McMansions, Megachurches, and Meaning

Deborah Justice on Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism

Justin Wilford, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, New York University Press, 2012, 233 pp., $24.00
Justin Wilford, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, New York University Press, 2012, 233 pp., $24.00

The town square — complete with churches, shops, and public buildings — used to anchor civic communal life. Meeting houses in colonial America often held both sacred and civic functions. Communities had a sense of centrality and spatial organization. A few centuries later, suburban sprawl has people oozing out of city centers and transforming the rural countryside throughout the Western world. As the twentieth century progressed, increasing automobile culture, urban decay, and white flight combined, leading to city inhabitants relocating from the centre to the periphery of the metropolis. This mid-century spatial move to (largely) single-family homes within fenced subdivision yards preceded a parallel social privatization. By the turn of the millennium, working from home, flexible hours, texting, and telecommuting allowed people gradually to become autonomous. These changes to work practices, combined with increasingly diverse cultures and belief systems, challenged the previous relative social homogeneity of a nine-to-five Monday through Friday workweek and church on Sunday. Suburban residents, more used to driving than walking, began to craft their lives and religious practices around self-selected individual affinities rather than an underlying sense of civic duty or traditional patterns. The geography of religious practice was shifting.

Leading scholars in the sociology of religion — like R. Stephen Warner, Mark Chaves, Robert Wuthnow, Nancy Ammerman, Rodney Stark, and Roger Finke — began using the religious market model to describe how churches were changing. They styled the affinity-driven public as “shopping” to select a faith community that offered their desired combination of theology, culture, and activities. A “church shopping” public resonates with the choice and mobility of suburbia: churches have been relegated to yet another optional aspect of life to be accessed when and how it suits congregants’ affinities. By the 1990s, sociologist Nancy Ammerman was demonstrating how most churches could no longer rely on local neighborhood traffic to fill their pews. Rather, she asserted that many former “parish” churches were becoming “niche” congregations. By cultivating particular identities within the local religious landscape, congregations would survive on the basis of unique characteristics.

While the religious market model resonates for many smaller niche congregations (which make up the majority of churches across the US as a whole), the theory does little to explain how churches create meaning and why some fail when others succeed. It also does not account for the religious pluralism contained within one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge in America’s sacred landscape over the last fifty years: the megachurch.

In Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, Justin Wilford focuses on the geographical shifts that have caused tremors throughout the American religious landscape. Specifically, he investigates the cultural geography that spawned megachurches to provide the key to understanding their rapid growth and continued strength. Analyzing religious practices through the lens of geography may seem relatively unconventional, given the strong history of sociology of religion dominating scholarship of American religious practices. Yet Wilford argues that understanding megachurches relies on understanding their interactions with their landscapes. These institutions offer the promise that the cookie-cutter housing developments and surrounding strip malls of (post)suburbia can be meaningful, sacred places. Postsuburbia, according to Wilford, comprises a diffuse, diverse collection of place experience. Centered around the single-family home (rather than a city center or work-periphery divide as in previous eras), postsuburban life allows people to choose their own circles of involvement to a greater degree than previous geographic configurations. Megachurches mirror the decentralized communities they serve by creating points of anchor within the sea of suburban sprawl.

In decentralized postsuburban life, having so many choices about what to do, when to do it, and where to do it can be simultaneously satisfying and alienating. While people are asserting their own schedules and desires, their activities are selected from an increasingly narrow local landscape. In the United States, the same scenes play out in postsuburban communities from California to New York. People take care of their needs at strip malls populated by a handful of the same national retailers: a Starbucks, a McDonalds, a home improvement store like Lowe’s or Home Depot, maybe a gym, and a few other stores. Daily rhythms blend individualized combinations of mundane activities: commutes to work, shopping at chain stores, and shuttling kids to school and soccer practice.

Wilford addresses the fundamental question of how megachurches create meaning in the midst of this newly-formed landscape through a case study of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. While Saddleback Church is only one congregation, it is one of the largest and most influential churches in the United States. The congregation was founded by charismatic pastor Rick Warren with only two hundred and fifty members in 1980. In 2013, Saddleback boasts over twenty-two thousand members. Over two hundred thousand pastors from around the world have come to train in seminars advancing Saddleback’s philosophies for growth and congregational care. Wilford contextualizes the details of this congregation’s postsuburban California evangelicalism within a serious “who’s who and what’s what” of the sociology and cultural geography of religion — from Weber and Durkheim to Asad and Berger to Alexander and Castells. (The concise, pointed review of theory relating to religion, society, and American evangelicalism may be enough of a reason to buy the book.)

According to Wilford, megachurches like Saddleback work because they transform postsuburbia into an environment teeming with religious significance. At Saddleback, the “purpose-driven” philosophy plays a central role in helping congregants find meaning in their postsuburban lives. The church resists alienation. Pastor Rick Warren’s self-help book The Purpose Driven Life catapulted into the public sphere to become a multi-million-copy best-seller. The book promises happiness and spiritual fulfillment by perceiving the reader’s life as imbued with a God-given sense of purpose. The resultant evangelicalism resonates with anthropologist Tanya Luhrman’s study of how believers invest divine meaning into everyday events. In the generic landscape of affluent postsuburbia, trials such as a rebellious teenage child, a loveless marriage, or a tedious co-worker become challenges to be embraced as opportunities to grow in relationship with God. Suburbanites flocked to the church as its reference points for godly living were already present in their daily patterns.

Wilford argues that Saddleback is a chameleon organization that flourishes through a plurality of experiences. Multiple worship services meet at multiple times in multiple spaces, appealing to multiple demographics. An old-fashioned hymnody-based service meets in one location. An amplified R&B style service meets in another. Indie hipster youth services target another demographic. Yet, while collective worship at Saddleback remains important, there is no illusion that all or even most of Saddleback’s worshippers ever come together in the same place at the same time. And that is not the goal. Rather than collective worship, the small house group becomes the highly individualized, non-standardized center of the Saddleback experience. The house groups are based on affinity. From political conservatives to parenting groups to open LGBT support groups, the gatherings vary both theologically and socially. This decentralized, affinity-driven church experience mirrors the geography of suburbia surrounding megachurches like Saddleback.

Worship and small groups are not the only ways that Saddleback helps people to experience postsuburban life as religiously meaningful. Saddleback expands beyond its own local geography by having members fundraise to pay their way on short-term mission trips to developing nations. While Saddleback does aim for these trips to produce positive effects and relationships in the host countries, the primary goal is for Saddleback missionaries to better understand their own postsuburban environments in relationship to God.

Substantial theological implications result from such an affinity-driven variable congregation. Wilford does not presume to be a theologian, nor does he delve deeply into the theological aspects of Saddleback’s chameleon nature. Metaphorically speaking, what limits exist within Saddleback’s chameleon color palette? Within the landscape of small groups, who gets to make choices about inclusion and exclusion? What is the relation of individual to group to institution to religious system? How do participants think about these things? Wilford’s conclusion does touch upon theological concerns of grace versus law briefly but then moves quickly towards praising the brilliance of Saddleback’s performances of fragmented diversity. Wilford’s interpretation of Saddleback’s relatively open-ended credo — “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity” — points towards his reading of postsuburban geography. Loosely-connected individuals choose what creates meaning for them and when to come together to experience it. Discussion of Saddleback’s relatively conservative theology as a point of mooring within this sea of affinity would provide fascinating insight.

Sacred Subdivisions demonstrates how cultural geography can improve our study of contemporary religious life. Wilford’s holistic reading of the evangelical landscape provides a new understanding of how megachurches have swept across suburban America. These institutions have embraced cultural constructs that balance essential and nonessential engagement. Megachurches claim belief as essential but view the exact ways in which religiosity is practiced as nonessential. The resultant pluralism of practice mirrors patterns of suburban life and helps people experience meaning within the mundane.