Megachurches in New England
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.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, evangelical Christianity experienced several regional resurgences, most famously including the First and Second Great Awakenings, under the preaching of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s-1740s, and Lyman Beecher in the 1820s, respectively. “New England has been the base of national and international revivals for centuries,” says Hall. “As parochial as we think New England is, it’s often a center for the outreach of Christianity.”
It’s clear in any case that New England’s evangelicals consider themselves a breed apart. Mike Mancini, for one, doesn’t even like being called an evangelical. “That term brings to mind so many stereotypes–Southern, hard-hitting, holier-than-thou–none of which expand the kingdom of the God of love,” he notes. Elizabeth Clark, too, prefers to dodge the label. “Just call me a Christian,” she says. Felicia Brown, who attends Jubilee South in Stoughton, Massachusetts–an outgrowth of the main Jubilee in Boston–also prefers to be known simply as a Christian. “I’m not sure I want to be associated with everything that comes with the term ‘evangelical,'” she says.
Labels aside, Brown, who works at a pregnancy resource center, is certain about her path–one that was foreordained by God, she says: “Counseling is my calling. I want to cause change in others’ lives … to watch them blossom when they come to experience Jesus Christ.” Ultimately, she intends to be a life coach, she says: “I know that’s my purpose and my destiny.”
Not long ago, Brown attended a leadership conference at Grace Chapel, taking notes as Harvard Business School professor Bill George addressed the crowd via a simulcast from Willow Creek Community Church. “Mmmmm,” Brown murmured when George posited that leadership is about responsibility rather than fame or power. “We’re servant leaders,” George told the audience. “People are not there to serve you. You’re there to serve them.”
“That’s right,” said Brown. “Amen.”
Three days later, Brown sat in the sanctuary at Jubilee South. Again she reached for her pen as Pastor Troy Goode preached from John, chapter 20. “Even though God has wired you for greatness, even though God has wired you to lead,” Goode said, “unbelief is always there.” Brown nodded her head: “Amen, yes.”
Toward the end of the service, Goode urged congregants to step forward physically, “into a new realm” of deeper faith. Brown zipped up her Bible and moved to the aisle. “We’re breaking down fear,” Goode said. “Where there was fear, there is courage.” With the aisle filled behind and in front of her, Brown stepped forward once, then again.