Crabgrass Piety: The Rise of Megachurches and the Suburban Social Religion, 1960-2000
Although there were less than twenty megachurches (churches averaging over two thousand in weekly attendance) in the United States before 1960, by 2010 there were approximately fifteen hundred. Megachurches are not a homogenous group, but they exist in all parts of the country and they have enough in common to warrant their identification as part of a coherent trend in American evangelical culture. Specifically, most megachurches appeal to an ethos that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s known as the suburban social religion. The suburban social religion combined to differing degrees the American civil religion described by Robert Bellah, meritocratic consumerism, the Therapeutic Moralistic Deism described by Christian Smith, and a faith in managerial science.
With respect to church structure, the suburban social religion placed a high value on running the church as a business and giving worshippers what they wanted. These values meshed well with those of the Church Growth Movement. The suburban social religion helped engender the celebration and emulation of entrepreneurial pastors, entertaining worship services, and therapeutic messages. It also fit well with the center-right political discourse of the national Republican Party. Megachurch growth provoked a number of critics, who in the early 1990s severely chastised large churches for catering to consumerism. Finally, American megachurches connected with large churches in other parts of the world. These large churches in many cases predate the rise of American megachurches, and have become important centers in an emerging global evangelical megachurch culture.
Although new megachurches will continue to appear, and existing ones will remain strong for many years to come, they have not managed to arrest the secularization of American society. Megachurches are in fact a prime example of the church’s loss of influence over other social spheres. Furthermore, in most communities megachurches have failed to stop the overall decline of religious adherence rates among Protestants. They have nevertheless become the most visible evangelical cultural institutions in most metropolitan areas. An understanding of megachurches therefore deepens an understanding of how American communities have changed more generally since 1970.