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.

This article was originally published on 11-05-2005
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