With congregants numbering in the thousands, megachurches are a firmly suburban phenomenon, often promoting a prosperity gospel designed to mesh with the affluent lifestyle of suburbanites.
Jesus had a favorite suburb. According to pastor Leith Anderson, Jesus’s favorite suburb was Bethany, and the Messiah actually commuted to Jerusalem to work. All of his “best friends” lived in Bethany (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), so it made sense for Jesus to live in a suburb instead of in the urban center. Although Anderson does recognize that Bethany may have been different from the modern extraurban manifestations of sprawling gated communities and planned neighborhoods that have come to represent suburban life, he insists that Jesus was, like so many Americans today, very much the suburbanite. The minister has only one purpose for placing his savior in a suburban environment: to demonstrate that the suburbs can be useful and “authentic” spaces for spiritual activities. He argues, for instance, that Jesus performed his “top miracle” in Bethany by raising Lazarus from the dead. What Anderson attempts to accomplish in this narrative is to combat the notion that suburbs are spiritual vacuums, void of any real religious substance. If Jesus lived and prospered in one, he asserts, then so can many Americans.
Like Anderson, many of today’s evangelicals strive to reconcile their suburban lifestyle with their Christian walk. There is a heavy emphasis in modern Christian literature on how believers may be “good stewards” in a consumer-oriented environment—an environment that often conjures a suburban mythos. The growing megachurch movement combines popular religion with suburban culture to offer a possible solution to the divide between faith and consumption. A church qualifies as “mega” when it has an average attendance of at least two thousand per week; some megachurches have more than sixty thousand congregants. These massive churches provide extremely large, contemporary services in state-of-the-art buildings and are generally constructed for the preferences of suburban congregations. The forms of entertainment and doctrinal foci of these churches differ based on their particular suburbs and local demographics, but one thing that remains constant is megachurch leaders’ rhetoric regarding the churches they promote. The suburbs (even the stereotypical and unrealistic image of picket fences and cookie-cutter houses) represent a common motif in evangelical literature and sermons. Megachurches promote and defend an image of prosperity and plastic religion that reflects a self-imposed image of the suburb that they seek to serve. This essay situates the megachurch in a suburban context, exploring architecture, ritual, and rhetoric that connect congregations to their surroundings. It presents the rhetoric of megachurch pastors, proponents, and opponents who identify megachurches as a suburban phenomenon and argues that megachurches have constructed their architecture and services to reflect the self-selected symbols of suburbia, offering their own contributions to the national discourse over the nature of suburbia.
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