The coffee is complimentary at Church of the Highlands. So is the hearty handshake and warm smile that meets everyone at the door. If parishioners want something a little extra, say a cappuccino or latte, there’s a place for that inside too. But that will cost them.
Part of what makes Church of the Highlands and other megachurches successful is the ability to offer their flock the opportunity to tailor their own experience, even down to their own preferred method of caffeine intake, according to Dr. Piotr Malysz, an assistant professor at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School.
At churches of this magnitude, Malysz likens an individual’s experience to that of going to a shopping mall, where “consumerism is reinforced.” He believes this to be an essential part of what makes up a megachurch and what sets it apart from the “old church.”
With that, the concept of church seems to be evolving, at least for those who have become part of the megachurch movement.
A megachurch is typically non-denominational and boasts a weekly attendance that exceeds 2,000 people. In Alabama, there are 36 churches that meet these criteria, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The Birmingham metro area is home to 15 of these massive congregations.
Founded in 2001 by Pastor Chris Hodges, Church of the Highlands (COTH) quickly established itself as a powerful player in the local church scene. In just 14 years, the COTH has expanded to 11 locations, with the central hub located just off I-459 on Grants Mill Road. Nearly 22,000 people visit COTH on a weekly basis.
COTH serves as a homegrown example of the exponential growth that megachurches are capable of achieving in a relatively short amount of time.
One Sunday night, hundreds of people began to file into the auditorium at the COTH’s main campus. The music was loud and the production on stage seemed professionally done — according to the COTH’s financial statement, in 2013 the church’s music, sound and video equipment was listed as being worth $7,648,476 — with lights, cameras and even a boom operator.
As the worship music subsided, a screen was lowered over the stage and the face of Hodges appeared. He asked the congregation to bow their heads. Hundreds of heads bowed in unison towards the screen. This is the standard procedure on Sunday nights at COTH, when the morning’s service is always rebroadcasted on the big screen.
It should be noted that in 2013, COTH spent roughly $8.5 million in staff salaries, including pastors. Still, the morning’s message is replayed later in the day instead of having another in-person service. Malysz said this is done in order to ensure continuity in the message, which is typically part of a series of sermons.
Sunday’s service was no different. It was the third part in a series about relationships.
In spite of this pastoral detachment, parishioners are not deterred from interacting with the prerecorded message, even repeating the pastor’s words when asked to, as if he were standing in the flesh awaiting a response from the audience.
With the success that COTH has achieved in recent years, it raises the question: Has the idea of traditional church become so antiquated that a church must be able to provide this kind of production in order to gain membership?
And has offering this kind of service — a message that can be delivered to any computer screen — become a necessity in an increasingly globalized society? How vital is branding and self-promotion for churches that have to compete for membership?
Over the course of several months, Weld reached out to the COTH administration seeking an interview about the modernization of church culture and the growth their church has seen in the last 14 years. But emails, calls and even an in-person visit were all met with the same response: “We typically don’t talk to the media.”
Tap the vein of consumerism
As a professor at the Beeson School of Divinity, Malysz is very familiar with the inner workings of the church. In a paper he published, “The Megachurch and the Politics of Desire,” Malysz discusses at length how megachurches must to be able to tap into the vein of consumerism as a way to attract and retain membership.
“The megachurch wishes to cash in on our desire for self-satisfaction. It wishes to harness our consumerist attitude to church, our ‘church consumption,’” Malysz wrote, “This very desire gives rise to the megachurch in the first place. In appealing to this desire the megachurch reconfigures worship space to purge it of all ritualistic and seemingly legalistic elements in order to allow desire to come to the forefront and flow freely.”
Malysz believes, however, that this same consumerist drive that the megachurch hopes to capture cannot go unchecked. Rather, that drive, he said, must be sublimated into a kingdom-building project.
“The way I understand church — from my own traditions — and the gospel, it’s a time of rest. It’s a time of realization that God has done this work of salvation on our behalf and we can rest,” Malysz said over the phone. Although Christianity is, by its own nature, designed for followers to be active and spread the gospel, the megachurch does not afford its congregation any rest, he continued.
In order for followers to remain active and continue to spread the church’s message, the megachurch manufactures its own form of guilt, according to Malysz.
“It creates its own kind of guilt if people just take time to rest and reflect. We are a culture that not only consumes, but one that is very doing-oriented, in a way that for people, things aren’t really significant or don’t really make sense if we can’t make something of them or do something with them,” Malysz said. “This kind of consumerism finds its own confirmation in the megachurch instead being extinguished.”
Malysz refers to an idea about communities of affinity and communities of kinship.
“Communities of affinity are these communities that people want to belong to,” he explained. This could be anything from a professional organization, to a guild, to even identifying oneself as a hipster. “People want to belong. There is a big market for these kinds of shelters that people can affiliate themselves with,” Malysz said.
By being able to offer such a wide range of programs and opportunities for people, and by offering their very own brand of Christianity, these megachurches are able to market themselves as communities of affinity. However, on the flip side of this belief, Malysz explained, is the trouble of feeling detached and anonymous that comes with the territory of belonging to such a large congregation.
“The problem with communities of affinity is they are all predicated on the fundamental act of my own choices. I decide to engage, and therefore I can choose to disengage. And it reinforces that shopping mentality. And because of this, those communities can never be one of kinship,” Malysz said.
He argues that communities of kinship — that is, “Communities that you are born into and feel some kind of responsibility for” — are what people are really longing for.
Perhaps this is one of the key differences between the “old church” and the megachurch. As Malysz put it, “It’s this disillusion of community that makes these megachurches compete for loyalty.”
This competition for loyalty is waged through branding and calculated marketing strategies, said Dr. Kevin Dougherty, a professor of sociology at Baylor University, whose research is focused on American congregations.
“Megachurches work intentionally to brand themselves. They employ professionals, including marketing professionals. Logos, signage, media and advertising are skillfully created to market the church. Megachurches resemble businesses in their approach to marketing and brand management, because both types of organizations rely on professionals to handle these tasks. Professionalization is an important source of isomorphism,” Dougherty said.
In doing this, Dougherty explained, megachurches are able to expand their reach beyond a single location. “They do so with multiple sites for services. Rather than plant new, independent congregations, these megachurches operate as quasi-denominations with locations that bear the brand name and benefit from the leadership, financial resources and name recognition of the mother church. Megachurches also expand their reach through conferences, multimedia and other branded products.”
The rise of the megachurch
First and foremost, in order to achieve success — which can be measured by weekly attendance and financial stability — a megachurch must be entrepreneurial.
There are several factors that have led to the megachurch phenomenon, according to Dr. Darren Dochuk, a religion and politics professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Dochuk authored the book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, which tracks the emergence of evangelical preachers and their mega-churches from the margins of the Depression-era Bible Belt into the mainstream of California’s “Sunbelt.”
Dochuk said that in post-war America, particularly in the 1950s and ‘60s, the emergence of megachurches was almost a reaction to the old establishment. “People were yearning for religion and spirituality outside of the longstanding traditions. Megachurches were part of that new wave of reinvigorating that evangelical belief,” Dochuk said.
This was also tied to people moving to the suburbs during this same time period and the decentralization of the church structure. “These large independent churches became the new center for identity and place for belonging in these highly decentralized landscapes,” Dochuk said.
In order to grow and retain membership, these megachurches have been, and continue to be, highly innovative, Dochuk said. “I think they are a testament to some really profound and widespread changes in American life. Internally, I’ve studied a few of them and I think they are able to provide these cradle-to-the-grave services and are able to reach out to their parishioners in very dynamic ways that older, more denominational churches are not able to do,” Dochuk explained.
Dougherty agrees with this notion. “Megachurches offer a dazzling array of high-caliber religious products. With a successful brand, these congregations become more than huge worship gatherings. They become quasi-denominations, training centers, publishing houses and media outlets. This type of success attracts religious adherents,” Dougherty said.
Aside from these products that megachurches are able to supply for their congregations, they also serve as powerful political and economic drivers. Dochuk describes this as “evangelical conservatism.”
After a westward migration in the 20th century, Southern Baptists began to have in impact on evangelicalism in southern California, Dochuk explained. During the 1960s, this new form of evangelicalism helped spawn the conservative movement, led in part by Ronald Reagan.
“So evangelical conservatism is a way to show the origins of the religious right, in hopes of showing how evangelical beliefs led to a range of conservative political initiatives, from free-market economy, to ideas of military and the state, to, most notably, social issues,” Dochuk said.
As for the South, he continued, “The church has always been a central feature of life, particularly with Protestant denominations such as Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, and they have always operated in the heart of the small town and helped to make up the cultural fabric of the South.”
This was until the suburbanization of the 1960s and the expansion of the South’s economic power. During this time period, Dochuk said, the South was transformed into a postmodern economic landscape, and with that, the Southern evangelical churches also grew. During this time period, the church played an even more pivotal role in civic and political life in the South during the fight for civil rights.
In the present day, Dochuk believes the church continues to play a huge role in influencing the political and social landscape in the South.
“Religion operates at the heart of public and political life in the South. I think certainly Southern religion is becoming more diverse, due in part to immigration and social change,” Dochuk said. “But there is still very much a Protestant core that exercises its will on public life.”
Alabama is no stranger to the entangled relationship between church and state, Dr. Vince Gawronski, a professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College, explained.
“The megachurch is a powerful political machine,” Gawronski said, “Let’s just say if Alabama were to secede — like a bunch of people cried for after Obama was reelected — and become its own nation, it would be run as a theocracy. You think about who is in power, what people value, and the fact that our state is still being drug into the 21st century, it would be interesting to see what it would look like here.”
Gawronski noted the recent developments with gay marriage being allowed in Alabama and the backlash that has come from Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has labeled gay marriage as an “abomination” and even said on Fox News, “This power over marriage which came from God under our organic law is not to be redefined by the United States Supreme Court or any federal court.”
Can politics and religion ever truly be separated in Alabama? Gawronski doesn’t believe so. “Just look at Mormonism in Utah,” he said. “It’s a political force. And then you look at the similarities between Mormonism and a megachurch. They’re both innately political and both want to be able to maintain their nonprofit status, so the church is going to make sure whoever is in office doesn’t ever threaten that.”
The cost of it all
On March 8, COTH will be opening a new campus in Alabaster. It will be the church’s 11th location to open in only 14 years.
This rapid growth has been made entirely possible by the tithes given to the church. A quick look at the COTH financial statement shows a very rapid growth trend.
In 2012, the church received roughly $36.9 million in tithes. In 2013, the church received about $48 million in tithes, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
To put it simply, Dochuk said, smaller churches can’t compete financially with megachurches, which, like COTH for example, have roughly $91.7 million in total assets. “These larger churches have a lot more financial capability to provide far-reaching services in a way that smaller, local bodies just can’t,” Dochuck said. “In our age of mass marketing and the globalized economy, that kind of methodology — that is, the megachurch methodology — makes a lot of sense when you think about it.”
At the end of the day, Dochuk said, we are all consumers. We shop around, we find what’s best for us, we find what makes us happy and we consume it. And in this way, being able to customize one’s religious experience to best suit individual wants and needs is making increasingly more sense in the modern world.
But the methods used by the megachurch — the branding, the self-promotion, the customizable sermons — come with a price, and not everyone is willing to buy into it, according to Dochuk.
“Megachurches have become incredibly powerful players on an international level, in a way that small churches will never come close to. But this comes with a cost,” Dochuk said, pausing momentarily. “I’m sure you’ve seen the backlash and growing response within evangelical circles against this megachurch phenomenon. There has been a return of young people to reclaim the authenticity of these smaller, community churches and to downplay the consumerism that we find in the megachurch as a way to get back to the essence of the old, traditional gospel in a way that megachurches are not able to compete with.”