Big Churches Use Technology to Branch Out Some U.S. congregations have grown so large that they could pass for small cities. But some mega-churches are trying to reverse the trend by creating smaller satellite campuses, aided by video technology.
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Big Churches Use Technology to Branch Out

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Big Churches Use Technology to Branch Out

Big Churches Use Technology to Branch Out

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

LUDDEN: It's Saturday evening service at Community Christian Church outside Chicago. In a space that doubles as a basketball court, a stage lines one side adorned with three huge video screens. Worshipers slip into folding chairs, carrying Frappuccinos and plates of fruit, as a five-piece rock band strikes up and the light and video show begins.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Give him up. Give him up. Let him on in. Let him in. ...(Unintelligible).

LUDDEN: It looks and feels like a concert. Scenes like this have become commonplace across the country as the number and size of mega churches explodes. But now some churches feel they may be getting too big.

Pastor JIM TOMBERLIN (Willow Creek Community Church): About seven years ago we discovered about a third of our congregation were driving more than 30 minutes to attend services here at our South Barrington campus.

LUDDEN: Jim Tomberlin is regional pastor of the non-denominational Willow Creek Community Church, also near Chicago.

Pastor TOMBERLIN: We also found that when people drove more than 30 minutes to attend services here, they were not able to fully participate in the life of the church. And...

LUDDEN: They couldn't come for other meetings during the week.

Pastor TOMBERLIN: They couldn't come for other meetings and the--that's right. And it's our desire to be a local neighborhood church again and take--if people can't get to the mountain, how do you get the mountain to the people? The technology allows us to do that.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Oh, I praise you. Oh, I praise you.

LUDDEN: That technology is video. Back at the Community Christian service, behind the last row of chairs, a camcorder is set up on a tripod, its red light beaming. Community Christian is recording tonight's sermon and will use it to, in essence, franchise itself. It's called multisite ministry. Church officials will make DVD copies, then hand-deliver them to a number of smaller satellite churches in time for tomorrow's Sunday service. In this way sister churches across suburban Chicago are preaching the very same message each weekend.

More and more churches are doing this. And while Willow Creek's Jim Tomberlin says everyone expected it to be confusing, even off-putting to worshipers, it just hasn't been.

Pastor TOMBERLIN: You know, it's really taken the technology of today, in the same way, in the Middle Ages, the technology of that day was stained glass windows. How do you teach people who don't read and are illiterate? You use pictures, stained glass, and the stained glass tells the story of the Bible. That's how teaching--that's how content was communicated in the Middle Ages. And then you come into the 20th century and you have radio and TV. And then you come to the 21st century and the end of the 20th century, you have the Internet and video in church, which is a controversial thing. Even having video screens in the church 10, 15 years ago, you can't--that can't be church if you have a video screen. Now it's a pretty common thing, and every new church will have video screens. And so these are just taking advantage of the mediums that are available to communicate the message.

LUDDEN: Still, communicating that message across multiple sites can be a logistical nightmare. Willow Creek is even hosting a forum this weekend on the challenges of multisite work. It's put on by the Willow Creek Association, which has thousands of member churches across the country, including Community Christian. Community has been a leader in multisite ministry. It hasn't confined itself to the Chicago area.

Unidentified Man #4: You want to look on the board over here, for those of you who are in-house, Detroit and Colorado and...

LUDDEN: At this regular Tuesday meeting, about 20 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, gather around a table. On a flat-screen TV to the side, there's a video hookup. Two guys and a dog lounge on a couch at the church's affiliate in Detroit. Affiliates in Denver and Bakersfield, California, are on a phone linkup, though California keeps dropping out.

This planning session is called the Big Idea Meeting, and it's how Community Christian hones the message that will be delivered two months from now.

Unidentified Man #4: Anyways, we're starting a series called What Do You TiVo?, which is subtitled Living A Life Worth Recording. And what we did is we looked at some of the top shows, and we tried to build some service themes around people's most pressing-felt needs. The first week, which will be the week that follows this weekend, we're doing a service called Desperate Households. Hard to tell what that could take off on. Actually it'll be kind of leveraging, springboarding off of the popularity of "Desperate Housewives," which, of course, has got tremendous appeal, top of the charts.

LUDDEN: Clips from popular TV shows will be wrapped into a slickly produced video. There's also a discussion about using a song from the band Green Day's recent hit album, "American Idiot."

Unidentified Man #5: So now when they walk by, they'll be like, `Oh, this is about people's broken dreams, and I could--there's a song about that. If I can help them find their way back to God, I'm going to get them involved in Community, you know what I mean? So you hear it differently based on the experience you have here, which is kind of cool.

LUDDEN: The farthest-flung affiliates will also use the catchy video and song lists that come out of this, though they won't get a DVD copy of the actual sermon given here that weekend. They'll come up with their own along the same theme. Dave Ferguson is a founding pastor of Community Christian. Low-key, in black jeans and spiked blond hair, he says one reason to branch out like this is, of course, evangelization, but there's another.

Pastor DAVE FERGUSON (Community Christian Church): I think what it does is it does a couple things--is it allows you to both be what I call the genius to the and, both large and small at the same time. So like this weekend we may have up to, you know, 4,000 people that'll attend our services, at any of our six locations, but what you experience is something that's a lot smaller. And so hopefully the experience for people is kind of a quality experience that maybe a larger church could bring you, which hopefully will really accelerate and facilitate spiritual growth, but at the same time it's in their neighborhood and smaller and closer proximity. So it's a more--a greater experience of community.

(Soundbite of voices)

LUDDEN: Sunday morning in Montgomery, Illinois. This small, traditional, red brick church is Community Christian's west campus. It asked to join in 2002 after the previous congregation just dwindled away. Now mostly young, enthusiastic newcomers have revived worship here. Community Christian calls it a resurrection. Stained glass windows on one side have been covered over, the better to see the three video screens up front.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: Good morning, everyone. We want to welcome you to Community Christian Church this morning, and we're so excited that you decided to join us today. So would you stand and join us as we sing together?

Unidentified Man #6: Here we go. You're more beautiful...

LUDDEN: Same songs as the night before at the main campus, in the same order, though a few of the band members have changed.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) ...every day you're the same. It never changes. No, never.

LUDDEN: When Pastor Ferguson's pretaped sermon begins, the congregation politely hushes and heads turn up to watch. When Ferguson tells a joke, people laugh. When he asks if anyone's seen a certain movie...

(Soundbite of videotape)

Pastor FERGUSON: ...either at the theater or in video? How many of you have seen "Notebook"? How many of you have seen that? All right.

LUDDEN: Hands go up.

(Soundbite of videotape)

Pastor FERGUSON: The story's about a couple who've--they've been in love since they were teen-agers, and now she doesn't know who he is, except then there's these few kind of brief moments, like we just saw, where her memory comes back. But other than that, she has no memory, and it's Alzheimer's.

LUDDEN: Today's sermon wraps up a three-part series on body image and how to cope with illness. There are some passing references to the Bible, but the message is mainly down to earth with movie clips, book quotes and anecdotes about real people. When Ferguson's done, another picture fills the video screens, and a local pastor walks on stage with a follow-up message. Then the band comes back, and there's a small skit before the closing songs, a seamless, multimedia presentation.

In the lobby after service, Kevin McDonald(ph) says he doesn't mind the virtual sermon.

Mr. KEVIN McDONALD (Church Member): You know, it's funny. When my--I have a five-year-old daughter, and when we first started coming, she was two and a half, I guess. And she said, `Dad, are we going to go to that church again?' And I said, `Yeah, we are.' She says, `Oh, good. Can I sit, you know, in the church and watch the movie with you?' So it took a little bit, but because the message is so good, it really kind of transcends the need for a physical person to be there. Everything else is the band, and the campus minister is there. But, you know, the--John and Dave and Tim are such good--project such a consistent and a wonderful message that the videotape really, for me, doesn't lose anything. I'm sure some people do--it does, but it doesn't for me.

LUDDEN: That seems true for a lot of people. Researcher John Vaughan publishes Church Growth Today. He says thousands of churches are now expanding into multiple locations.

Mr. JOHN VAUGHAN (Publisher, Church Growth Today): In 1970, there were only 10 known non-Catholic churches within an attendance even of 2,000, and that increased to 50 in 1980 and 100 churches five years later. And this year, for the first time, it's actually gone beyond a thousand churches. And a new mega church in the US is emerging every two days in the US, 2,000 attendance and larger.

LUDDEN: The trend is not completely new. Dr. David Bouler is senior pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga.

Dr. DAVID BOULER (Highland Park Baptist Church): We started in 1942 developing the multisite ministries, and from about 1942 until about 1970 we went up to 70 off-campus sites. So we had 70 chapel sites that we operated as part of the ministry of Highland Park Baptist Church.

LUDDEN: But Highland Park found a down side to this, and it's now spinning off its satellite churches. As Dr. Bouler puts it, `Patting them on the back and letting them go.'

Dr. BOULER: We were so large that the people would go to--they would go to the chapel service, but there was no sense of responsibility for their local church or their local community because they were related to the overall plan of Highland Park Baptist Church and our vision and scheme of things. And as we evaluated it, we noticed if we gave them responsibility along with owning the church and the property and accountability for it, there was a greater vigor and interest in evangelizing that local community in which that chapel is located.

LUDDEN: Dr. Bouler says Highland Park has let go of 37 of its satellite churches.

At Community Christian, Dave Ferguson says he also envisions some campuses eventually becoming independent, and that's fine. For now, though, he's only got plans to spawn more affiliates, Community's first Hispanic campus in Chicago and a new site in New York City later this year, then a new church in Boston next year. Just like any franchise, they'll carry Community Christian's name and reputation and the assurance that, no matter which city you're in, you can still hear what Christian Community calls its Big Idea.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #2: Amen.

LUDDEN: But just what is this Big Idea that's attracting so many people? Kevin McDonald and his family have been coming to Community Christian for three years.

Mr. McDONALD: We were actually part of Hope Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, and I was an elder there and moved out here about five years ago and then was looking for kind of a church that was a little bit more, I guess, youthful in nature and had some more appeal to people around my age.

LUDDEN: You didn't look around at other Presbyterian churches?

Mr. McDONALD: You know, we have looked on a couple of times--there's one in Oswego, and it was just kind of this same--more hymn-oriented, more structured. And this, as you can see--people wearing shorts; the music, the band, just the energy of the people around here, and that's something we didn't find at other churches.

LUDDEN: Do you know how many churches you looked at before you found Community Christian?

Mr. McDONALD: Oh, boy, I bet we church-shopped--probably half a dozen or more.

LUDDEN: Many mega churches target those who are tired of the traditional church experience or who may have never gone to church before; thus the absence in many of a cross, baptismal font or anything that looks religious and the rise of on-site coffee parlors, basketball courts, 12-step programs and everything from marriage counseling to financial planning, plus a message--at Community Christian they don't use the word `sermon'--that's finely attuned to popular culture.

(Soundbite of voices)

Ms. LORI McGOVERN(ph) (Church Member): My name is Lori McGovern. I've been coming since August of 2000.

LUDDEN: And why did you start coming here?

Ms. McGOVERN: I started coming here on Tuesday nights for Celebrate The Journey, which is our support and recovery ministry. And I've been coming ever since, and I am now actually a coach and a leader in divorce care, which is why I started here. It's something I personally can relate to, and it's as though my church is trying to meet me where I'm at, meet my needs.

Ms. TYLER BANK(ph) (Church Member): My name is Tyler Bank. I've been coming for about--almost two years. Now what I like about CCC is that they really reach people where they're at. Like, if someone is--doesn't know anything about Jesus, like, they really have something for everyone. They've got support groups for whatever--you know, AA. I just started going to, like, a women's small group because I'm getting married in September.

LUDDEN: Congratulations.

Ms. BANK: Thank you.

LUDDEN: But critics wonder what things like support groups and 12-step programs have to do with religion.

Professor MICHAEL HORTON (Westminster Seminary): The Gospel then means you can have a happier marriage, you can have--make more money, you can be more successful, have more self-esteem, get more out of life and so forth. If it's the Gospel just because you throw Jesus in and sort of make him the guy who can get all that done for you, the question really is, is that the Gospel?

LUDDEN: Michael Horton is a professor at Westminster Seminary in California.

Prof. HORTON: The church isn't just a country club. The church has a specific mission, and that is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, and where the sacraments are administered, baptism and the Lord's Supper. At a bare minimum, those are what we've considered down through the ages the so-called marks of a church. You know, a lot of churches today, those marks are sort of being erased in favor of a more consumer-driven approach. It says, `Have we got a God for you. And if you're not completely satisfied, return the unused portion for a full refund.' There is a decidedly consumer cast to the way religion is done in America today.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

Pastor TOMBERLIN: So now we come into the lobby area of our auditorium. That was dedicated in September of '04.

LUDDEN: You've got an escalator there.

Pastor TOMBERLIN: Escalators and some elevators as well.

LUDDEN: Back at Willow Creek, regional Pastor Jim Tomberlin shows off the church's renovated headquarters. The multistory lobby looks like a luxury hotel, escalators rising from the middle. A new, much-needed auditorium seats 7,000. We meander back to the old worship space, with its mere 4,500 seats, and settle into a back row.

Mega churches have gotten so much attention for all the different services they offer, like the marriage counseling, the basketball games...

Pastor TOMBERLIN: Right.

LUDDEN: ...for the kids and health classes. And some ask...

Pastor TOMBERLIN: And we do all those things, too.

LUDDEN: Well, and it begs the question, you know, where's the line here between church and, you know, a mega self-help organization?

Pastor TOMBERLIN: Great question. I think our driving basis for all that is the words of Jesus, where he said, `What is the'--in answer to the question, `What's the most important thing for human beings to do?' And he said, `To love God with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.' That really is our message. It's all about the need for redemption that every human being has, that we believe is a need for all humanity; the need for a purpose in life and to address the eternal issues of, `What happens when I die?' But, also, there is--the application of that is regardless of how people respond to that, we have a calling to, a command to serve our neighbors, to love them, to help them and...

LUDDEN: Help them lose weight, help them with marriage.

Pastor TOMBERLIN: Help them with life, absolutely.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Our story was produced by Petra Mayer and recorded by Fawn Williams(ph). You can see photos from Community Christian and Willow Creek at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #7: Whoo-hoo! Great having you guys here. If anybody needs prayer, we're going to have prayer partners down here in the front; otherwise, thanks for coming. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and we'll see you next time.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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