Megachurches in New England
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.
Across New England, evangelicals who didn’t make it to church in person could listen to rebroadcast services on CD or via audio stream on the Internet and, throughout the week, to head to church for athletic activities, support groups, and classes on topics ranging from the Biblical approach to recovery from addiction to the management of family finances.
Although it’s clear that evangelicalism has made inroads in New England, what’s less clear is why. Successful proselytizing may have something to do with it, although evangelistic outreach does not seem to have focused disproportionately on New England in recent years. Part of the reason may be shifting demographics and an increased number of immigrants looking to embrace a Christian lifestyle. It’s possible, too, that the disillusionment of some Roman Catholics with the Church’s policies and practices has spurred an interest in evangelical denominations. (At Faith Church, for instance, members with Catholic backgrounds make up the single largest constituency.)
It may also be that the regional reign of intellectualism over religiosity has diminished as the general population tips toward one that is more mobile, less entrenched, less influenced by a culture in which the church on the town green holds more architectural than religious relevance.
Yet if New England demographics have changed in recent decades, so, too, has the evangelical movement. Instead of the old church model, which entailed establishing a religious structure and expecting conformity, many pastors are tailoring their places of worship to the felt needs of those they hope to attract. Jubilee founder and senior pastor Bishop G. A. Thompson has referred to this tactic as “scratching where they itch.” Faith Church cites as part of its mission a desire to help people “fulfill their personal destinies by discovering the winner within them through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
What they’re talking about is Biblically derived self-esteem. Fortuitously for its cause, the new evangelical perspective focuses less on a punitive, vengeful God than on a loving one who wants His children to succeed. Churchgoers, by extension, are taught to view themselves through a similar lens. At Faith, Senior Pastor Frank Santora calls it “seeing yourself as God sees you.” Santora can talk tirelessly about the theme of the New Testament: grace, which translates as God’s favor, he says. According to Santora, God is the ultimate affirmer of human worth.