Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Build It, and They Will Come, or, The Cost of Doing Business: Megachurches and American Religion

Megachurches have been the subject of much interest--the faithful flock to them, journalists are endlessly fascinated by them, the media often misunderstand them, sometimes scholars scoff at them, while others steer clear of them.....the list goes on. How would you know a megachurch if you saw one? How does one define a megachurch? (Find some answers here.)

Either way, according to a new book by megachurch expert Scott Thumma and co-author Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths, megachurches are here to stay. See the book's website here, blog here, on-line extras here, an interesting megachurch research portal here, and excerpts here. I had the privilege of lunching with Scott last summer on a dissertation research trip to New England, and he is quite welcoming, quite generous, and a fine scholar--not to mention a scholar with expert web skills.

If you are not familiar with Thumma's work, and if you want to learn about these mysterious entities we call megachurches, spend some time surfing around the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website, and you will see why. The bibliography is extensive, and helpful. The Megachurches Today Surveys from 2000 and 2005 are important to read through. The resources are beyond helpful. And the learning is, as the commercial says, "priceless"--an apt term for megachurches no doubt.

Living in Houston, I often drive by megachurches--including Lakewood Church, Second Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, Fellowship of the Woodlands, Grace Community Church, etc. The list goes on and on, since Houston freeways, highways, and byways seemingly run forever, particularly if you are stuck in Houston traffic. I should also say that a large amount of my research is on megachurches, and megapastors--subjects worthy of critical scholarly endeavor. Just ask Robert Wuthnow, Nancy Ammerman, Donald Miller, Mara Einstein, Shayne Lee, James Twitchell, etc. There are many others....

And I'm persuaded that one way to understand megachurches is to use a marketplace approach to studying American religion. Popularized by the likes of sociologists of religion--and Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in particular--this approach more or less see churches as firms that offer religious goods and services to spiritual consumers. This is not as reductionistic as it sounds, nor am I necessarily proposing statistical understandings of religious firms and spiritual consumers, but suggesting a historically-grounded sociological analysis tempered with insights drawn from anthropology, media studies, ethnography, etc. Using multiple angles of analysis, with enough participant-observation, allows one to examine conceptions of sacred space, understand the lived religion of participants and members, explore the uses of media, intersections between religion and commodification, etc. [Look for project announcements about something like this soon.]

Have you ever been to a megachurch? Your expectations before going? Impressions afterward? What were your experiences like? Were you greeted as a consumer? Are these structures too big?

[Photo comes from an MSNBC story on Lakewood. Readers may also note that this picture appears on the cover of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 1: Religion. Oddly, and surprisingly, while Lakewood appears on the cover, it is nowhere to be found inside the covers--a really, really, shocking omission for a "new" volume on southern religion.]


Unknown said...


You should also check out the work of Laurence Iannaccone. He's done work with Finke and has created the economic division of the SSSR.

Nice post!


DEG said...

One of the best books I've read about megachurches takes a micro-cultural look at them. I don't know if you've read it, but Nancy Eisland's A Particular Place puts megachurches in the context of the small and mid-sized churches that are their nearest religous competitors. It's a refreshing study that uses megachurches to explore how broad socio-economic restructurings can have diverse effects on local religious communities.

Scott's stuff is also solid, better than 95% of what has been written about them...

Phil said...

Hey Mara, thanks for the suggestions. I'm familiar with some of Iannaccone's work, but did not know he started the economic group inside SSSR. I'll have to check it out.

Darren, I've not heard of Eisland's book, but I'll track it down. It sounds like it'll be really helpful. Thanks.