The Nation's Pulse

Megachurch Going

In defense of Big Religion.

By From the April 2014 issue

Solid Rock Megachuch (Wikimedia Commons)
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“Our. God. Feels.” Pastor Dave Bushnell slowed down, pronouncing the words distinctly. Then he stopped, giving us a moment for the three syllables to sink in. “Our God reigns” might have been what the audience had expected him to say, from the title—and the refrain—of the popular worship song by that name. This inversion of expectations roped listeners into the message.

Bushnell is a wiry man with close-cropped hair. On the third Sunday in January, he was dressed in faded blue jeans and a red, white, and black plaid button-down shirt. Behind him, a large screen, one of many in the cavernous auditorium of Cornwall Church, displayed a collection of verses from the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. Here were verses in which God the Father and Jesus Christ expressed what sounded suspiciously like emotions. Compassion, distress, sorrow, regret: the whole gamut of human feeling. Such seemingly emotional passages have long presented a problem for theologians because they seem to contradict classical Christian formulations about God—His being all knowing, all powerful, unchanging, and good, for instance.

Jesus the theologians can explain through paradox. The Catholic Church has officially considered the central character of the New Testament to be “truly man and truly God” (“verus homus, verus Deus,” for Latin Mass enthusiasts) since the fifth century. Any difficult emotional passages they can bracket off under his humanity and the mystery of the Incarnation. The emotional God of the Old Testament, especially in his angrier moments, is more of a problem.

Theologians have road tested a number of interpretive approaches over the years, yet Bushnell’s improvisation seems fairly novel. “Our emotional life is born of God,” he said. Feelings are part of man’s being created “in the image and likeness of God.” To repress emotions is to cut ourselves off from “a significant portion of our humanity” and the “language of our souls”—and thus from the Almighty.

Bushnell used several metaphors to press his case. Emotions are like the check engine light on a car’s dashboard, providing a heads-up that one’s “spiritual condition” needs to be looked at pronto. Emotions are like an iceberg, Bushnell said as he took a hammer and chisel to a block of ice. You can see a little bit on the surface but much more lies beneath. Either deal with those feelings now or be ready for an emotional crack-up that rivals the Titanic.

Behind his message is painful personal experience, Bushnell admitted. After being hurt by a number of people, he repressed his emotions rather than deal with them. It made him an ineffective pastor and almost ruined his marriage until his wife Stacy staged an intervention. Friends and family implored him to deal with what was weighing him down.

The solution to his problem was God—and lots of therapy. Bushnell saw two Christian counselors every week for six months to work through his emotional problems. “It’s. Really. Hard,” he warned us, but worth it. He cited a verse from Revelation. The author foresaw a point at the end of time when Jesus Christ would again walk among his followers and “wipe every tear from their eyes.”

The good news according to Bushnell was that we needn’t wait for the apocalypse for this to happen. Our all-feeling God could set us all to right here and now, possibly with a good deal of help from trained Christian professionals.

Bushnell is the community life pastor at Cornwall Church, one of the two megachurches in Whatcom County, the northwestern-most county in the contiguous United States. As a megachurch it only just makes the cut, claiming 2,000 worshipers every week—though more if you count folks at a new campus in Skagit County, which borders Whatcom on its Southern flank.

According to Warren Bird and Scott Thuma, scholars associated with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research who have established most of the benchmarks on the subject, megachurches are a Protestant thing. They are usually characterized by 2,000 or more regulars as well as a “charismatic, authoritative senior minister”; a “very active seven-day-a-week congregational community”; a “multitude of social and outreach ministries”; and a “complex differentiated organizational structure.”

If you call Cornwall a megachurch to Cornwallians, they often protest, “We’re not Christ the King!” the other local megachurch that claims 3,000 to 4,000 worshipers in the facility closest to Cornwall’s and an additional 2,000 to 2,200 at other autonomous churches around the county. Cornwall’s website highlights the fact that for most of the church’s history, there was nothing mega about it.

It was founded by a small group of Church-of God-ers around the turn of the twentieth century and grew to forty members by the 1940s and 100 members by late 1960s. Cornwall took its name from a city park near where the church met for some time, holding services both at a small facility and the Boys & Girls Club.

Cornwall’s current head pastor, with the improbable name of Bob Marvel (known as “Pastor Bob” to almost everyone), was in 1992 youth minister at the church, which then numbered in the hundreds. He was offered the interim and then senior pastor posts. A tall man with gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, Marvel would strike most observers as more “charismatic” than “authoritative.”

Marvel can be a bit of a hippie. He has been known to preach in jeans, a muscle shirt, and sandals. He once pretended to eat a slug on stage. (He eventually explained to grossed-out members of the audience that it was a prop.) In his spare time, Marvel runs long distance, and missed the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing only because he ran really fast, finishing a half hour ahead of the boom.

His experience as youth pastor equipped Marvel well to lead a growing, young, ambitious congregation. Youth pastors have to find a way to get the kids’ attention. An eye for spectacle comes in handy. To wit, in warmer months, the church erects two above-ground swimming pools on one level of the terraced parking lot. Pastors take turns baptizing dozens of would-be members in the two pools after they have professed faith in Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior,” or words to that effect.

Marvel leads the more theologically adventuresome of the two Whatcom megachurches, as Bushnell’s preachment shows. Leading up to Christmas a few years back, Marvel preached a four-part series of sermons on the Virgin Mary. He tried to take what the Catholic Church had to say about her seriously without endorsing it in every detail, and called up a priest he knew for pointers.

In one service, Marvel walked the congregation through the Hail Mary. He pointed out that most of it is actually a pastiche of Bible verses and thus mostly unobjectionable even from a “me, God, and the Bible” perspective. Before he spoke, a female vocalist sang “Ave Maria.” Marvel called it a beautiful song and wondered why some people would be offended by an ode to Jesus Christ’s mom that derives from Scripture.

Though a few people filed out in protest, most stuck around and pondered what Pastor Bob had to say.

Marvel’s hail mary sermonizing put a curious notion in my head that I couldn’t ever shake. To finally test it out this January, I drove a few blocks south of my home in Lynden to the offices of North County Christ the King, which has taken over most of a strip mall. In his office, I asked veteran youth pastor Sean Taylor a superficially absurd question: “Do you consider yourself a Protestant?”

That’s right, I asked a Protestant minister whether he considered himself Protestant.

Here’s why: according to religious identification surveys, America is a much less Protestant place than it used to be. The issue isn’t church attendance, which has undergone only a slight decline since the middle of the twentieth century, but religious self-identification. One of the big reasons for the drop-off in Protestants is that a number of people who are objectively Protestant have ceased to call themselves that. They stubbornly self-identify only as Christians.

Many churches took to calling themselves “nondenominational” in the hope of reaching a larger potential group of people. This used to prompt the learned joke, “What kind of nondenominational church are you?” But it seemed to me that the religious landscape has shifted enough in America that many churchgoers may not even know they’re Protestants anymore. And: The rise of growth-focused megachurches may be fueling this trend.

As Taylor started to answer, I felt a lot less stupid. “Yeah, sure,” he considers himself a Protestant, he said, but that was probably his “Presbyterian roots” showing. He thought he saw a move in favor of “Protestantism” in a subset of youths today, but by that he meant a surprising interest in liturgy and tradition. Christ the King has its roots in the Assemblies of God movement but is now thoroughly non-denominational, he said.

“OK, but what kind of non-denominational?” I couldn’t resist. Taylor said the Christ the King churches may be “very different in their brand.” He thought in Dutch Reformed-heavy Lynden “we lean more Reformed,” though North County Christ the King embraces a contemporary worship style that doesn’t bother with liturgy.

Even if this sort of brand-focused pandenominationalism were unique to Christ the King, it would still make a splash in American religious life in next few years. The first Christ the King was established in Bellingham in the late 1980s. From it came three more churches at the turn of the century, all close by.

Those Christ the King churches, in turn, have planted other churches, in the U.S. and around the world. Of the tithe collected every week in the offering plates at Taylor’s church, the first 10 percent is passed on to these new branches. According to the ctkchurch.com website, Christ the King now has “campuses” in twenty-one cities in Washington state; churches in Colorado, Florida, Oregon, and Idaho; and international plants in Canada, Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Africa.

Taylor pegged the total number of Christ the Kings worldwide at about 400, with hundreds more to come.

To some, this is a huge problem. It’s easy to tie megachurchers up in pretzels by asking about the size of their churches. Their anxieties echo Americans’ historic distrust of big anything: Big Government, Big Business, the Vatican. So it was refreshing to hear Taylor issue a full-throated defense of Big Religion.

To critics of church growth who complain that it’s all a “numbers game,” the spiritual equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, Taylor retorted, “Yeah, we are about the numbers, because we are about reaching lost people.” Numbers can tell you a lot about how that’s working out, he argued. In fact, “There’s a whole book in the Bible about Numbers.”

People who don’t see the benefits of big growth- oriented churches, Taylor said, are not looking closely enough. Megachurches aren’t undifferentiated blobs of people. They’re large communities made up of “small groups caring for one another.” People who try out megachurches but can’t seem to find a place for themselves usually never come around to joining one of these small groups.

Further, the economies of scale that come with a great number of members are a Godsend for Taylor. The size of his congregation makes it easier to for him run programs competently. He has a decent budget, which, among other things, means that he earns a reasonable salary. (He needs it: he has four young children, aged nine, seven, five, and three.) He also has more potential volunteers at his disposal, which has made it possible for him to carve out niche ministries that address the needs of the few.

Taylor recalled overhearing the grumbling when North County Christ the King was just getting established. Lynden was already a heavily churched town, with fourteen Reformed congregations and maybe as many other churches of different denominations. Why was there a need for one more?

He insisted that most of the church’s early growth was fueled not by poaching from other congregations but by conversions. “There’s still people in the woodwork,” he said, “that don’t know Jesus.” Even very churchy towns have their share of “lost, hurting, and ruined people” of the type that Christ the King has had some success in reaching. Sometimes megachurches rush in where Presbyterians fear to tread, and pull it off. 

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.