Karaoke for the Lord The Recipe for Success at American Megachurches

The megachurches mushrooming in the United States are mammoth feel-good temples providing entertainment for one and all. The ministers used to deliver weekly jeremiads excoriating homosexuality, feminism and abortion, but many -- particularly younger evangelists -- are now using the pulpit to preach about Africa and the environment.

By Susanne Weingarten

What type are you? Are you a talker? A feeler? A doer? Or a thinker?" Pastor Rick asks the congregation of more than 2,000 believers who have settled into his Saddleback Worship Center in Southern California one Sunday morning in October. "Raise your hand!" The preacher pigeonholes humankind into four personality types. Every time he reels off a characteristic, hundreds of hands point skyward. Who would have guessed? Women generally are the "feelers" and men the "doers."

Rick Warren is a jovial butterball of a man who has just turned the wrong side of 50. He sports a twee beard of the sort you might expect to see on a bank teller and is decked out in a pineapple-print, shortsleeved shirt. Looking at him, you'd never suspect he is the most influential preacher in the United States. Warren seems like the kind of down-to-earth guy you could approach on the street, just an average joe, with a divine calling. And that suits the Bush advisor just fine. He doesn't want to scare off the lost sheep that have drifted away from his flock. Warren's manifesto, The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? is the biggest selling hardcover non-fiction work of all time in U.S. book-publishing history - with 26 million copies sold to date. Warren has counseled President George W. Bush, and his Saddleback church is the model for thousands of others in the country.

Warren makes performers of his congregation during the service. There's more to their involvement than having them raise their hands. Half-sheets of paper have been laid along the pews, and followers are asked to fill in the blanks for four statements, just as they would in a school quiz. One of the questions reads: "_________ love God with their hearts." Anyone who has listened to Warren's sermon knows the magic word that completes the sentence: "talkers."

But there's more at stake here than didactic gimmickry. What's really important is that the people feel understood - whether they are talkers, feelers, doers or thinkers - inside this cavernous temple with its wall-to-wall video screens, camera crews, live band and mixing console. Even though it looks more like a concert hall than a place of worship, they feel that the man in the pineapple shirt is looking straight into their hearts.

Warren founded Saddleback Church in 1980 in Orange County, a white middleclass and staunchly conservative area south of Los Angeles. It is now part of an astonishing phenomenon in the long, idiosyncratic history of religion in the United States: the "megachurch."

A megachurch is a house of worship that draws more than 2,000 people each week. Today, there are more than 1,200 in the United States - almost double the 2000 figure. Together, they collected - Praise the Lord! - a total of $7.2 billion in 2005. Because Americans will switch churches when they find one that suits them better (even if it's only the time of the service), the rapid growth rate indicates that these modern cathedrals are meeting a social need - just as Saddleback is. Spread over 120 acres complete with direction signs, the grounds also hold a café, a youth center, 2,250 parking spaces (with shuttle service), and a meandering man-made creek. Special greeters give churchgoers a firm Christian handshake as they enter. Six services are held here every weekend for the approximately 22,000 parishioners. And there's something for everyone - from classical music aficionados ("Traditions," 9 a.m. on Sundays) to rockers ("Overdrive," 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. on Sundays, at a second on-site "worship venue").

Megachurches use innovative packaging to sell religion. It's user-friendly, practical, authentic, and modern. The Christian is the customer. They have learned a thing or two from shopping malls and big business. They woo their target group with a heavy dose of entertainment, sophisticated technology, wall-to-wall ideas for success at home and at work, and a spring-inyour-stride message that everything's good.

"I love Saddleback because it's not so religious," says Lisa Volder, a member for three years. At first, she said it reminded her too much of Hollywood. Now she is so taken with Saddleback that she works at an information stand outside for people who want to learn more. She wears a name tag that says, "A fresh start with God." A well-dressed woman in her mid-40s, Lisa joined the church after she moved to the area, and claims that the move was a sign from Heaven: "God knew that I needed to be here."

When Lisa waxes lyrical about Saddleback's understated approach to religion, she most likely means its lack of time-honored rituals: Saddleback has no liturgy, no prayer books, no sonorous minister fiddling around at the altar. Saddleback doesn't have an altar, or a pulpit; just Rick Warren's sermon, interspersed with high-decibel (set at 98-108dbs) blasts of schmaltzy Christian rock. The songs' lyrics are shown on a ticker along the base of the video screens; sentiments like "I can't get enough of your love pouring down my soul." Karaoke for the Lord.

Megachurches sell the Christian faith as the (only) path to a better, happier life. And American suburbia is lapping up this new brand of spiritual comfort food. "The megachurches are very good at meeting human beings where they are, with their questions, needs, and hurts," says David Gushee, a professor for moral philosophy at the Baptist Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.

More than half of these churches, including Saddleback, define themselves as evangelical. In the United States, that translates as ranging from staunchly conservative to far-right and reactionary. The evangelical movement arose from Protestantism in the 18th century. Today, the United States boasts numerous groups that draw fine theological distinctions between themselves, but share core fundamental values and convictions - including the central tenet that believers must be born again and accept Jesus Christ as their savior if they are to be true Christians.

Over the past few decades, the evangelical movement has attracted increasing numbers of followers in the United States. Today they comprise about a quarter of the U.S. population. These born-again Christians include President Bush, who credits God with helping him stay on the wagon. His 2000 Democratic challenger Al Gore and former President Jimmy Carter have also been reborn. In a country where 80 percent of the population believe in God and nearly 60 percent say they believe that the apocalypse - as predicted in the Book of Revelations - will actually happen, the belief in spiritual rebirth almost seems mainstream.


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