The Rise of the Megachurch
Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium
by Brad Stetson
In Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium sociologist Donald E. Miller insightfully describes the stunningly rapid rise of the nondenominational evangelical Christian churches known as Calvary Chapel, Hope Chapel, and Vineyard Christian Fellowship—all of which are politically and theologically conservative megachurches reshaping the popular practice of Christian faith.
Beginning in southern California and spreading across the country and now internationally, these “new paradigm” churches, as Miller calls them, have grown exponentially from their origins in the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Featuring verse-by-verse Bible teaching from youthful pastors who usually have no seminary training, a breezy contemporary music that fuels emotive and sometimes ecstatic worship, and a deliberate emphasis on cultural currency, these churches—which often begin as home Bible studies—expand with remarkable frequency into thriving assemblies of several hundred and sometimes several thousand members. (Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, the original such fellowship, is something of a religious conglomerate, embracing about 12,000 members, a K–12 school, a radio station, a recording label, an adult Bible school, and numerous other endeavors.)
The “new paradigm” of which Miller speaks is, he says, really first-century Christianity redux, purged of the distracting trappings of routinized charismatic authority and bureaucratized religion common today (and fatal to religious bodies aiming to attract congregants in postmodern America). This model is augmented by a lay-oriented, decentralized organizational style and a practical pedagogical idiom that richly resonates with the contemporary affection—particularly of baby boomers—for egalitarian association and direct, ready access to the sacred with the transformative, personally inspirational experiences it engenders.
Miller holds that these churches excel not only because their conservative theology and expectation of individual service elicits deep commitment and close association from members, but also because they have directly connected with the pervasive psychological mood of so many postmodern, socially restless, anomic refugees from the destructive cultural renovations of recent history. This consonance is not mere serendipity. Comparing new paradigm churches to entrepreneurial companies, Miller shows that these religious organizations deliberately focus on the needs and expectations of their “clients,” consciously seek new “markets,” and “franchise” when their size becomes too unwieldy to effectively serve constituents.
Miller sees these churches—with their bourgeois values, literalistic interpretation of the Bible, and clear political conservatism (Miller’s congregational surveys record 68 percent of parishioners identifying themselves as conservatives)—as an ironic product of the sixties counterculture. As a religious style, they have embraced elements of the therapeutic, individualistic, and antiestablishment themes of that decade sans the accompanying narcissism, personal unaccountability, and atomism that spawned so many far-reaching pathologies. Indeed, many who are a part of new paradigm bodies were driven toward them precisely because of their deep discontent with the morally destructive aspects of countercultural values. Nonetheless, as Miller says of these believers in explaining their attraction to the informality of new paradigm churches, “[T]heir aesthetic tastes and understanding of institutional life [are] products of the sixties.”
Throughout his narrative Miller is admirably fair to the churches and people he profiles, even though he makes it clear that as an unrepentant Episcopalian he does not agree with their theology or politics. But his dissent does not color his analysis, which is rather emphatic in its respect and even admiration for these Christians. Their tolerance of different personal styles, genuine love for God, zeal for religious experience, and lack of pretension all appeal to him. In fact, one wonders if his resolute designation of these churches as outside the relevant established Protestant categories of fundamentalist, evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic—a placement he bases on new paradigm groups’ unique commitment to cultural currency and their unrivaled emphasis on one’s individual relationship with Jesus—evinces a certain cognitive dissonance between his own liberal Protestant worldview and his affection for new paradigm believers rather than the alleged reality that such churches are truly religiously and attitudinally sui generis compared to Evangelicals or, in the case of the Vineyard, charismatics.
But classifications aside, with this consistently illuminating work Miller has clarified one of the most influential and politically significant religious movements afoot today, and displayed a winsome humility and unquestionable academic honesty that is a dwindling commodity in the ideologically charged marketplace of contemporary scholarship.
Brad Stetson holds a Ph.D. in Social Ethics from the University of Southern California and has written five scholarly books, including The Silent Subject: Reflections on the Unborn in American Culture, as well as numerous articles for newspapers and magazines. He is book review editor for The Christian Times and Director of The David Institute, a social research group based in Tustin, California.
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“The Rise of the Megachurch” first appeared in the April 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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