by Monte Sahlin
This in-depth case study of Saddleback Church in southern California and founding pastor Rick Warren was actually published in 2012, but I only recently got around to reading it. It is Sacred Subdivisions by Justin Wilford (New York University Press). Although the author sees Saddleback as an example of post-denominational Evangelical religion, in fact it is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, an idenification that is largely hidden from the local community.
The book describes at great length how it fits the social context in which it exists, post-suburban America with its dis-integrated community structure. The patterns of a megachurch look much like those of its niche in the world; fragmented nodes of participation connected by the automobile and facilities much like shopping malls. The home and family have become the center of life and other institutions (work, community, politics and culture) are marginalized around the private center of each nuclear family's life.
And Saddleback Church is centered in home-based small groups. The entire purpose of the sermons, worship services and other programs is to make friends with people and get them involved in one of the small groups.
Wilford observes that the Evangelical megachurches have become expert at providing many different modes of worship, each appealing to a specific subculture. They are dispersed, multi-modal networks that only appear to be mass organizations. They best fit the endless suburban-like social context of California which is replicated to some extent around all major metropolitan areas in North America.
What does this mean? That the megachurch most likely will not be the primary shape of the Christian church in the 21st century, but it is a specific form limited to a specific context. Another indicator of this is the shift underway in the last five years or so to multi-site churches. Most of the largest congregations in American now have multiple, smaller campuses or venues, each with an on-site primary leader. And the largest of the megachurches are beginning to look like smaller versions of denominations, although they prefer the terms "network" or "association" or "coalition."