A new breed of megachurches growing in U.S. exurban areas are taking on greater social service functions in the absence of infrastructures in these towns, reports the New York Times Magazine (March 27).
The megachurches growing in the exurbs, the new communities established beyond traditional suburbs during the mid to late 1990s, share a number of common traits, according to writer Jonathan Mahler: They tend to be in the sunbelt, provide a “locus for community” in the absence of town centers and neighborhood gathering places, and they serve important social service needs in these frontier towns, almost functioning as “surrogate governments.”
While the megachurches established in the 1980s and other congregations (black churches, for instance) have served these functions, Mahler claims that these newer churches are more expansive, seeking to play a more prominent role in their communities through establishing schools and other services for the young families crowding into them. They are also more intentional about developing mature Christians through small group involvement, according to the article.
Radiant Church in Surprise, Arizona, is taken as the prime example of this trend: the Assemblies of God congregation has grown to an attendance of 5,000 in seven years through its entertainment and social service oriented programs, even running a secular charter school, which nevertheless serves as a recruiting ground for the church,. Although he doesn‘t provide much documentation, Mahler adds that the new exurb mega churches tend to be more active in Republican politics.
Meanwhile, how successful are American-style megachurches when transplanted to secular Europe? A recent study of megachurch-style ministries in the Netherlands suggests that such churches may find a less enthusiastic response in a secular environment. A paper by Eric Sengers delivered last October at the Conference on Religion, Economics and Culture examined the Dutch member churches of the Willow Creek Association, a network of seeker-based churches led by Willow Creek Church, the pioneer megachurch in the U.S. Contrary to its success in the U.S., the Dutch Willow Creek congregations showed little growth, coming close to the average church growth patterns in their respective regions.
Sengers does note that 10 Willow Creek churches studied were mostly members of the mainline Reformed churches and did not adopt the complete seeker-based program found in most megachurches. Independent congregations that have more freedom to adopt the Willow Creek program do show “limited success” compared with that of mainline churches. But Sengers concludes that an “evangelical revival” is not occurring in Dutch Protestantism.