In South Barrington, Illinois, just northwest of Chicago, lies a 155-acre campus resembling a junior college or perhaps a manufacturer of something clean, like pharmaceuticals or computer parts. On one side of the main compound is a greensward, on another side is a five-acre reflecting pond, and out in front are vast black slabs of endless parking, where swarms of men wearing reflective vests and radio headsets assist drivers attempting to find an open space. Shuttle buses loop around the lots; sometimes it's so busy that off-duty cops are hired to help direct traffic.
It looks like a mall on a busy holiday weekend, but it is the Willow Creek Community Church, and it could be any weekend. In almost every city or suburb of more than 200,000 there is a similar megachurch, as they are known, a product of suburban sprawl, religious marketing, consumer demand, the entertainment economy, and the good old-fashioned yearning for communal experience. Megachurches draw young, committed, and energetic members; listen to parishioners talk and you will hear a refrain of growth"we're growing"as if it were proof of redemptive success. And they deliver a highly emotional product: the marriage of group affiliation and a conversion experience, complete with videos, pop music, and other modern dramatic flourishes.
You might have predicted their rise from shifting demographics alone. Mainline denominations are drying up. In rural communities and cities, congregations of fewer than 100 are shutting their doors at a rate of 60 a week. Megachurches, meanwhile, have increased in number by 30 percent in the last four years. Out in the suburbs, Christianity is experiencing the same consumer shifts that occur when Sam's Club or Costco comes to town. Megachurches can have congregations that are black or white, evangelical or not; half belong to no traditional denomination. Scholars call them "postdenominational churches" or parts of the "new apostolic reformation." Their own laity call them "purpose-driven" or "seeker-sensitive" churches. Detractors call them McChurches or Wal-Mart churches. But whatever they are called, they deserve to be taken seriously, if only because they help explain why George W. Bush is still sitting in the Oval Office and how suburban malaise can be transformed into a multitude of organized, values-driven voters. Not by happenstance did Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ play the megachurch circuit before making its theatrical debut. These are the churches that held get-out-the-vote rallies and stressed the importance of politics in the service of religion.