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Big Box Religion: — Jane Morba

IN AN IMMENSE EVENT TENT set up in a parking lot off Highway 68, a spirited bass line quakes through the assembled crowd. Tall aluminum poles run 40 feet up to the highest points of the multi-peaked pavilion. Multicolored lights mounted on towers illuminate the man on stage.

Wearing an untucked sport shirt, faded jeans and a frosty haircut, Curt Coffield—part worship pastor, part rock star—spools heartfelt lyrics over riffs on an acoustic guitar. In a plexiglass sound booth, a drummer pounds away on his set; across the stage, composer and music director John Wineglass plays an intricate keyboard accompaniment and the six other members of the worship band add vocals and supporting guitar.

The effect is powerful, the arrangement tight. Coffield and his back-up vocalists produce a seamless sound: “I don’t have to fully know just how far your love can go/ to sing of your love for me…”

About 500 people standing in front of rows of white plastic lawn chairs sing along, following lyrics projected on the white interior of the tent. Most are dressed in shorts or jeans. Some close their eyes and raise their arms. Others gnaw on bagels.

The group moves through its fourth anthem as a computer monitor perched on top of the technical pit, where three people adjust sound, light and recording levels, counts down the time remaining in the service.

There’s not a hymnal or necktie in the tented kingdom—or any other traditional indicator that this is a church service. Should one appear, it’d be a dead giveaway.

“We can tell if someone’s new,” says Senior Pastor Howie Hugo. “They’re there on time and they’re dressed up—not in jeans and a hoodie, like most people. Here we’re not gonna send you a dress code. What do you like to eat?  We have it. That’s what we’ve tried to do here.

“We don’t want to set up a lot of things as filters to block God’s voice. Rituals, formality, rigidity can limit people hearing the gospel.”

Hugo insists that God’s voice is a positive one, in contrast to oftentimes-ominous translations heard elsewhere. “At church, we’re always hearing how we disappointed God, and how bad we are,” Hugo says. “You walk out of church feeling terrible—instead of having an upper, you have a downer.”

The desired result is contemporary, positive and informal. “We don’t take ourselves very seriously,” Hugo says, “but we take God very seriously.”

~ ~ ~

ABOUT 1,500 MEMBERS of Shoreline Community Church have been congregating in and around the big white tent on Garden Road every week. They’ve been meeting in the tent for two years. By early next month, Shoreline’s worship services will move from the tent into a big, state-of-the-art sanctuary next door.

The 999-seat stadium-style auditorium is the jewel in the $16-million crown of a facility that has been dramatically retooled since it served as the local warehouse-headquarters for publishing giant CTB McGraw Hill. At 65,000 square feet, and with a catacomb of classrooms, assembly halls and offices within its walls, it’s one of the largest buildings of its kind in Monterey County, and a stunning monument to Shoreline’s meteoric rise.

While still very much in its adolescence, Shoreline mirrors hundreds of churches like it across the nation, a relatively new trend in religious institutions called “megachurches.” By providing contemporary music along with upbeat messages and service philosophies, megachurches are attracting large congregations. They are giving people what they want—treating them like consumers.

Before he was Shoreline’s senior pastor, Hugo was an extremely successful businessman. He still is. He and his staff have identified and met a need for high quality and comprehensive religious services. Business is good.

Hugo came to the Peninsula after completing a religious market analysis of sorts. After he and his wife Linda first identified Monterey as an ideal market in 1995, they moved here from the Bay Area, and launched Shoreline in Pacific Grove’s Chautauqua Hall. One hundred people attended; the Hugos schlepped in much of the chairs and equipment themselves.

In the 10 years since, Shoreline’s congregation has boomed to 30 or 40 times that size. Today, Hugo counts between 3,000 and 4,000 people as part of his congregation.

Shoreline’s rapid expansion takes place in the context of similar growth taking place nationwide, and especially in California and the South: Megachurches—very large Protestant congregations of diverse denominations with a charismatic leader, hip worship services, an array of expertly-run ministries, and a corporate-style organizational structure—have doubled in number in the last five years alone. Scholars who make it their career to study religion say that, nationwide, these churches are changing the face of American religion.

“Megachurches have begun to supercede former key influencers,” says Dave Travis, executive vice president of the Leadership Network, a public nonprofit that studies and consults large churches, “like denominational churches, seminaries, and religious press and publishing.”

Unsurprisingly, not everybody is pleased with the facelift, alternatively dismissing the megachurch approach as a passing trend and “religion lite.”

They do so at their own peril, because the momentum behind these churches is rooted as much in their understanding of modern society as it is the particular pop-magnetism of their approach.

~ ~ ~

IN THE MONTEREY PENINSULA, Hugo pictured the perfect cradle in which to nurture his megachurch.

“My wife and I started praying,” says Hugo, who was living in Woodside at the time. “We did demographic studies—we were looking for a place with high percentage of non-churched, and secondly a place that didn’t have a church like Shoreline.”

He says they calculated how many residents all the area churches could hold, and found that even if every local church was packed to the stained glass with churchgoers, only 4 percent of Monterey County could squeeze in.

Hugo had never led a church himself. Before marrying, he had served as a director of a large Campus Life student ministry in the San Diego area, but now he was serving as the principal at the Hugo Company as a hardworking commercial real estate developer with a multimillion-dollar net worth. Moreover, his family had just completed a sprawling home in Woodside, a palace set on eight acres with two guesthouses, a tennis court and a pool.

The home had taken seven years to complete. “It was such a major project, once we got it done, it was a point of pause—is this what I want my life to be about? Is this what it is?”

Hugo’s sitting in an office wearing midweek gear that consists of a loud Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals.

“You do the success thing…then you start feeling it’s not enough to be successful,” he says, “I want my life to count. I want to make a difference in this world. I wanted to do something more.

“As a Christian I thought of no better way in this world or eternity than to tell people that God loves them…I’d like to be a part of a church for people that really rejected traditional church—they haven’t rejected God; they haven’t rejected the Bible.”

So the Hugos moved their family, which has since grown to nine, to the Peninsula, and started sending out mailers.

“We took a phonebook and started a church,” Hugo says. “We sent 6,000 letters. We would’ve sent more but we had no more money for postage.”

To fund Shoreline’s first year, Hugo turned to five associates from his commercial real estate days, asking them to pledge $1,000 each a month for 12 months. He told them, all “good Christians,” that  $5,000 a month would be enough—combined with offerings along the way—to get this start-up going.

~ ~ ~

THOSE EARLY VISITORS saw something they liked, and something many weren’t getting elsewhere.

Today, five times as many people pack the tent twice over each Sunday. Hugo insists that the character of the congregation remains the same despite the massive swelling in size. The nuanced understanding of popular religion and how it’s perceived, which Hugo and Executive Pastor Dennis McFadden both share, speaks to a philosophy that played no small part in constructing the character of Shoreline then and now. They say 80 percent of people believe in God but don’t attend church. They believe they know why: The sermons are boring; there’s nothing for kids; they can’t relate to the music; and all the church wants is money.

“With any kind of people thing,” says Hugo, “you have to answer the question, ‘What do people want?’ Whether you’re a faith-based nonprofit or a corporate thing to sell widgets. You have to know your people.”

Two Sundays ago, after the Shoreline band finished a rousing rock set, Hugo moved through a homily sprinkled with humor and cleverly paraphrased scripture.

“I bet there’s a lot of hurt in this room from life experience that’s not that pretty,” he said. “Paul’s gonna write about it—he wants to leave us the heart of the artichoke.”

Meanwhile, middle schoolers attended a separate service in the youth assembly hall in the new building, where Keith Krueger, director of junior high ministries, uncorked a sermon of his own on “moral boundaries” and “purity.” In another wing, children divided into age groups (six to 12 months, 12 to 18 months, 18 to 24 months, and on up), received age-appropriate Christian-based care peppered with song and group activity. (Newborns have their own breast-feeding room where mothers will be able to watch a live feed of the worship service on closed circuit TV.)

So—savvy sermon: check. Kids: check. Music: check. Money: Checks.

For the ongoing “The Journey Continues” construction mission, Hugo announced before the offering, the final touches on the sanctuary will take $400,000. Only $50,000 was in.

“We need a little more ca-ca-ca-cash,” Hugo said playfully. “We’ve built this beautiful thing, it’s like the Golden Gate Bridge, only it’s just six feet short.” Laughter bounced about the tent. Hugo can seem eager to address questions about money: “Jesus said, ‘Where your heart is, your treasure will be.’”

His willingness to talk money reflects a sentiment that stems in part from an understanding that suspicion of successful churches comes with the territory.

“If one McDonald’s burger is bad, you don’t trust the whole chain,” he says. “Our staff can’t go borrow money, or set salaries—it would be odd setting your own salaries. Our nine-person board sets salaries. We have to make sure the finances are above reproach. We don’t want to be on 60 Minutes.”

~ ~ ~

THIS WEEKEND, 46,000 PEOPLE will attend Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, in a stadium where the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets won a couple of world championships.

Rick Warren, who wrote A Purpose Driven Life, the best-selling nonfiction hardcover in the history of the US, founded San Clemente, Calif.’s Saddleback Church with his wife in 1980—a church that draws 20,000 attendees every weekend.

Crystal Cathedral, based in Garden Grove, Calif., hosts two internationally televised programs a week and about 5,400 people in its 10,000 windowed cathedral.

Across the country, people are gravitating toward these huge houses of worship at an increasingly quick clip: In 1960, there were just 16 megachurches with 2,000-plus people in the country. Today there are over 1,210.

Nevertheless, megachurches still make up a small fraction of total churches in the US. As they have for generations, the vast majority of Americans attend Protestant churches with congregations totaling 200 or fewer—or Catholic churches. There are twice as many 2,000-plus Catholic congregations than there are megachurches.

But the fastest growing churches in the US, and those capturing the public curiosity, are megachurches.

While the 2,000-attendance threshold is a common qualifier used with the mega label, experts point out that megachurches are defined by their style as much as their size.

Scott Thumma, Ph.D. and professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford Institute for Religion Research, says he uses size to make it easier to flag which churches are using megachurch strategies to foster their popularity. “By the time a congregation has reached that many people weekly, a church has to restructure itself, the way it does worship, its authority structure, and it has to find new ways of integrating people into the congregation,” he says. “By the time they get that big, I can assume they probably have [megachurch] characteristics.”

For those familiar with Shoreline, those characteristics will sound familiar: a modern and technologically-savvy style of worship service, specialized leadership, and plenty of open avenues to new membership and growth.

Currently, Shoreline averages about 1,500 attendees of all ages each Sunday; Thumma expects them to crack the ranks of full-fledged megachurch shortly. “They’re on my radar screen because they’ll be a megachurch in no time at all,” he says.

In fact, they already display the qualities outlined in Megachurches Today 2005, a detailed set of research findings that Thumma and his colleagues published in February.

Critical to that character is contemporary worship with lively, electric music of professional quality. “It didn’t use to be the case five or 10 years ago,” Thumma says, “but in the latest survey, virtually 100 percent of megachurches use electric instruments.”

Shoreline takes it a step further.

“It appears [their music] is almost parallel with the importance of the sermons,” Thumma continues. “I was surprised that they have what looks like a rock star” in Worship Pastor Curt Coffield.

Sure enough, in addition to his Shoreline duties, Coffield tours with a band called PK7 to upwards of 10 arena events each year and has recorded five CDs. And Music Director John Wineglass has three Daytime Emmys for music direction and composition and has scored several independent films.

Quick pacing and sophisticated technology also play prominently. Hugo sees it as crucial in a world with all sorts of stimuli competing for attention: “After a play on ESPN and before the commercial break, there’s four highlights. Church is in slow motion.”

When the new sanctuary opens, Shoreline-produced videos will roll behind the stage, coordinated by a team that will also manage high-tech lights, sound, and video (which will feed the in-house channel).

Also, like most megachurches, Shoreline pushes a “seven days a week ministry” approach.

“We say church is what happens after you leave Shoreline,” Hugo says. A list of 42 different ministries—ranging from evangelism to environmentalism—runs on shoreline.org. Their missions have sent pastors and members to places like Uganda, the Ukraine and India. Their Katrina-relief response operation was lauded for staying for four months instead of days.

Like Rick Warren’s mega Saddleback Church, which runs more than 3,000 small groups as part of its congregation, the Shoreline community is trained to colonize their own mini-ministries as a way of cultivating bonds of community.

One quality as critical to megachurches success as any is their leadership structure—organized like an efficient business, it has clear hierarchies of middle management.

“Differentiated leadership is part and parcel of the megachurch movement,” Thumma says. “It’s broken down in professional, managerial style rather than a mom and pop store.”

At Shoreline, the five pastors under Hugo help manage teams made up of the 40 other Shoreline staffers. Their specific foci allow Shoreline to offer a complete Christian counseling program led by executive pastor and licensed marriage and family therapist Dennis McFadden; a buffet of entry-point options for new listeners to God’s word overseen by Discipleship Pastor Johnny Potter; and an admittedly House-of-Blues-quality production presentation of events courtesy of Pastor of Programming Ben Spangler.

“If you give one guy 100 jobs to do, he can’t do it,” Hugo says, “He doesn’t have enough hours and ability. I’m not trained as a counselor, not trained as a musician.”

The level of quality is a critical component in fostering growth, another megachurch hallmark. Shoreline’s standard bulletin is loaded with welcoming comments invitations to prayer groups and schedules for things like “Shoreline 101,” a social college-style introduction to the church’s lifestyle.

“We have people trained to scan and bring us new people,” says McFadden. “We work hard on Sunday. We meet dozens of new people. We bring them to the Red Carpet Tent, show them some hospitality.”

Another megachurch quality present at Shoreline runs contrary to a common myth about megachurches—that they are part of a hard-core conservative movement. In fact, most avoid politics like sin. The Megachurches 2005 says that only 16 percent of all megachurches measured had partnered with other churches in a political effort in the last five years (although a majority still identify themselves as conservative).

Hugo is clear where his allegiances lie while in the pulpit. “My goal is not to support the Democrats or the Republicans,” Hugo says. “My goal here is that as many people as possible go to heaven.”

~ ~ ~

BACK IN THE TENT, Hugo is tying a delicate prayer bow onto his request for special offerings to help complete the sanctuary.

“Let’s see what God does through us together…and see what God gives us…God, thanks for the resources we have personally. There’s no question—compared to the rest of the world, we are very blessed…”

Wineglass’ reflective violin weaves in and out of his words.

“We use these gifts in Jesus’ name…”

In one corner of the tent, a woman murmurs to her neighbor, “He’s so good.” She’s not talking about Jesus.

A visionary, authoritative senior minister is another, vital trait of megachurches.

“I told Howie, ‘The day you don’t have 100 percent of my loyalty, I quit,’” McFadden says. “Howie’s an idea factory, a dreamer...I love what he said: He could’ve retired a very wealthy man. But this is your legacy? This is it?”

Hugo’s vision as a commercial real estate baron and pastor have dovetailed during the construction of the ex-McGraw-Hill complex—which, thanks to generous donations of time and materials by members of the congregation, has been completed for a fraction of what it would’ve cost otherwise, with the congregation having to spend about $8.5 million rather than $16 million.

“He saw it all, none of it was there,” McFadden says. “He saw it: ‘I see it now, here’s what we’ll do.’ He sees it three steps ahead of everyone else.”

Upon completion, the complex will house three reception areas, three kitchens, three conference rooms, five large assembly rooms with fully equipped performance stages, 13 classrooms, 20 offices and 14 bathrooms, all in addition to the sanctuary.

A behemoth deck will eventually be constructed. A commercial kitchen will go in next to it. A Starbucks and a bookstore will land in the lobby.

~ ~ ~

“THERE ARE REALLY TWO KINDS of people when it comes to megachurches,” Thumma says, “those that say it’s heaven on earth and people that say it’s probably that other place.”

The criticisms of megachurches are many. One local pastor, who requested anonymity, views the movement as an insincere cultural packaging.

“They’re chasing culture,” he says. “It took them 20 years to get the rock bands and the videos. When it shifts again they won’t be able to keep up—they’ve got an expiration date.”

Others see their quality of their religious study as shallow, with more palatable ingredients like graphics and guitars subbed in for less savory staples like sin and suffering.

Shoreline leadership takes such criticisms in stride. They trust their ability to adapt to what their congregation might want and take pride in a closer reading of the Bible.

“Four or five years ago we began to sense a shift in the congregation where people were expressing that they’d like to hear more about God through his holy word,” McFadden says.

 “We used to be more of a ‘God loves you’ and handy tip for life—culturally relevant and significant music everyone could relate to, a skit that was humorous and people could relate to, short and sweet, casual, kick back. People would laughingly call it ‘Church Lite.’” McFadden says. “Now we preach straight out of the Bible, and don’t sugarcoat anything. Howie spent almost a year in the Book of John.”

Shoreline’s characteristics aside, the validity of these criticisms of megachurches are both open to debate and misdirected—they are better aimed at society itself: megachurches aren’t chasing pop culture or changing religion so much as much as they are borrowing from society’s most dominant player: big business. In an increasingly impersonal, anonymous world, personal relationships with service providers have become secondary to the quality offered by bigger institutions with more resources. And so religious choices suddenly grow less sensational and more predictable.

Thumma arrived at a similar conclusion based on sociological insight. “Since the ‘50s and ‘60s all of our institutions have gotten larger—universities, businesses, hospitals, big-box shopping malls,” he says. “What it’s done is create a condition where Americans are nurtured in these—they feel comfortable in Target and Home Depot where they can get exactly what they want.

“The incongruity would be living in a world like that and then going to a congregation of 40 with a bad choir and silence while so and so walks to pulpit and stumbles to find a verse—it’s not how the rest of our life functions: fast, technological, large-scale, with high quality. [Megachurches are] an extension of the reality they’re already living.

“The megachurch model fits much better with modern society than other churches.”

Hugo reads the success of Monterey’s own megachurch differently.

“Was I surprised with the growth of Shoreline?” he asks. “I prayed for this and planned for this to happen—not to be prideful.”

At another moment, his take on Shoreline’s rise under his leadership shifts subtly.

“If God can use ordinary me, he can use anyone,” he says, “I’m not a Rhodes scholar, not a great athlete that was in the NFL. I’m just an average guy that God can do something through.”

So it goes. At one glance, Shoreline’s rise in today’s society seems inevitable. At another, it’s the humble duty of a charismatic man with a vision.

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