Megachurches in New England
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.
Not everyone finds the same easy fit. Karen Tokmakoff, who began going to Grace in 1999, left after several years because it started to feel restrictive. “There’s so much mystery involved in faith and in the working of the Holy Spirit,” she says. “I believe my job is to love my neighbors the way Jesus would, but I wasn’t comfortable with the notion that I was supposed to go out and save them.” Of her new church in a nearby town, Tokmakoff says, “I feel more freedom to be who I am,” even though the scope of what it offers is more limited.
Megachurches, in particular, do tend to provide ready community in a welcoming, if supersized, environment. Cafés are customary, as are bookstores, gyms, and common areas furnished with overstuffed chairs and couches, where members gather long after the service has ended. Throughout the week, in addition to self-help groups and Bible studies, there are classes in art, drama, music, or household and fiscal management. Some churches have funds to help members through financial crises. The message is implicit: If you’re one of us, we’ll take care of you.
Ready-made community may be one reason why immigrants figure prominently in many evangelical congregations. Those with established religious ties in their countries of origin tend to build their own churches. According to Boston’s Emmanuel Gospel Center, recent counts, for instance, showed some 400 evangelical Brazilian churches in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, along with 15 Cambodian ones. Immigrants have also been drawn into existing churches: St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, has reached out to the thousands of Liberians who live in the Ocean State, for example, and Faith has a sizable first-generation Latino population.
Jack Davis, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, says the sense of community experienced by evangelicals in the region is intensified by their relative scarceness. “There’s a feeling of being an outsider and a minority,” he says, with respect to the dominant Catholic religious presence and general secular culture. At the same time, evangelicals in the Northeast differ from those in other parts of the country because they’re less conservative. In general, they identify more with New England culture than with a Southern evangelical one, says Andrew Walsh: “The [cultural and political] evangelical package is unfamiliar to them. Most of them are not active religious-right types. They are, by and large, people who accept religious pluralism and think of religion as private.” For this reason, large national denominations have approached the Northeast “gingerly,” Walsh says.
The region’s younger evangelicals, in particular, tend to hold political views not typically associated with born-again Christianity. When Mike Mancini, who describes himself as pro-choice and unopposed to gay marriage (“It’s just a piece of paper to ensure rights,” he says), undertook his initial, marathon reading of the Bible, he discovered a mandate for social justice that underscored his own beliefs. “[Social justice] should be a priority of every Christian,” he says, “and liberal politics line up with that.”
On the national stage, evangelical politics have shifted in recent years. If the old stance zeroed in on individual morality, the new focus seems to be on broader issues: the environment, global poverty, human rights. The environment, and global warming in particular, has received particular attention of late. The Evangelical Climate Initiative, along with a statement signed by 86 church leaders, was released in February 2006, and in March 2008, 44 leading Southern Baptists issued a statement urging that denomination to be more aggressive in its response to environmental issues. Stewardship of the Earth, in Christian parlance, has become a rallying point for those who want a break with the religious right.
At the church level, the trend seems to be to step aside from politics and to focus on the individual, addressing issues like economic hardship and emotional distress in a personal way through hands-on teachings. This people-not-programs approach dovetails with an intention to draw individuals in one by one. As one Web site puts it: “Grace Chapel is an upbeat, energetic place that allows you to be you. Whatever your background, religious or not, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, committed or simply curious–you are welcome at Grace Chapel.”
That’s not to say that New England’s evangelical churches don’t proselytize. They do, and sometimes vigorously so–often through outreach by individual members, although the approach tends to be more subtle than the in-your-face witnessing of old. At the corporate level, Grace Chapel will, for example, issue open invitations to its holiday services through newspaper ads or mailed postcards, says Executive Pastor Bill Burke. “We’d rather show what we believe than actively convert,” Burke says. “The idea is to invite people in and to be who we are while they’re here. We want new members, but we don’t want to go about it in a forceful way.”
Many modern evangelical churches are modeled on the “seeker church”–among the best known of which are Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Beyond their perhaps oversimplified image of targeting the unchurched and the spiritually hungry, seeker churches have for 50 years addressed the problems of everyday life while offering Biblically based assistance. In so doing they’ve blurred distinctions between the secular and the religious. Indeed, in a mission statement that sounds equal parts religion, motivational-speak, and Big Business, the Willow Creek Association (WCA) offers to provide its 12,000 member churches around the world with “life-changing experiences, tools, and innovations” and to assist them in reaching “their full redemptive potential,” which translates at least in part to large-scale congregation building.
Yet Frank Santora, for one, bristles at the label of “seeker church,” even though Faith, as well as Grace, belongs to the WCA and Santora makes no bones about wanting to grow Faith as big as possible. To him, the term connotes a watering-down of Biblical principle. He objects also to suggestions by conservative Christians that the portrayal of a loving God equates with a pick-and-choose, feel-good Christianity geared primarily toward marketing and unduly emphasizing pop psychology. Santora’s God, he says, wants His people to thrive, and, moreover, Christians should experience his presence directly in their daily lives.
For evangelical pastors, there’s a paradox: To facilitate what congregants consider an open, nonhierarchical link to the divine, the pastor himself must have sufficient presence to keep people coming week after week. And commanding the attention of hundreds or thousands of congregants requires more than old-fashioned charisma. Many pastors make frequent, widespread use of artifacts from the secular world: physical props, popular songs, dramas, and video footage from contemporary movies. For inspiration they may go online–creativepastors.org and pastors.com are two popular sites–and most belong to a variety of resource associations such as Willow Creek.
Yet, even though they share a common theology and similar practices, evangelical churches vary widely in terms of their styles of worship and the populations they draw. That style seems foremost to reflect the pastors themselves: extroverted and hip at Faith, for instance; more understated at Grace; exuberant yet somehow formal at Jubilee. In part, what accounts for the seemingly broad, even disparate, constituencies of New England evangelicals is that along with location, the collective personality of a church vectors it toward a given population: Caucasian and Asian suburbanites in the case of Grace; urban African Americans at Jubilee. A pastor’s own sensibilities factor in, as well. Faith’s former Catholics might be less drawn to the place if Santora–who himself was raised Catholic–didn’t understand their perspective.
Perhaps New England is ripe for a new kind of evangelicalism precisely because it’s New England. Douglas Hall, president of Emmanuel Gospel Center, argues that the region always has been a hotbed of religious change–beginning with the Puritanism that prompted the first governor, John Winthrop, to inform settlers of Massachusetts Bay that they had taken out a divine “commission” to make their New World society a godly “city upon a hill,” visible to the entire world but also a beacon for lost humanity. When Unitarianism began to take hold in America at the end of the 1700s, traditional Christians responded with a flurry of church plantings of their own.