attend a beautiful, traditional old stone church with the finest organ, choir, and music director in my city. I look to few things as warmly as singing great lungfuls of old hymns on Sunday morning and kneeling for that transcendent moment of grace at the communion rail. But I also wonder whether, as Mead put it, "we're speaking a foreign language to younger people," and whether my church is not in danger of withering away. And whether it doesn't deserve that fate if it doesn't get intentional, and soon.

Illustrations by Tom Garrett

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; The Next Church; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 37-58.