Megachurches in New England
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.
The fact that Santora and other evangelicals tend to define Christianity in terms of the New Testament and Jesus, whom they see as a merciful manifestation of God, has an important regional implication. In a place where the stringencies of Puritanism long held sway–early New Englanders were taught to be far more God-fearing than Jesus-loving–perhaps a kinder, gentler Christianity offers particular appeal. Puritanism set forth an unbridgable chasm between sinful humanity and a righteous deity. And that–if you listen week after week to the messages now preached at evangelical churches across New England–is no longer the case.
Grace Chapel, founded in 1948, sits on a back street in Lexington, not far from the Minuteman statue on the town green. As it grew into a megachurch through the 1980s and ’90s, Grace was an object of considerable curiosity and, in some cases, outright suspicion: Was it a cult? A haven for right-wing intolerance? Over time that suspicion seems to have dissipated. So too have worries that Grace would draw from the town’s existing congregations. In recent years, community groups have begun meeting at Grace, and one recent July a youth theater troupe gave its performances of Willy Wonka there, evidence of Grace’s current place in the town and perhaps of the popular view of it as just another church.
But Grace isn’t just another church. A recent 75,000-square-foot expansion doubled its size and added, among other things, a gym, a cafe, and a computerized child registration center. If a baby cries while being looked after in the child-care center, a pager flashes in the sanctuary, summoning his or her parents. More than 3,000 people attend four Sunday services, and the number swells to 5,000 on Christmas and Easter. Unlike those of its nearby Episcopal and Unitarian counterparts, the parking lots at Grace are full almost every day of the week.
On one Monday night, more than 100 people gathered for “Celebrate Recovery,” Grace’s local branch of a national program, which, according to materials given to newcomers, seeks to reach those who believe they’re “being held back from experiencing God’s best plans due to a past or current hurt, habit, or hangup.” The evening began with a meal of deli-style sandwiches and salad. At one table, a boy told stories about his cat as his mother smiled at him and at the surrounding adults in whose attention he basked. At another table, a woman spoke in low tones about her sobriety. “It’s day by day,” she told a fellow attendee. “You know what I mean.”
After dinner, the group gathered in another part of the room to sing. Some swayed and others stood stock-still as words appeared on a monitor: How wonderful, how marvelous, is my Savior’s love for me … Between songs, the music director addressed the group. “You’ll notice that we sing about God’s love an awful, awful lot,” he said. “That’s because a lot of us try to get love and can’t from people. God is always there.”
“Amen,” said a woman, to a chorus of echoes.
Individual introductions were not unlike those at a 12-step meeting, with And I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ added at the end. A man in a pink polo shirt approached the front to offer testimony of his recovery. The group listened as he described his issues: “depression, divorce, abuse, addiction, and”–he offered a small smile–“until last week I didn’t realize I suffer from codependency, too.”
People laughed and then grew somber as the man described his childhood. “It was a house of anger,” he told them, a place with deadbolts on the doors to every room. By 13, he was breaking into homes, targeting those he knew because he couldn’t stand their happiness. There was an accident and a lengthy hospitalization. The man glanced at his watch. “I’m running out of time, and I’m barely getting started.”
The group murmured support, and he pressed on. He married, the couple had a child, no one was happy: “It was everything that I didn’t want for my son coming true.” He spoke rapidly–another injury, illness, then one Easter a turn to God. He looked up and paused. The following week, he told them, would mark a year without drugs. The group broke into applause. Several people stood in ovation. “That’s all right, I’ve still got other problems,” the man said. He smiled, wept. The message was simple, he said: “You want to get to heaven?” He wiped away tears. “Love each other.”
Grace Chapel, as it turns out, has had a lot of collective experience with recovery and redemption. In 1987, former senior pastor Gordon MacDonald publicly admitted an adulterous affair. Although MacDonald was not in a pastoral position at the time of the affair or his admission, he returned to Grace in March 1993 for a time–a move that prompted dozens of members to leave. Those who remained drew closer. Elizabeth Clark joined Grace the same year MacDonald came back. “He was open and humble,” recalls Clark. “As a new Christian, I found that amazing.” Clark was equally struck by the reaction of the congregation: “There was so much forgiveness. It spoke to me on a personal level.”
That sense of acceptance and communal embrace propelled Clark deeper into Grace, so much so that it’s now the hub of her life. Her husband participates in “Celebrate Recovery,” and she leads a women’s Bible study. The couple co-leads one of the small worship groups that meet in individual homes, and most of their friends attend Grace.