Andrew Roberts

Gimme Shelter

Are megachurch-goers looking for sanctuary in all the wrong places?


A version of this story ran in the July 2014 issue.


The first time I attended New Hope Church in Manvel, my lip curled so hard it almost closed off one of my nostrils. The problem was cup holders. The seats had them. Instead of wooden pews, the cavernous auditorium—the building map said “auditorium,” not “sanctuary”—had those stadium seats that are like Venus flytraps for your butt, the ones with cup holders built into the armrests. These made it convenient for worshippers to bring their free coffee, orange juice and cookies from the lobby into the not-sanctuary to munch on during service. The cup holders were not, I was disappointed to learn, for super-sized goblets of Communion wine. Rather, the sacred elements came in single-serving plastic kits we picked up from a box on the way into service like tiny, holy Lunchables. How my lip curled.

New Hope is my in-laws’ church, and my in-laws are wonderful people. But New Hope is a megachurch with all the trimmings. It’s nondenominational and the preacher wears blue jeans and my brother-in-law plays drums in the praise band. There’s a praise band.

This is not the church of my childhood. My mother was the organist for the First United Methodist Church of Pearland in my hometown southeast of Houston, and I grew up there. I cried in the nursery, sang in the children’s choir and had my first kiss at a dance in the fellowship hall. I wore a dress every Sunday morning to a traditional service in an airy brick-and-wood sanctuary with a skylight and stained-glass windows. The preacher wore a robe and stole appropriate to the liturgical season. The hymnals (there were hymnals) in the backs of the pews (there were pews) contained delicate, diaphanous pages that noted each hymn’s origins. “O Word of God Incarnate,” for example, combined words written in 1867 with music from 1693 and a harmony by Mendelssohn. Worship felt like it had lineage and gravity. Everything about it suggested connection to something bigger and older than me, something set apart from daily life.

We also walked uphill to school both ways, teenagers didn’t wear their Walkmans in restaurants, and you kids better get off my lawn. I can hear how it sounds when I talk about my childhood church, like Vaseline is smeared on my memory’s lens. But that’s where I come from, and the price of loving where you come from is that it’s forever hard to love someplace new. I haven’t attended a church steadily since I left home for college 15 years ago, partly because I’ve become cynical, judgmental and analytical, but partly because the churches I have visited—those attended by my more devout loved ones—have been megachurches. I’ve been to several now, some dozens of times, but have never been able to relax at a megachurch. I can’t quiet my brain, center myself, and focus on God. My dislike distracts me.

The truth is, it’s more than dislike. I hate megachurches. I’m suspicious of their size and their charismatic leaders. I hate the new building style, slick and hygienic, branded, like a corporate compound. I hate the giant screens. And I really hate the music, the Christian Top-40 soft rock so melodically predictable you can sing along the first time you hear it, with lyrics that sound less written than generated by software called Praize 2.0. If you can replace “Jesus” with “baby” and the song still makes sense, it is not, to my mind, a good hymn.

But here’s another truth: Everything old was once new. When I flip again through my Methodist hymnal, I notice that the 1870s and 1880s were big years for new hymns. If I’d been born in 1850, I probably would have curled my lip at the 1887 hit “Lead On, O King Eternal.” As for technology, the organ my mom played was electric, not pipe, which was probably heresy to some church snobs older of school. Speaking of heresy, I grew up with female preachers—definitely, to previous generations, a bigger deal than cup holders.

This set me thinking. Is there actually anything wrong with megachurches or is my beef purely aesthetic? If the latter, is it a matter of high and low taste, or is it like the way I only love country music written during the years I had a crush on a teenage cowboy in my youth group? Do I miss the way church was back then, or the way I was—as un-cynical, un-judgmental and un-analytical as when I toured East Texas in a van with a youth choir performing a ’50s-themed Christian musical called “Let’s Go to the Rock”? 

Obviously, nostalgia plays a role. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as happy as I was during that choir tour. And yes, the megachurches I’ve seen aren’t stylistically to my liking and there’s nothing wrong with that, them or me. But is there something wrong with megachurches themselves? And is that question stupidly broad, like asking, “Is freedom a good thing?” Or do megachurches, as a genus, share DNA that manifests in certain traits that can be evaluated?

If I could understand my megachurch prejudice, maybe I could undo it. Maybe I could find the same fulfillment my in-laws and millions of other people experience at big, joyful worship services every Sunday. It hasn’t escaped me that my attitude problem is possibly an effect of my lapse in churchgoing, not a cause. Faith is a good antidote for cynicism, compassion for judgment, and humility for excessive analysis. I no longer get a weekly reminder to cultivate those traits, and I haven’t for a long time.

But church was never merely a place to hear self-improvement pep talks or meet boys who shared my intimacy issues. Jesus said that wherever two or more were gathered in His name, He would be with them, and I felt that at my old church. In quiet moments during service, it seemed like I could lean my head on Jesus’ shoulder and feel its warmth. If I understood my hang-ups better, could I find that peace, as so many do, at a megachurch?

To figure it out, I dove straight into the deep end: Lakewood Church.

About 45,000 people attend worship service at Lakewood every week. Researchers define megachurches as Protestant congregations with an average weekly attendance of 2,000 people or more, so Lakewood is more of a gigachurch. Housed in a refurbished arena near downtown Houston, it’s the largest church in the nation by at least 10,000 people. I may as well have researched acrophobia through skydiving. 

Lakewood is near my apartment, but even if it weren’t, I wouldn’t have had to go far to find another. Texas is arguably the nation’s megachurch capital. Of the 1,600 or so megachurches in the U.S., California has slightly more—218 to Texas’ 206—but 11 of the 50 biggest are here, far more behemoths than in any other state. Houston alone has four churches in the nation’s top 50, Dallas-Fort Worth has three, San Antonio has two, and El Paso and Plano each have one. Weekly attendance at just those 11 churches about equals the population of Lubbock.

Though I showed up to Lakewood 10 minutes late for Sunday service, tributaries of people were still streaming from the parking garages (plural) into the sharp morning light, diversely dressed: jeans and three-piece suits, sequins, 5-inch heels, baseball caps, and ladies’ hats with netting and flowers. This assortment pleased me. I was raised to get fancy for church as a sign of respect—you’re paying God a house call, after all—but it’s easy to see how a crowd wearing nothing but dresses and suits could seem unwelcoming to a churchgoer without a will or a way to conform. That said, I’ve seen some congregations so sartorially chill that a man in slacks looks like a narc. The nice thing about Lakewood is, it’s big enough that you could probably show up in white tie and tails with a foam mascot head and not be the only one.

Inside, the air was so crisp it seemed shiny. Ushers directed the throng up escalators to the balcony, since the floor seats and first tier were long since full. This building was once The Summit, then Compaq Center, both home to the Rockets. It hosted countless concerts, games and ice skating spectaculars for almost 30 years before Lakewood leased it in 2003, then bought it outright in 2010. A thrumming bass line leaked from the auditorium. If this were 1977, I could be hearing Led Zeppelin.

A church taking over a stadium sounds like mid-’90s postmodern satire, but like many things at Lakewood, it’s handled so matter-of-factly that an observer can think, I guess it’s not that weird. This worries me about mega groups in general. Humans are herd animals, and the bigger the herd, the more powerful the instinct to react like everyone else does. Forty-five thousand people is a big herd. Even if you don’t identify strongly with a group, even if you consider yourself an outsider like I did at Lakewood, your responses and perceptions will be shaped by the faces around you. Every unbothered expression will concur: This is normal. That’s how it took me half a day to decide that, no really, the huge banners up and down the hallways of Lakewood advertising Pastor Joel Osteen’s new book are, in fact, weird for a church. 

I found a seat up high and to the side. The bass thumped my chest. On stage, four singers and a full band rocked out, accompanied by a 100-person choir, grand piano, brass section and dedicated bongo player. The music was catchy and joyful and lots of people sang along. It was also anodyne, of course, but it got the job done. The crowd was on its feet.

My feelings were mixed. On the one hand, Lakewood provides an uplifting, high-quality live concert every week for free, and that’s a public service no matter your orthodoxy. On the other hand, you can hear pop music anywhere. Church is often the first or only exposure many people have to choral music, old music, and complicated music, but you’re not going to find any of that at most megachurches. It’s been traded for instant accessibility.

That’s by design. Sociological theory holds that religious commitment is produced by rituals creating “collective effervescence,” a powerful, shared emotional experience of unity and purpose. Collective effervescence requires four ingredients: bodily assembly, a mutual focus of attention, a shared mood, and barriers excluding outsiders, the last of which often takes the form of institutional knowledge. Church attendance used to involve a lot of this knowledge: what to wear, when to stand up and sit down, the tunes to the hymns and so on. The more stuff there is to know, the greater the feeling of belonging you get from knowing it. A University of Washington study of megachurches  noted that they have jettisoned almost anything that could make newcomers feel excluded, meaning traditional liturgy, formal worship and old or non-pop music.

Reading this furrowed my brow. Could it be that the reason I like saying the Apostles’ Creed is not just that it’s a beautiful statement of faith written in the eighth century, but also that I feel smug about being able to recite it from memory? Yeah. It could totally also be that. Put another way, I realized I retain raised-in-church privilege. When megachurches rob me of the chance to show off my hymn-singing, ancient-text-knowing, appropriate-time-standing-up skills, I get cranky. Well sure, it turns out I’m sort of thinking, if you want just anybody to feel welcome… I started to wonder how much of the collective effervescence I felt at my old church had to do with cultural exclusivity.

There’s definitely something lost in making worship a purely contemporary affair. But it’s not like megachurches are forcing other churches to stop chanting creepily in unison, which, for the record, I love. Almost three-fourths of megachurches identify as “evangelical,” meaning they believe you have to have a personal conversion experience to avoid Hell, and are focused on saving as many people as possible from that fate. In other words, they don’t exist to expand people’s cultural horizons. If the type of music my dad calls “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” rescues more souls from eternal torment than Bach, I can see why they use it.

Despite doing away with most barriers to outsiders, megachurches still create boatloads of collective effervescence. The University of Washington study says that’s because what they lack in exclusivity they make up in size—the “bodily assembly” part of the ritual. Witnessing others having the same experience as yours amplifies it. It’s why people go to a bar to watch the big game.

But when a crowd gets so big, how do you make sure they’re witnessing what you want them to? Screens. Above the Lakewood stage, a Jumbotron and two smaller still-Huge-o-trons cut between close-ups of the musicians and the audience. White hands clutch a silver glitter guitar, then a man dances with a baby; a Cyndi Lauper look-alike belts praise in black leather, then a woman sways with her eyes closed and palms raised. Beams of colored light stroke people’s faces. The ceiling, a quilted metal mesh lit from within, flows from purple to orange to royal blue as the band downshifts into a Jesus-praising slow jam. The entire thing was designed to create the “shared mood” component of effective ritual. Onscreen, a camera shot taken from the back of the arena with a fisheye lens captured the whole spectacular shebang.

I loathed that I couldn’t keep my attention focused on the actual people on stage, that the screens always won. But I won’t spend much time here hating on screens, because they’re plainly practical for giant congregations. The cathedrals of Europe don’t have them, but they have lots of other things to look at. Besides, I might use the word “newfangled,” and that would embarrass us all.

After the opening jam session, Pastor Joel Osteen came out to welcome the crowd. Sporting a charcoal suit, lavender tie, and a dark corona of immobile hair, he’s preacher-handsome—that is, handsome enough, but not too much. Osteen resembles a greyhound with his small eyes and general pointiness, but his grin could melt butter, and it never goes away. He talks with his mouth hitched to the side just enough to set off one dimple. It complements his drawl.

“There are blessings with your name on them,” Osteen said. “Healing with your name on it. Promotion. Good breaks.” He looked right into the camera and we were all watching the screens, so it seemed as if he was talking directly to each of us.  “How long are you going to wait before you believe you’re strong, talented, blessed, favored, equipped, one of a kind?” he asked. The whole sermon was like that.

Osteen and I are strangers, but his praise still felt tender and good, like having my hair stroked. I wondered how many people in the arena never hear words like that except here. I’d show up every week too.

Plenty of people want Osteen’s message. Besides the massive flock in attendance, 10 million households receive Lakewood’s TV broadcast, and millions more watch services at the church website. Almost 2.7 million people follow Osteen on Twitter. (Sample tweet: “You don’t have to go through life doing everything on your own. You have an advantage. God has placed His anointing on you.”) All six of Osteen’s books have summited the New York Times bestseller list. There have been tsars with less reach.

Osteen’s popularity is an extreme case, but the role it plays in Lakewood’s success is not. Research by the Hartford Institute found that nearly all megachurches revolve around a sole, long-tenured, dominant, male pastor. It also suggested that such a figure is a prerequisite for a church becoming mega. One element of successful ritual is a shared focus of attention, which pastors like Osteen provide. They give megachurches a gravitational core around which everything else can swirl.

This is different from the church of my youth. In the Methodist tradition, pastors are moved every few years specifically to keep churches from becoming too dependent on one person, too focused on an earthly authority rather than a heavenly one. The University of Washington study, whose researchers interviewed hundreds of megachurch-goers, noted, “Often, members would say that the pastor is not the object of their worship, and yet, in nearly the same breath, they would announce the unique spiritual power of the pastor to deliver the word of God, even referring to him as God’s ‘mouthpiece,’ ‘messenger,’ or ‘vessel.’”

Osteen unquestionably holds this status. At one point during service, his wife, Victoria, delivered a homily on persistence using him as an example. Joel, who has no pastoral training, inherited Lakewood from his father, its founder, who died in 1999. Apparently the early days were rocky. “Can you imagine if Joel would have given up?” Victoria asked. “We wouldn’t be sitting in here today, in this capacity, hearing this voice from Almighty God.”

Use of such terms isn’t quite Old Testament-level idolatry, but those squeamish about hero worship should maybe not go to Lakewood. When the service ended, more than 100 people queued to meet Osteen, who was flanked by armed off-duty cops. Dozens more fans stood to the side to take his picture. Like the giant screens, the rope line felt a little icky, but it’s probably the only way to do business on this scale, and it’s better than if Osteen just disappeared after service like a would-be Elvis. Besides, I can’t judge. I once paid $40 for a hug from the guy who played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

While I watched people snapping selfies with Osteen in the background, a man stopped in front of me and crouched down. He was showing his young daughter where Osteen had signed her tiny Bible. Okay, that’s weird, I thought. Does nobody else think that’s weird? Isn’t signing the title page what authors do? 

Osteen may not have written the Bible, but he branded his own: the Hope For Today Bible. Studded with Osteen’s “Hope Notes,” it’s a New Living Translation™ that its publishers say aims to “make the same impact in the life of modern readers that the original text had for the original readers … by translating entire thoughts (rather than just words) into natural, everyday English.” This strikes me as a very megachurch approach to scripture—pre-chewed, flavor added.

You can buy the Hope for Today Bible and Osteen’s other books and their spin-off journals, devotionals and study guides at any of Lakewood’s “resource centers,” open before and after services. Back in the arena’s concert days, these recessed booths sold concessions and merchandise; now they hawk the products of Osteen’s media empire. Osteen, who gave up his church salary in 2005 after his first book turned blockbuster, is reportedly worth $40 million.

I’m not among those who think Osteen’s wealth makes him suspect, though Jesus did say, as the New Living Translation so eloquently puts it, “It is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” But the resource centers struck me as crass bordering on sacrilegious. They made the service seem like a long commercial.

The weird thing is, I almost wanted to line up and buy an Osteen book anyway. That’s when it finally hit me, what I hate about megachurches. It’s not the pop music or the blue jeans. Any small church can have those things. It’s not the screens; my home church in Pearland installed two screens a few years ago for no discernible reason. It’s not even the mass devotion to a single authority figure; the world is full of good and bad preachers with flocks of every size.

No, it’s the control. When I attend a megachurch, I feel like I’m not safe, like I have to stay on guard because all my impressions are being so effectively, relentlessly managed. Unlike my other quibbles, this one is endemic to megachurches. It is a trait of the breed.

For a church to go mega, it has to provide a consistent product that appeals to a huge, diverse audience. If you’re selling an object, you can design a machine to make that object exactly the same way every time. But since what churches produce is a feeling—collective effervescence, emotional energy, hope for tomorrow, whatever—the churches that become mega are the ones that have mastered making people feel exactly what they’re supposed to, the same way, every time. Doing that requires managing every aspect of the worship experience, right down to giving people a place to put their cups.

I bridle at this control. I don’t want everything I see, hear, and feel to be optimized for maximum impact. I don’t want from church what I get from a movie. I know megachurches spiritually nourish millions of people, uplift them, provide them with community and perform good works. There’s nothing wrong with megachurches. But when I worship, I want to be still and focus on God. I want to feel like I’ve stepped into a place that’s separate from the world, not exactly like it, only Jesus-themed.

In other words, I want a sanctuary, not an auditorium.