Megachurches in New England
Increasingly, New England’s churches aren’t defined by white steeples on village greens, but by evangelical megachurches changing the religious landscape.
The first time 27-year-old Mike Mancini set foot in Faith Church, he did so as an atheist. A musician who had transferred from Berklee College of Music in Boston to Western Connecticut State University, he’d been hired by Faith to play bass in the church band.
Mancini seemed an unlikely candidate for the job. His days involved getting up around noon, grabbing something to eat at Taco Bell, and settling in to watch TV or—less often—to study before heading out to a party.
But in the fall of 2004, the New Milford, Connecticut, megachurch needed a player, and Mancini needed work. It was just a gig, he told himself–$100 a week, steady money. Even so, he steeled himself for what he would find. “I thought Christianity was for simple people who couldn’t get through life on their own,” he says. “Basically, I believed Christians were ignorant, close-minded, and conservative.”
His first few months at Faith, Mancini kept to himself. No one proselytized him, which came as a relief. Then, one Sunday as he was playing a worship song, “my eyes welled with tears and I got goose bumps,” Mancini says. “I looked around and saw other people crying, too.”
Afterward, he sought out Faith’s music pastor for an explanation. “That was the Holy Spirit,” the pastor told him matter-of-factly.
Although Mancini comes across as a laidback, bearlike man who laughs easily and often, he also possesses a tenacious intellect, and the pastor’s words left him far from satisfied. “I had to understand what was happening,” he says. “I started looking into things with an attitude of inquiry.”
He read the Bible, from Genesis straight through to the end of Revelations. But Mancini needed more than words. One night, driving, he uttered his first prayer: “God, if you’re real, prove yourself to me in a tangible way.”
Soon after, he was at a convenience store buying gas when he found a pamphlet about Christian salvation curled into the pump handle. Believers and nonbelievers may part ways on the meaning of that moment, but for Mancini it was enough. An hour later, he met with a pastor in the Faith parking lot. What followed was simple yet defining: “I asked for repentance, and I asked Christ to come live in my heart.”
Now a music teacher in a New Haven charter school, and married with a year-and-a-half-old son, Mancini has a full-color tattoo of a tree covering the length of his left arm and shoulder. He got it after baby Isaac was born. The Biblical passage Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God forms the base; the trunk is surrounded by sunflowers, his wife’s favorite. Mancini still has moments of doubt, he says, “but that’s not unhealthy. Doubt forces you to examine your faith and strengthens it.”
On a recent Sunday, Mancini played onstage with the band at Faith. Dressed in jeans and sandals, he leaned over his bass, intent on the music as lyrics appeared on an overhead monitor: You’re the miracle that I long for. Your love is all I need. Only You can change my heart and set my spirit free.
In the auditorium-like sanctuary, 800 people sang along, some with palms raised in devotion, others clapping in rhythm. The doors opened and closed, as latecomers hurried down a carpeted hallway–past the SonBucks coffee shop and Disneyesque murals of small-town America–to enter the sanctuary, and parents with crying babies exited. The crowd was as diverse a group as you’d find anywhere in the state: Latino, Caucasian, African American, Asian. When the sermon began, backstage translators offered it in Spanish and Portuguese to churchgoers wearing headphones.
Two decades ago in New England, there were virtually no megachurches, loosely defined as those with a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more. Faith Church now figures among 18 in the region. And megachurches are far from all of it. Many evangelicals attend smaller churches across New England–Assembly of God, Baptist, Pentecostal, nondenominational–all bound by a belief in the authority of Scripture, personal conversion, and salvation through Jesus Christ. They’ve prospered as mainline Protestant churches have continued to struggle.
According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, about one-third of New England’s Protestants currently identify themselves as evangelical. That number approaches 50 percent in Massachusetts, Rhode Island,and Connecticut. Even though they remain a minority in a place where Catholicism remains the predominant religion, “evangelicals, who used to be virtually invisible, are now clearly discernible on the New England landscape,” says Andrew Walsh, associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford.
The same day Mancini was on the bass at Faith, Senior Pastor Bryan Wilkerson delivered a sermon titled “Image Isn’t Everything” to 1,000 congregants at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, as technicians seated at computers recorded it for radio. A few miles south of downtown Boston, Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan released worshippers from the second of three services at its 1,250-seat sanctuary in a converted supermarket on Blue Hill Avenue. No sooner did the Jubilee parking lot empty of one group of vehicles than it filled with another.
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