April 30, 2006
Let us prey
I hate modern churches. Like hospitals, they have the kind of institutional smell that promises pain—and at least you get anesthetic in hospital. That said, watching 21st-century churches drop megabucks to lure more victims is kinda entertaining—largely because crassness and Christianity tend to go hand in hand. Some fine examples from the past few days:
First, the (subscription-only) Wall Street Journal looks at mega-churches, and how they are becoming God’s Own Wal-Marts—nobody wants them in their backyard:
A growing number of churches with huge congregations are growing so large that they need unconventional spaces in which to expand. Such churches – typically Protestant with regular weekly attendance of more than 2,000 – have doubled in the past five years to about 1,200, with almost a quarter of them in California and Texas, says Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn.
To make room for members, many churches are moving into commercial and retail spaces such as strip malls, big box locations and corporate campuses. Though often less spectacular in design than conventional churches, these buildings tend to be cheaper than new construction.
Large churches also see such properties as more desirable because they might attract potential churchgoers who are shopping at a retailer next door or across the street. And plenty of suburban property is available thanks to a commercial and retail push to both the fringes and downtowns of large urban areas.
But not everyone is giving thanks for the push into unorthodox religious real estate. The moves have sparked controversy, much as store-front churches did when they began popping up in the inner city years ago. Though protected by a 2000 federal law designed to shield religious institutions from discrimination in land use, churches acquiring commercial and retail property still find themselves under fire. Mr. Thumma says communities are often distrustful of large congregations trying to expand from a nearby town or city. They are reluctant to cede potential business real estate to nonprofits and leery of increased traffic and the demand a church might have for city services.
For three years, Christ Church of Montclair, N.J., has been locked in a battle with Rockaway Township, N.J., over its $14 million acquisition of Agilent Technologies Inc.’s 107-acre office and research facility there.
In addition to a 2,500-seat sanctuary, the church wants to build a K-5 school and recreational facilities for its congregation of nearly 5,000 people. But local officials, concerned about the impact of a crush of parishioners on city services and a potential loss of tax dollars, have so far blocked the project.
“What are we getting out of this?” says Louis Sceusi, mayor of Rockaway Township, which has a population of 22,000. Christ Church, in turn, has filed a federal lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.
Odd, I thought that was what evangelicals practiced. Still, if Rockaway Township was in Britain, it could be a whole lot worse:
The Hymnal Plus, a karaoke-like machine with a repertoire of 3,000 hymns and psalms, is becoming a must-have item at churches around the country.
As well as traditional songs of praise, the British-made machine can play a disco version of Amazing Grace and a jazzy adaptation of The Lord’s My Shepherd. Church-goers who struggle to remember the words can look up at a big screen for help, just like real karaoke.
… Worried by the shortage and ageing population of organists, churches are beginning to snap up the machine, which costs £1,900. The 15th century St Mary the Virgin church in Mudford, near Yeovil in Somerset, was one of the first customers. The parish does have an organist, Christine Whitby, but she is in her 80s and sometimes wants a week off.
Bill Watkins, a church warden and now “hymn DJ”, will have his fingers on the remote control when it makes its debut next month. He said: “We don’t want to replace Christine with this box of tricks but it will allow her to take a break or to stay away without her feeling guilty when she is feeling under the weather. There are no young organists on the horizon, which is a nationwide problem so one day it might be all we have.”
Christianity’s techno-worship leads c|net to ask: Is Jesus the next killer app?
Companies such as Sony, Panasonic, Avid and Hitachi are helping churches spread the gospel as part of an effort to cash in on an exploding market known as “house of worship technology.”
In recent years, members of the clergy have begun competing with MTV, video games and the Internet by jazzing up sermons with image magnification systems and large-screen video displays, a la Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs at a product launch. The trend has evolved, and churches now are Webcasting to distant parishioners with sophisticated multicamera operations and pumping up the volume inside worship areas with state-of-the-art sound systems.
… Perhaps America’s best example of the tech-savvy house of worship is the Houston-based Lakewood Church [also featured in the Wall Street Journal article], which last year recorded a weekly attendance of 30,000. Pastor Joel Osteen needed the Compaq Center, a former basketball arena that was once home of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, to serve as his chapel.
Osteen employs three massive video-display screens to project his image to people sitting in the nosebleed seats. Illuminating the walls and the giant globe spinning behind Osteen’s pulpit are Altman Micro Strips, strip lights that use a range of tungsten halogen lamps to create different lighting effects.
Lakewood is also planning a migration to HDTV and recently bought eight high-definition cameras from Sony. The dollar value on Lakewood’s video and production facilities is about $4 million, according to CIOinsight.com.
… “There’s not one major electronics manufacturer who isn’t trying to target this space,” said Dan Stark, who operates Stark Raving Solutions, a company that specializes in outfitting churches with the latest in audio and video technology.
Hopefully Stark’s customers can appreciate the irony of his company’s name.
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