Why Megachurches?: Their History and Rise in the late 20th Century

What About the 60s?

The liberal religion of the 1960s produced an ever increasing set of options for Americans to choose from in order to meet their spiritual needs. A move away from traditional doctrine, the multiple mergers among mainline denominations combined with new family structures and new types of American values created a religious landscape that rejected more fundamentalist theology. Instead, this decade welcomed in an era of existentialist thought and new age religions influenced by the counter-culture and political movements of civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war demonstrations.

The 1950s household was a single-earner home. Its existence revolved around this fact. All members of the family went to church and Sundays were centered on this weekly event. By the 1960s and 1970s, dual-earner homes were increasing and many types of post-modern family structures emerged. Football was now available to watch on TV, stores were open during hours they had previously been closed; families now had more possibilities to spend time on church days. These structural changes and value swings to the far left eventually led to a rejection of many liberal principles in the 1970s in several religious groups including Evangelical Christianity. This swing back to the right combined with the changes in American values. required an answer to the fluctuating religious landscape.

The Cultural Turn

One of the results of this pendulum swing to the right in Evangelicalism was the creation and rise of the American megachurch. A post-modern version of the traditional Evangelical Church, it embodied the tenants of what Frederick Jameson termed “The Cultural Turn” in 1982. This social and historical explanation of American Society in the 1970s and 1980s posited that culture had moved away from traditional forms of expression and into an almost fully consumable state. The individual became encouraged to occupy themselves with activities such as shopping, professional activities, the various and often televisual forms of leisure, production for the market and in the consumption of those market products. Put more simply as one megachurch pastor remarked, “We knew that people didn’t want to give anything, sing anything or do anything-they wanted anonymity. We became a program-driven church attracting consumers.”

Consumers were looking for a church that fit their lives, not a life that fit their church. Services that catered to new family structures and consumer values that continued to change throughout the 1960s and 1970s were more important to Baby Boomer parents than strict, traditional services with no time limit, a dress code and fundamentalist doctrine. The megachurch filled this need with daycare, substance abuse programs, books, movies, “watered-down” Gospel and sermons that ended at precisely 12:00pm on Sunday.

Rise of Consumer Culture Births the Megachurch

This preoccupation with consumer culture had begun to show itself in the mid-1950s. Victor Lebow noted in 1955 that the American post-war economy demanded this change from traditional activities and academic pursuits towards a consumer based culture. His ideas about how Americans had turned purchasing and consuming into meaningful rituals were a foreshadowing of the coming economic and cultural environment in the American religious landscape whereby the megachurch could flourish. Pastors of the first American megachurches including Jerry Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church, William Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church all exemplify this turn in the 1970s and 1980s away from traditional forms of thought and orthodox doctrine and activity towards a more consumable version of religion.

These changes in religious culture and doctrine had driven American civil religion and consumerism closer together. Each of these historic megachurches used consumer driven marketing, new technologies of media, a movement away from individual thought, and encouraged the erosion of boundaries between elite culture and popular culture. It is through the methods of these founding megachurches and their charismatic leaders that the American megachurch has exploded. Once the megachurch phenomenon began, there was no stopping it. “Consumers move in trickles, then droves. The trickle became a stream in the 1970s, a tsunami in the 1990s. One of the great selling points of looking to the youth market is that young people tend to follow one another.” Market principles like these contributed to the tremendous flux in the growth of the megachurch since the 1970s.

Jerry Falwell and Thomas Road Baptist Church

The first meeting of the Thomas Road Baptist Church was held in a small school in Lynchburg, VA in 1956. From the very beginning of Jerry Falwell’s ministry at TRBC illustrated the push back against the liberal ideology of the 1960s. He began right away by broadcasting his sermons on WBRG, utilizing media technology to reach the maximum number of listeners. Following the broadcast, the sermons were taped and shipped to other stations, an early form of religious and charismatic leader marketing.

Falwell outlined his ideas about church growth and why large churches were desirable in his cooperative effort with Elmer Towns, Church Aflame (1971). He outlines eight reasons to grow a church towards what would now be considered “mega” that all fit inside the post-modernist consumer driven religion that began during this time. Falwell considered the large church to be biblical, giving multiple scripture reverences of large assemblies in the Bible . This new interpretation of “spreading the word” was a far cry from the evangelism of the early 20th century. This took Billy Graham’s Youth for Christ rallies of the 1960s to a new level. An organized pattern of growth that was not a one-off for revivalisms sake, but fervent growth harnessed in one location over a long period of time. Falwell viewed evangelism as a mandate for growth. This idea coincides with the rise of unabated marketing to consumers over the next several decades following the 1960s. Falwell notes that he “cannot be responsible for the jealousy of other ministers… He will go into their neighborhoods and win…” Falwell’s next two reasons for a large church are their ability to reach large metropolitan areas and gain the respect of the unsaved. Greater numbers of people agreeing with Falwell’s plan for a church, a school and a university was indicative of the ideas of conformity of thought . As TRBC grew it employed over 1000 people by the 1980s and Falwell traveled all over the world, broadcasted on radio and television and published books, sermons and pamphlets on a number of fundamentalist issues . Falwell used his marketing/evangelism expertise (and maybe especially with the founding of Liberty College) to blur the lines between elite culture and popular culture. Orthodoxy was not found in TRBC, but popular culture was seen across its many ventures. Falwell (along with Graham and others) methods worked. 1976 was the “Year of the Evangelical”, fully 1/3 of Americans claimed to be born again and more and more of them were attending churches with rapid growth like TRBC.

Bill Hybels and Willow Creek

Bill Hybels is a giant among megachurch pastors. The founder and pastor of Willow Creek began his journey to leading one of the largest churches in America in the early 1970s with a youth organization called “Son City”. Hybels was already blurring the lines between traditional doctrine and high cultured orthodoxy and popular culture with this youth group before Willow Creek was founded. He proposed that his established youth group make a concerted effort to reach out to (presumably) secular, unchurched youth, the friends of the kids already involved. It was during this time that Hybels and the other group members decided to forgo normal church behavior, location and to include multi-media components, drama and an attempt to communicate with outside youths on their own terms. It was through the Son City era of Willow Creek that Hybels developed his marketing methods and began to incorporate media and technology into the framework of his ministry. Son City appealed to the growing need of young people to be ever consumers. Jim Rayburn, founder of the Young Life youth group, which would be a model for later groups like Hybels’, summed up this approach to reaching young people in the 1970s, “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the gospel.”

Hybels separated group leaders into “modules” according to their spiritual gifts, but instead of the spiritual gifts of the previous generations which may have included the laying of hands, the gift of oratory or the gift of music, Son City leaders had the gift of art, drama, photography, and audio-visual knowledge and production abilities . This one decision led to the creation of a wildly popular and ever growing church ministry that was centered on the consumption of goods and services. Willow Creek has been growing as an established church since 1975. In that time it continued to reject more traditional forms of worship, just as it had in the days of Son City. Its services referenced popular culture making the service itself part of popular culture and less like the culture of elite academia or high orthodox Christianity that was popular in the early 20th century and prior. Hybels created a vast network of evangelizers, which was another way to encourage conformity of thought. Once new members were drawn in with items from their secular life, loud music, flashy light shows and non-descript architecture, these newcomers seemed eager to help evangelize and share their experience with others. Even the structure of the church moved with the times. Where the initial structure of Son City was one of collective action, where everyone had a voice, by the time Willow Creek was a proper church, Hybels had begun to run the church more like a business with structure and accountability. Hybels also utilized marketing a business tools from the secular world that had become popular in help run his growing organization. All of these characteristics of Willow Creek’s history illustrate how Hybels was influenced by another megachurch pastor, Robert Schuller.

Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral

The entire backdrop of what would become the Crystal Cathedral in California was Schuller’s acknowledgement that in order to plant a church, he would have to go after the “non-religious crowd.” Schuller used a basic marketing strategy to find members-he went door to door and asked them why they did not go to church and then, like any good marketing strategist, tailored his product to the liking of his customers. After the upheaval of the 1960s and listening to the religious hell-fire and brimstone of their parents in the 1950s, up and coming young people in the 1970s and 1980s did not want to listen to a pastor preach about politics, hell or rules. They wanted to be wowed with music, to attend without hassle or too much effort and to go to the church that could provide the most things. Schuller, with his “walk-in-drive-in” concept of church was one of the first pastors to shun the traditional architecture and physical environment of the traditional church in favor of an environment where people of the 1960s felt comfortable, a movie theater. Schuller long maintained that the size of his parking lot at the Crystal Cathedral was one of the best ways to get secular people to church. A large parking lot is indicative of many things people were starting to do in the 1970s going to a shopping mall, for instance, or driving a longer distance than in the past to do anything. As activities and participation began to define individual values, this was reflected in the growth of the megachurch.

By 1980, the Crystal Cathedral boasted 80 ministries including literacy tutoring, sign languages classes, a Toastmasters club and several Twelve-step programs. Members of Schuller’s congregation received quite the bang for their buck. Opera singer Beverly Sills gave a benefit concert in 1980. The Cathedral building was designed by New York award winning architect Philip Johnson, everything about the Crystal Cathedral was bigger, brighter and more like secular America. A huge auditorium with adequate parking, many services and few rules for members in comparison to tradition Christianity was exactly what young suburban families wanted in comparison to their parents and grandparents.

Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church

On Easter Sunday in 1980, the Saddleback Community Church held is first service open to the public. Almost from the beginning of its formation, Rick Warren’s church saw explosive growth. Over the next ten years, Warren and his congregation moved from location to location starting out at a high school gymnasium and utilizing movie theaters, auditoriums and tents. From 1980, Saddle Back has never held services in a traditional church environment. This commitment to unorthodox environment intentionally erodes the boundary between the explicitly sacred environments of the pre-Vietnam era and popular culture found in previously limited to the spaces like the living room, the theater or the university campus.

In Warren’s development of a church architecture, sermon motif and service style, he eschewed the traditionalism of even Billy Graham’s form of Evangelicalism in the 1950s and early 1960s. While Graham was interested in bringing in hordes of young people, he also stuck to traditional ideas about home, fundamentalist doctrine and held revivals that lasted for days. The 1980s saw Rick Warren reject the traditional Evangelical notion of sin, a populist redefining of core doctrine designed to bring in the unchurched and newly successful baby-boomers uninterested in the religion of their parents. The time of the sermon was shortened to increase the time given to consumable materials like music, dramas and skits, films and the newly popular Power-Point presentation. In addition to these consumable breaks from post-war Christianity, Warren ushered in an era in the 1980s and early 1990s of pastors and congregants who came to church as they lived their lives, casually. A great divider of sacred and secular environments in the 1950s was dress.

“Men would not even consider going to church without a suit jacket and tie. Even the little boys wore suit coats. And on 90+ degree days, in churches with no air-conditioning, the men just sat there sweating. The women also wore their best dresses and shoes and hats too.” -Grandmother of Courtney Joseph, author of Women Living Well blog.

On the other hand, Warren and his church leaders reinterpret St. Paul’s dictum to “be all things to all people” by adopting the laidback California style of dress even in church, shorts, jeans, even short sleeved shirts for women.

When Warren embarked on his journey to found and grow Saddleback, he used some of the same principles of marketing and tailoring the church to the consumer that Hybels had done. Before the opening of Saddleback in 1980, Warren went door to door to find what the market wanted. They wanted services, they wanted religion that was not like the “Old Time Religion” of their childhoods or their parents and they did not want to have to put forth more effort than was necessary to come and “participate”.

Warren also devised a method for multiplicity that harkened back to Jameson’s ideas about the conformity of thought in the 1970s that built on the evangelism and outreach of previous megachurch pastors like Jerry Falwell and Bill Hybels. Beyond reproducing his message through televangelism, Warren has created a whole industry around the Purpose Driven Church. Pastors thousands of miles away began to have the opportunity to preach Warren’s sermon word for word through email listservs and downloads. By the 2000s, The Purpose Driven Life had become a “textbook for a course that aids in creating a “Purpose Driven” church” This made Saddleback a franchised product consistent throughout the world.

America Became a Consumer, That’s Why

American Christianity in the 1950s was traditional, male-headed family centric, orthodox and structured. The wide variety of religions, political activities and civil unrest in the 1960s gave Baby Boomers a multitude of choices in how to spend their time. The 1960s saw the influence of television, movies, advertising and popular culture soar. After the upheaval of the counter-culture decade, Baby Boomers were looking for stability, but a type of religious participation that fit their new American consumer values.

Megachurch pastors created this environment for consumers. Jerry Falwell offered multiple services for families with changing dynamics, schedules and both spiritual and secular needs. Bill Hybels developed a program through his youth group that utilized the technologies and attention grabbers that secular youth were used to consuming in their daily lives and made it part of the “Willow Creek Way”. Robert Schuller tapped in to the need of the unchurched to feel comfortable in their environment. People wanted less overtly religious ornamentation and architecture but more shopping mall, theater type environments. Rick Warren became so adept at growing and duplicating his message that Saddleback has become its own franchise.

These churches typify the larger change in society during the Cultural Turn from the 1960s to the 1970s. Each created a brand of consumable religion through technology, media, reinterpretation of scripture and consumer-based marketing. The rejection of traditional religion, even traditional Evangelical services, by bringing in popular styles of praise music in lieu of The Baptist Hymnal or using a more reader friendly version of the Bible instead of The King James Version blurred the lines between academic/elite culture and popular culture within the church. A weakened focus on scripture, the popularity of repurposed sermons, and “seeker-centric” evangelizing encouraged less individual thought about religion and more conformity within. Value began to be placed in what activities at church one participated in or what consumable they help generate (or consumed themselves) rather than academic achievements or specific belief structures held.

In the 1970s the values of America had completely changed from 20 years prior. American consumerism was the dominate value system around which all other institutions began to orbit. Religion was no different. It is no surprise that the successful Baby Boomers coming out of the 60s with new families, better jobs, higher wages and more pulls on their leisure time would gravitate toward the savvy marketing of the charismatic men who led the first megachurches. The rise of the megachurch coincided with the post-modern value system of America where what an individual takes in defines who they are. Americans began to spend money or to spend time in order to use goods or services in a way they had not done in the past. The megachurch applied these principles to religion and created a whole new post-modern form of Evangelical Christianity that turned spirituality into a consumable product.

1.Penny E. Becker “Congregations Adapting to Changes in Work and Family: A Report from the Religion and Family Project”. New England Religion Discussion Society. 1999,

2. Fredric Jameson. The Cultural Turn, 1st ed. (London:Verso, 1998), 111.

3.Rachel Simpson. “Mega Chruch: God’s Great Work of the Evil Empire?” (2011), [http://www.unityinstitute.org/sites/unityinstitute.org/files/documents/lyceum/2012/Mega%20Church.pdf]

4. Lebow, Victor. “Price Competition in 1955.” Journal of Retailing. (1955).

5. Jameson, 2

6. James B. Twitchell Shopping for God, 1st ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 230.

7. Elmer Towns and Jerry Falwell. Church Aflame. (St. Louis: Impact Books, 1971) , Ch. 2.

8. Towns and Falwell, Ch. 3.

11. Susan F. Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton university Press, 2000), 15.

12. G. A. Pritchard. Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996 ), Ch. 2.

15. Matt Branaugh. “Willow Creek’s ‘Huge Shift’”. Christianity Today, (2008), [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/5.13.html]

16. “Founding Pastor,” Crystal Cathedral, About.” [http://www.crystalcathedral.org/about/rhs.php]

17. Elmer Towns, John N. Vaughan and David J. Seifert. Complete Book of Church Growth. (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishing, 1982), Ch. 5.

18. David G. Bromley and Stephanie Edelman. “Saddleback Timeline” World Religions and Spirituality Project, Virginia Commonwealth University, “Saddleback Community Church.” (2012) [http://www.has.vcu.edu/wrs/profiles/SaddlebackCommunityChurch.htm].

19 Richard Warren. The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Zondervan, 2002), 202–206.

20. [http://www.has.vcu.edu/wrs/profiles/SaddlebackCommunityChurch.htm]

21. David G. Bromley and Stephanie Edelman. “Saddleback Timeline” World Religions and Spirituality Project, Virginia Commonwealth University, “Saddleback Community Church.” (2012) [http://www.has.vcu.edu/wrs/profiles/SaddlebackCommunityChurch.htm].

22. Richard Warren. The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Zondervan, 2002), 202–206.

23. [http://www.has.vcu.edu/wrs/profiles/SaddlebackCommunityChurch.htm]

24. Joseph, Courtney. “What Sundays Were Like In the 1950′s”. Women Living Well Ministries. http://womenlivingwell.org/2010/09/what-sundays-were-like-in-1950s/

25. Lee, Shayne and Philip Luke Sinitiere. Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace,. (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 143.

26 Lee and Sinitiere, 141.

27. Mara Einstein. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008).




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Alana Anton

Alana Anton

Queerbilly, sociologist, mom, partner, social justice hillbilly. Let’s have a hootenanny!

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