The Megachurch Juggernaut: The making of McChurch

The megachurch phenomenon is four decades in the making. Unleashed in the anti-establishment cultural shift of the 1960s, the first modern ritual-less services to gain megachurch traction were harvested in the Crystal Cathedral of Orange County, California. According to the New Yorker, televangelist Robert H. Schuller, founder of Crystal Cathedral, “advocated and launched what has become known as the marketing approach to Christianity.” These tactics included, among other things, referring to church guests as “customers.”  

Rooted in Pentecostalism, the megachurch of today is breaking all kinds of new ground. The Madison Square Garden of the south? Yes, that actually is a church. In 2005 Joel Osteen, head pastor and televangelist of the world famous Lakewood Church, spiritual home to some 30,000 members, had, according to Business Week, laid out “$90 million to transform the massive Compaq Center in downtown Houston (former home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets) into a church…complete with a high-tech stage for his TV shows and Sunday School for 5,000 children.” Osteen predicted that the move would ultimately launch weekend attendance to numbers at or near 100,000. According to Lakewood’s website, Osteen’s “broadcast [now expands] into over 200 million households.” As of 2007, Lakewood’s congregation has grown to over 52,000 and climbing. Says Osteen to Business Week: “Other churches have not kept up and they lose people by not changing with the times.” 

Modern megachurches tend to be characterized not only in size (over 2,000 members), but in subscribing to corporate standards of operation. Conspicuously epitomizing a “market approach” to Christ has given way to the term “seeker-friendly.” The seeker-friendly method aims at making church as unobtrusive and entertaining as possible in order to expand and exponentially thrive on an infinite base of new customers. Hence, what is often called—or what critics consider—a self-centered over God-centered theology seems to marginalize biblical orthodoxy by reducing God to a practical “domesticated deity,” to quote the New Yorker: “a God [demanding] no real sacrifice from his children.”  

Megachurches are modeled off the Fortune 500 playbook where church leaders are literally CEOs. As reported in Business Week, Reverend Bill Hybels, founder of the 20,000 member strong Willow Creek Community Church in affluent South Barrington, Illinois, “hired Stanford MBA Greg Hawkins, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, to handle the church’s day-to-day management.” Identical to Joel Osteen, Hybels strings together self-help programs with optimistic messages intended “to make people feel good about themselves.” Indeed, Business Week continues, “So adept at the sell are some evangelicals that it can be difficult to distinguish between their religious aims and the secular style they mimic.”

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