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Thousands Congregate in New Megachurches
By Mary Stucky
April 16, 1998
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Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

The fastest growing churches in the country today are affiliated not by denomination, but by size. So called "megachurches" describe congregations numbering in the thousands. Some are housed in huge complexes that resemble business centers more than churches. These congregations are largely evangelical and suburban without many of the trapping of tradition and liturgy. Critics call them "shopping mall" churches, but even some mainline denominations are taking note, wondering what they can learn from the megachurch movement.

IT'S EASTER SUNDAY AT GRACE CHURCH IN EDINA. The floor of what's sometimes used as a gym is a sea of folding chairs, basketball hoops still hang from the ceiling; but this morning, up on stage, there's a small rock band pumping out music. Lyrics come not from hymnals, but a huge overhead screen illuminating one wall.

It's not traditional church music. Here at Grace Church they say it's more like popular music, the kind of music people listen to all week long. Music designed to reach a contemporary audience, and at Grace it does just that.

Rick Nelson: Music is worship. It is praising, rejoicing. You can just experience the joy in the music.
Rick Nelson, raised a Catholic, attends Grace Church in Edina with his wife and children. Grace draws an average of 3,200 people each Sunday, nearly 6,000 on this Easter morning. The church owns a small fleet of buses which run constantly, shuttling people from a parking ramp two blocks away.

This church is about options. For those not keen on the contemporary worship, upstairs there is a more traditional service. But even this is attention-getting, with a full orchestra and 80-voice choir.

What's happening here at Grace is a relatively new religious phenomenon. Megachurches haven become regional church centers. No longer is church a place that draws attendance from one neighborhood. Grace Church Executive Pastor Jim Rightler.

Rightler: We have nearly 100 ZIP codes represented in our mailing list. There are over 30 high schools in our senior high group. Grace is what we call a "destination church."
These enormous new churches are decidedly evangelical. They take the Bible literally. God's word is the only thing that's inviolate. Traditions, liturgy - these are irrelevant and, in fact, get in the way, according to Gary Soteeber, a member at Grace.
Soteeber: We don't have tremendous stained glass windows, we don't have vestments for the clergy. I was raised in the Lutheran faith. The emphasis on rote, the emphasis on liturgy, the emphasis on tradition, the emphasis on everything but personalizing my relationship with Christ didn't allow me to get that point. Here that's taken away. All of the trappings of religion are pretty much relieved.
Sometimes these churches have no religious affiliation. Not Catholic, Lutheran, or Baptist. That's true at Grace Church and that's part of its appeal, according to Pastor Rightler.
Rightler: Many times they will not go to a church that has a particular denominational handle to it because they kinda know something about it, you know, and have some preconceived ideas, so not having that does help people feel comfortable. We try to have all of our services be what we call "seeker friendly."
And the one thing these worshipers at Grace are seeking is a church that makes them feel at home. Of course there's a sermon, responsive readings, and even some hymns familiar to most Protestant churchgoers. But making Grace Church a comfortable environment for everyone is an important goal. That's remarkable considering the size of the church. But at Grace they get around that challenge by breaking down into groups called "small churches." At Grace there are groups for almost everyone: Groups for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, for people who want to lose weight, for moms with young children, and, of course, Bible study. Pastor Rightler.
Rightler: People today like options. In fact, we describe ourselves as more of a shopping mall - shopping center - than like the corner store. I pastored for 14 years in smaller churches, and I have to say that in terms of what Grace Church can do in the lives of people, what we can offer, I will take this any day over a church of 200 or 300.
Grace Church offers community in a time when many Americans say they lack connections. The transience and impersonality of American life makes churches like Grace appealing. Mike Pahg attends Grace Church with his family and says it provides a community.
Pahg: Anything from delivering meals on an evening to being there to take care of the kids, whatever it takes. One of our buzz words here is this is a place where friends become family.
Jan Sotebeer: We just help each other. Any step of the way. We're there for each other.
Grace Church member Jan Soteeber.
Sotebeer: We don't have a community these days. We don't even know some of our neighbors, and here you may not know everybody but you know we're here to help each other, so it's a real community. It's a safe place.
So many people are seeking a "safe" place at Grace Church they've outgrown their building. On the drawing board is a new complex on a 62-acre site in Eden Prairie. The land cost $5.7 million. Plans call for a facility that, according to church member Rick Nelson, may offer everything from athletic fields to a movie theater.
Nelson: We can have family movies where parents don't have to cringe because of the language and the violence. I don't know of anybody else, at least in the Twin Cities and even in the Midwest right now, that is planning something quite like this.
As is true in most megachurches, Grace is predominately white and prosperous. Nearly half of the worshippers here have come from mainline churches and the impact on those congregations is obvious. Today, half of all Protestant churches have fewer than 75 members, and many face closing their doors. While they may not like it, leaders of mainline churches ignore the megachurch movement at their own peril.
Wind: Some in mainline denominations ask, "How can we learn to do what they're doing?"
James Wind is an expert on local church congregations and the executive Director of the Alban Institute, an ecumenical think tank in Washington, DC.
Wind: There are people very troubled by the emergence of these megachurches. They feel that the substance being offered there may not be very deep or very nurturing. Others would say that the preaching becomes an individualized, consumerized message and are nervous that you end up with more of an entertainment experience.
Regardless of the message, musical and spiritual, it's clear that megachurches are doing what religious institutions have done through the centuries - adapt and change - to make faith relevant to worshipers with a hunger for meaning.