Arrow-right Camera


And A Multitude Gathered Growth Spurt Hurtles Congregations Into World Of Mega-Churches

Every Sunday, more than 10,000 people cram into a half-dozen multipurpose rooms and auditoriums in the Inland Northwest.

They gather week after week to praise God and listen to some of the best musicians and most popular preachers in the region.

The number of people attending this handful of churches would fill the new Spokane Arena. It’s more than the population of Post Falls. Two-thirds of them weren’t attending church regularly five years ago.

Mega-churches have arrived in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area.

Following a trend blooming in pockets of the United States for 20 years, big churches are remaking the region’s religious landscape.

“It’s been a wild ride,” said Joe Wittwer, pastor of Life Center Foursquare Church, where weekend attendance skyrocketed from 300 people to 1,800 in the last five years.

“For Spokane, large church has been redefined,” said Ken Ortiz, head pastor at Calvary Chapel, which routinely draws 3,000 people to weekend services, making it the city’s largest church. “It used to be a church of 600-700 people was big. Now I’d say that’s pretty medium.”

First Presbyterian Church, in Spokane, draws more than 1,400 worshipers every weekend, up from 800 five years ago.

New Life Community Church in Rathdrum started with a handful of couples meeting for Bible study in a private home in 1990. Now, about 1,800 people attend services each weekend in a new building.

Harvest Christian Fellowship and Faith Bible Church, both on Spokane’s North Side, routinely draw 800 people each.

What newcomers notice most about these churches is the lack of formality and ritual. Jeans are fine. So are shorts in the summer.

First Presbyterian is the only big church that has a traditional organ and choir members dressed in robes. The others feature synthesizers, five-piece bands and energetic singers.

Worship is an upbeat, lively experience. Mysticism and solemn ceremonies are traded for joyous, sometimes raucous celebrations.

This trend toward big churches is growing throughout the country, said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Emory University in Atlanta. He has studied mega-churches since 1990.

“It’s a true phenomena, not just a unique occurrence in a few locations,” he said. “We sociologists have been almost oblivious to it.”

Mega-churches first emerged in the South and California in the 1970s.

The biggest include Willow Creek, outside of Chicago, with 25,000 worshipers and Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., with more than 15,000.

Like malls and warehouse supermarkets, they are byproducts of suburbia, Thumma said.

Mega-churches sprout wherever substantial population growth occurs, he said. That’s the case in Spokane and Kootenai counties, where the population jumped by 10 percent over the last five years.

While large churches, particularly Catholic parishes, have always been a part of American religion, these newer, Protestant churches take a different approach to worship, education and even life.

In addition to upbeat, modern music and nontraditional services, most mega-churches are theologically and politically conservative, Thumma said.

They strike a chord with baby boomers and their children. On average, members are about 35 years old, compared to an average age in the 50s or 60s for most traditional congregations, said Nancy Ammerman, a professor of religion and sociology at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

“In a metro environment that many people find to be overly secular and sometimes alienating, these institutions provide a kind of shelter,” Ammerman said.

In Spokane, the largest churches are located on the North Side, except for First Presbyterian.

In Idaho, New Life Community moved into its 17,000-square-foot facility on the Rathdrum Prairie in spring 1994. Already, the church is remodeling, adding another 19,000 square feet to accommodate more worshipers and more classrooms.

The New Life congregation is typical of large churches: It is young, casual and embraces a no-frills style of religion.

“I’ve always believed in Jesus Christ, but I’ve never understood religion,” said Michelle Thompson, 28, a Coeur d’Alene mother of three who has attended New Life for four years. “I wanted to find out if it was for real, or if it was just a bunch of old people who hung out ridiculing young people.”

Pastors refer to people like Thompson as seekers. They are shopping around for the truth. They are not afraid to question the authority of church officials. And they don’t place a lot of stock in tradition.

Instead of altar guilds and Christmas pageants, seekers are looking for the undeniable word of God. They want a preacher who can help them apply God’s word directly from the Bible to the everyday challenges of life.

They hear this word from preachers who dress in golf shirts rather than clerical collars. The ministers share an understanding of the post-World War II generation, Thumma said. Often they are baby boomers themselves.

“As a generation, we have abandoned the spiritual moorings of our parents,” said Wittwer, 44, who came to Spokane straight from Bible college 18 years ago to shepherd Life Center. “Then we began having children and marrying and divorcing and facing life as it really is, and there has been an awakening.

“But that awakening is among a generation that is still fairly anti-institutional. They do not adapt well to traditional churches.”

When Rodger Rickel moved to Spokane four years ago, he heard about Calvary Chapel from a friend.

“They are scripturally sound, that’s the number one thing,” said Rickel, 40. “The preaching is right out of the Bible.”

Rickel started attending Calvary’s Friday night singles service. For the first time, church became an important part of his life.

For many churches, singles ministry means young adults with no children. That leaves out people like Rickel and Melody Larson, 36, who are mature parents not necessarily looking for a dating service.

Larson said she was happy with the preaching at her old church, but as a single mother of five, didn’t feel like she fit in. Five years ago she started attending Calvary as a regular.

“They had what my family needed at the time,” she said. “They have an excellent singles program and an excellent youth program.”

The bigger the church, the more special services they can offer.

In Spokane, Calvary and Harvest Christian offer college-level Bible courses. Harvest also runs the Masters Commission, an intensive oneu-year leadership program for high school graduates.

Mega-churches are big enough to sponsor special clubs and classes for women, for mothers, for single mothers, for businessmen, career women, people over 50, parents of toddlers, parents of teenagers, the divorced and the widowed. Many of them even offer personal financial planning.

“What we try to do is be age and life sensitive,” said Pastor Ortiz of Calvary.

The results are huge cohesive congregations, which scholars now describe as the new breed of American religion.

“We Americans have always thought we could reinvent ourselves from scratch,” said Ammerman, from the Hartford Seminary. “This is religion, reinvented American style. It’s the idea that you don’t have go out and ask anybody, you just start your own church.”

Leaders of mega-churches admit they risk creating a congregation of consumers rather than a community of Christians. People might be drawn to church based on the programs and services it offers, not on the desire to become a better Christian.

“You find people shopping for churches based on a personal checklist,” Wittwer said, “when in fact there’s a reciprocity in a biblical community. It’s not enough to be a taker. You have to be a giver, too. And not just money.”

By sheer numbers, these churches wield enormous power, Ammerman said. They also have a lot of money.

Because of their strong biblical foundations, most mega-churches encourage tithing - donating 10 percent of gross household income to the church.

Most have million-dollar annual budgets and the ability to take on big capital building projects.

Calvary Chapel obtained a loan to buy the Fairwood Shopping Center on Hastings Road in 1990, without any outside backing. With cash and volunteer labor, they are building an 1,800-seat amphitheater and remodeling the former strip mall.

Faith Bible is about to build a $2 million church on Post Street near Cora Avenue.

Both Harvest Christian and Life Center are researching new building sites.

“Their financial ability is incredible,” Ammerman said. “But it’s nothing compared to their potential for political mobilization.”

Potential is a key word, though, she said. In this area, most pastors of large churches deliberately steer clear of political issues, particularly at the pulpit.

In fact, critics often accuse them of being too insular and separating themselves from the rest of the community.

“Our mission is to preach the gospel and we want to stay focused on that,” said Calvary’s Ortiz, “because in the judgment seat of God, the rulings are not going to be based on political affiliation. It’s going to be based on do you know Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior.”

While First Presbyterian is involved in social issues that impact Spokane, only Harvest Christian has been politically active from the pulpit. There, state and local politicians are invited to speak during services, said John Sonneland, assistant pastor.

It also is one of the most vocal churches protesting abortion.

“We really do encourage people to be involved, to go out and make a difference,” he said.

From youth programs to adult education, Harvest tries to inspire its members to exert a Christian influence on the secular world.

“This is not a place where you come and warm a pew. We want people to rise up and be all that God wants them to be,” Sonneland said. “We really do believe that we can raise up new leaders to change our society.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color) Graphic: Mega-churches

MEMO: See related story with the headline: Crowds challenge church

See related story with the headline: Crowds challenge church

Tags: feature