Megachurch Megatech

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 11-05-2005

Megachurch Megatech

"Reach hither thy finger," says Jesus to Thomas in the Gospel according to John, and on a recent Sunday morning at Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, Ill., a group of middle-school students appears to be taking that particular bit of scripture to heart.

What they're reaching for as they enter the massive building amid a throng of fellow churchgoers is a fingerprint scanner, which quickly checks them into Willow Creek for Sunday school. Nearby, parents swipe ID cards through digital card-readers to check in the younger kids. "We need a way to get them in securely and without hassle," says Mike Gold, Willow Creek's director of information technology. "When you're dealing with 3,000 kids, you need to be quick."

Beyond the high-tech check-in lies a church that is as wired as any business in the country. Inside the 7,095-seat auditorium, the image of Pastor Bill Hybels is projected on large video screens, making him visible to everyone in the crowd. Miss a sermon, and you can catch it later via streaming video on the Web, and then surf over to a church blog to learn more about Gulf Coast relief efforts. They still pass the collection plate at Willow Creek, but they also accept automatic bank drafts. "We can tithe out of a bank account as soon as a check is deposited, so God gets the first fruit," says Brian McAuliffe, CFO and director of operations.

About 20,000 people attend Willow Creek every week, making it one of the largest churches in the nation. And like other so-called "megachurches"—defined by average weekly attendance of more than 2,000 people—technology is essential to almost every phase of its mission. There are perhaps 1,800 megachurches in the U.S., including a subset of truly gargantuan institutions whose attendance can approach 20,000, or more. And the bigger they are, the more they tend to rely on technology.

"Technology is essential for a church of our scale," says Duncan Dodds, executive director of Lakewood Church, in Houston, which has weekly attendance of over 40,000 people, maintains a 60,000-name e-mail list, and meets in a renovated basketball arena once used by the NBA's Houston Rockets. "You could not do church the way we do without it." Pastor A.R. Bernard of the 24,000-member Christian Cultural Center, in Brooklyn, N.Y., agrees. At his church, worshippers use the in-house WiFi network to call up Bible verses on their laptops as they follow along with Bernard's big-screen, PowerPoint presentations. "Technology is a vital and integral part of our setup," he says. "It is a core enabling element to what we do."

These tech-savvy institutions are the fastest growing element in religious life in the U.S. "We're finding about one a week," says Dave Travis, who tracks megachurches in his role as executive vice president of church innovations at the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based research and consulting group that works with large churches. There have always been large congregations, says Mark Chaves, head of the sociology department at the University of Arizona, where he studies religion, organizations and social movements. But, he adds, the biggest got bigger throughout the 20th century, and the rate of growth has accelerated over the last generation. Historically, Chaves says, the biggest churches haven't stayed the biggest for very long: "They get overtaken by the next cultural wave of innovation." Increasingly, innovation is driven by technology, which is a large part of what has allowed megachurches to thrive. Says Travis: "One reason you've seen an explosion in megachurches is because of the technological progress that's been made."

1,800
Estimated number of megachurches (weekly attendance 2,000+) 7.2 million
Estimated total weekend attendance

40,000
Weekly attendance, Lakewood Church, Houston

9
Number of campuses of Seacoast Church, headquartered in suburban Charleston, S.C.

11,500
Member churches, Willow Creek Association

$3 million
Cost of high-end audio/video system

Religious groups have long embraced the technology of their day, going back to the Epistles of Paul and the Gutenberg Bible and on through to the radio and television preachers of more recent times. In that sense, the megachurches are following tradition, but in many particulars they are changing the way millions of Americans worship, donate and interact with their churches and with each other. Megachurches reflect a culture that is comfortable with enormous institutions, from suburban high schools and universities to retail outlets and banking companies. They tend to be less political than some of their smaller brethren, but still represent a potentially powerful political force. Their pastors wield great financial muscle and public clout.

While they make up only a tiny percentage of the total number of churches, the new breed of megachurches, typically found in suburbia, accounts for perhaps 7 percent of weekly church attendance, according to Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford [Conn.] Institute for Religion Research. The churches are often unaffiliated with particular denominations, and they span a broad range of beliefs and practices. Taken as a whole, however, their memberships add up to perhaps 7 million people or more—the equivalent of the third-largest religious group in the country, says Thumma, trailing only Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists (with whom their membership overlaps somewhat).

What's more, the megachurches are growing at the expense of other churches. "Overall church attendance is not going up. People are going to megachurches from other churches," Chaves says. One factor driving growth, he adds, is cost. "You may have to go to a larger church to get quality, such as a youth minister and more programs, or better facilities."

Another cost center is the technology that touches nearly every phase of megachurch life. There are management systems that allow huge congregations to track finances and organize members with relatively few staffers, audio-video tools that help pastors compete for mindshare with the clamor of popular culture, and telecom and Web applications that allow churches to reach outside their walls and start satellite campuses as well as manage national associations that can include thousands of other churches.

Doing all this stuff requires a substantial investment. At Willow Creek, the technology budget tops $1 million a year, out of a total budget of about $27 million. A 15-person IT staff helps support about 50 servers and 600 PCs, two more full-timers work on the Web team, and an army of volunteers helps out with everything from maintenance to design. In order to deal with its growing scale of operations, Fellowship Church, in Grapevine, Texas, developed its own management software, which it subsequently spun out as an independent company called Fellowship Technologies; the company, an application service provider, has more than 240 customers, says CEO and President Jeff Hook, including several of the largest churches in the country, and brings in revenue of more than $3 million per year.

ZIFFPAGE TITLEBig Is the New

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Big Is the New Small

Megachurch people like to talk about "doing church," and they don't do church like they used to. Even the buildings are built differently these days. Instead of being designed so that people can hear sermons delivered from a pulpit, megachurches tend to have auditorium-style halls, with stages positioned for optimal video-screen sightlines. These are not your parents' church services. They often rock with contemporary music and feature light shows that would do Pink Floyd proud. "We are marketing to the MTV and ESPN generation," says Katie Moon, communications coordinator at Fellowship Church, which draws about 20,000 people each weekend.

Video also allows megachurches to accommodate rapid growth. "We reached a point where we maxed out two service times on Sunday, so we started a video cafe in our gym," says Senior Pastor Don Miller, of Westover Church, in Greensboro, N.C. Westover has almost 5,000 members and draws just under 3,000 people on an average weekend. "The cafe drew so many people that we had to take the tables out, and now we just have 600 chairs. For a while, our gym was the fastest-growing church in Greensboro." Westover is building a larger worship center, due to be completed next year, that will feature two large video screens. "You've got to have the technology, or you're going to frustrate people and you're not going to grow," says Miller.

The megachurches want to be at the center of people's lives, not just weekend or Wednesday night destinations. Pastors such as Rick Warren of California's Saddleback Church, author of the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, are aiming at more than a casual relationship with attendees, and the churches reflect that philosophy. Many have coffee shops and bookstores, complete with the same point-of-sale systems found at secular establishments. Willow Creek even uses free e-ticketing for big events, such as a visit from country music superstar Randy Travis. "We want as many people as possible to come, but we don't want 10,000 showing up for 7,000 seats, or not coming because they think they won't get in," McAuliffe says. "The e-tickets let us fill the place up for three shows, and reach a lot of people who come to hear Randy Travis and his testimony."

But technology also helps big churches feel small. "It's a way of duplicating the intimacy and the transfer of information that makes smaller churches successful," Thumma says. "You make the church feel small, even though the worship experience is massive."

Lakewood Church has $4 million worth of high-end video equipment in its state-of-the-art production facilities, and a pastor, Joel Osteen, who is a familiar presence on religious television. But it also puts considerable effort into reaching out to individuals and small groups. The touch screens that check in frequent attendees also print out name tags, and the huge e-mail list pushes out targeted information twice a week. "We tell people about speakers and topics and include links to our Web site, information and directions and maps, our new Bible-study program," says Dodds, the executive director. "We attach photos and links to video of things you might have missed, and also ask people to tell a friend about us, to be marketers for us, because word of mouth is the best tool."

At its most basic level, technology helps manage the daily business of these large organizations. "You need to be able to track people in order to survive," says Brian Bailey, Web director of Fellowship Church. "You have to know who has not given in years, who has been going to Bible study." Under the leadership of Terry Storch, then the technology pastor and now a pastor at one of the Fellowship's satellite campuses, the church built the management applications that allowed it to handle rapid growth. "The idea is that nobody gets lost," Bailey says. "We get more personal through technology."

Brooklyn's Christian Cultural Center uses the Web to shrink itself down to manageable size for the staff and members. "It is the central communication point for us," says Pastor Bernard. "Our staff calendar and everything going on in our community is posted to our Web site." Coming soon: kiosks in the lobbies and hallways that will allow members to access program and membership information quickly. Bernard, a former banker and self-described "techie," put the church on its first management software in 1984. After outgrowing two vendors, it is straining at the limits of its current package from Fellowship Technologies, and Bernard is now thinking about developing his own management software.

ZIFFPAGE TITLEBeyond the Walls

Beyond the Walls

Seacoast Church, based in Mount Pleasant, S.C., just outside Charleston, has more than doubled in size in the past few years. But Seacoast hasn't grown to 7,500 weekend attendees by going on a building binge. Instead, it has planted eight satellite locations—one in nearby Savannah, Ga., and the rest spread across the Palmetto State. Senior Pastor Greg Surratt records his sermon on Saturday nights, and the local -pastors at each location download it from the Web and, on Sunday mornings, play the sermon in their churches on large video screens.

"So much work goes into the preparation of the weekend message. Our team is so talented and they create work of great value," says Shawn Wood, Seacoast's creative communications pastor. "The more you can use that, the more you get out of it, the better." Establishing satellite campuses in shopping centers and underused retail space is a cost-effective way of meeting demand. "We can plant a church for under six figures," says Wood. "We pride ourselves on leveraging technology without spending a bunch of money."

Each Seacoast campus has its own pastor, and live music, but the idea is that they are all part of a network. "We struggle to keep the 'one church, many locations' mentality," says Wood, adding that new tools such as weblogs and podcasts are useful in that effort. "We get the advantages of a megachurch, things like a bulletin and Web site that a small church might not be able to match, but we give people that sense of community." The arrangement also allowed Seacoast to grow rapidly while decreasing Surratt's weekend load from five services to three.

Seacoast's satellite strategy puts it at the forefront of an emerging trend. As big churches grow even larger, offsite growth is a way to accommodate increasing scale while furthering their mission. "The wave of the future is not megabuildings that hold 100,000 people, the wave is taking the message to the people in their communities," says Pastor Bernard. His church has already spawned a daughter church in Syracuse, N.Y., and he plans to launch video-supported satellites in the future.

Troy Page, communications pastor at Fellowship Church, says the addition of three satellite campuses (in Plano, downtown Dallas, and near Fort Worth) during the past year has enabled the church to increase attendance by 4,000 people. "We could spend megamillions to build bigger buildings, and lose intimacy in the process, or we can leverage technology to move out into the community and provide the same experience," he says. Tapes of Senior Pastor Ed Young's weekend message are distributed to each of the new facilities, each of which is outfitted with three video screens: one in the center that shows a life-size, static shot of Young preaching, while the two on either side of it provide close-ups and cutaways. Like Seacoast, each campus has its own pastor and live music. Eventually, says Page, there could be more satellites in the Dallas area, and beyond.

Some megachurches broaden their reach even further by creating associations of hundreds, even thousands, of other churches across the country and around the world. About 1,000 churches pay $250 per year to be part of the Fellowship Connection, which gets them discounts on the big church's educational resources and conferences, and even document templates for back-office functions such as human resources. "We have a huge heart to help churches that look to us as a model," says Storch, Fellowship's former technology pastor. "This way, they don't have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to things like children's church, or hiring practices."

Fellowship uses the Web, including a special site called CreativePastors.com, to connect with its association members and with other interested pastors—about 10,000 in all—and to distribute material to them. "We could not accomplish this without the technology component," Storch says. "With e-mail, blogs, podcasts and streaming video, you never have to darken our door to get the benefit of what we are doing."

Willow Creek has 11,500 member churches in its Willow Creek Association, each paying dues of $249 per year. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the megachurch was able to lead a relief effort that built on the technology infrastructure used to support the association: Willow Creek used its IP telephony, and its robust Web presence, to coordinate volunteers and take in donations of almost $865,000. The megachurch also runs as many as 40 events each year, and relies on satellite feeds and webcasts to broaden its audience. Its Leadership Summit, held last August, drew 7,000 people to the Illinois campus and was seen via satellite by another 47,000 people at 110 churches across the U.S. and Canada. A global version of the conference used DVDs, with translation into several languages, to reach another 12,000 people. "The association has a symbiotic relationship with the church," says Communications Director Paul Braoudakis. "It has given the church an international platform. Willow Creek is the laboratory, we take what we do here and disseminate it around the world."

At a time when traditional Protestant denominations are losing members to unaffiliated churches, including many of the megachurches, the satellite campuses and associations provide a measure of support and organization for pastors who may not be affiliated with a formal group. But the megachurches are careful to say that they are not creating new denominations of their own. "We don't think in terms of denominations," says Fellowship's Troy Page. "It's more like a network of like-minded leaders." Still, these expansion strategies show the impact megachurches are having on religious organizations. "Churches today talk about brand and personality," says software vendor Jeff Hook. "The satellites and associations are ways of extending the brand, but they may also step on some toes. If you start a church that instantly draws 1,000 people, you are stepping on some local churches. If you have an association that acts as a supply chain to churches across the country, you may cannibalize some of the things traditionally done by established denominations."

The wired megachurch raises other issues as well. One is that not everyone has access to the Web, or feels comfortable with technology. In Brooklyn, Pastor Bernard says the digital divide is something his church must confront. "This is very real in communities of color, so we train people, and we plan to create cybercafes in our community to help get past it." Fellowship's Storch says, "The small groups will always matter. You have to build the personal relationships; you need a certain level of comfort before an e-mail is effective."

And some question the cost of technology investments. "I tell people that, in the past, a big pipe organ could cost a lot of money, and for this generation of large churches, $3 million for sight and sound technologies has about the same relative cost," says Leadership Network's Travis. "Churches are spending on technology backbones and infrastructure, which makes them more efficient and able to do more with less."

At North Carolina's Westover Church, Pastor Don Miller says he weighs cost and mission carefully. "If it's just to be flashy, then forget about it," he says. "But as long as it doesn't control us, as long as we're not worshipping it . . . . In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra built a platform so the Book of the Law could be read and heard more effectively. If that's what technology is all about, then, within some financial constraints, let's go for it."