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Crowded megachurches keep growing by branching out

Posted: Friday, October 22, 2004

 

  Powell Grisham, executive director of family ministries for Wiregrass Church, left, and Billy McCarthy, executive director of the church's adult ministries, pose for a photo inside of the the church's temporary location at an empty retail suite in Dothan, Ala., Oct. 13, 2004. Wiregrass is one of North Point Church's satellite campuses, reflecting a trend among jam-packed megachurches across the country that allows worshippers to attend services away from the main church. AP Photo/Jay Hare

Powell Grisham, executive director of family ministries for Wiregrass Church, left, and Billy McCarthy, executive director of the church's adult ministries, pose for a photo inside of the the church's temporary location at an empty retail suite in Dothan, Ala., Oct. 13, 2004. Wiregrass is one of North Point Church's satellite campuses, reflecting a trend among jam-packed megachurches across the country that allows worshippers to attend services away from the main church.

AP Photo/Jay Hare

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) Like the other worshippers at the newest church in this southern Alabama city, Rich Elder listened intently to the sermon showing not even a hint of annoyance that the pastor wasn't in the building, or even in the state.

The image of Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church appeared on a large screen at the front of the hotel conference room where the Wiregrass Church meets. Stanley's church, meanwhile, is near Atlanta and he had recorded the sermon months ago.

''That was just one of those people that kind of talks to you person to person,'' Elder said, after watching Stanley.

Elder and hundreds of others could hear Stanley's messages by attending either the Wiregrass Church or North Point's other campus, two examples of a national trend in which jam-packed megachurches are extending their reach at offsite services.

Satellites are becoming so popular that the Second Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, had 117 representatives from Florida to Colorado attend its seminar last month on how to become a multisite church, Senior Associate Pastor Gary Moore said.

About one-fifth of the nation's megachurches congregations with average weekly attendance of at least 2,000 already had satellite campuses when they were surveyed by Hartford Seminary a few years ago.

''The vast majority are using this sort of branch campus to reach specific populations that might not be reached, or might require a kind of different retooling of the worship from the main sanctuary or the main church itself,'' said Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

Churches expand to other sites either by starting a new campus from scratch or by folding an existing church into their larger congregations.

The new campus can be completely dependent on the parent church or, as in the case of Wiregrass, a financially independent ''franchise'' of the original, says Wiregrass founder Troy Fountain.

The idea usually is to provide worshippers with the same core content as the main church, but to tailor the other ''worship trappings'' live music, style of dress, announcements and even refreshments to the local audience, Thumma said. Those distinct ''trappings'' could be modern, rock-style worship music or a more laid-back dress code. It could even involve a less imposing building than a steepled church with ornate decorations.

''They're not just doing it because in another part of the city there is a group that doesn't want to drive the whole way,'' Thumma said. ''Instead, it's (that) on the other side of town there is a group of our members who would like to worship differently than the main sanctuary. It's not just because the building is too full and we can't pack everybody in.''

Not that space concerns seating, parking and the like don't matter. ''If you can hold five different meetings of 1,000 (people) each, that's a little bit more manageable scattered around the city than holding one 5,000-attender meeting,'' Thumma noted.

Then there's convincing people to come to a service with a video pastor. But Thumma said watching the sermon on a screen instead of live isn't much different from attending a service in a megachurch's cavernous sanctuary or a football game in a large stadium and having to watch a screen to see what's going on.

''It's a little more different if you're in a room of 200'' and watching the pastor on a screen, Thumma said. ''But if most of those people got their first experience in the megachurch, it's a little more intimate arrangement.''

While many multisite churches are Southern Baptist and other Protestant denominations, nondenominational churches like North Point are particularly apt to expand in this manner since they don't already have a network of like-minded affiliates.

Fountain, Wiregrass' founder, said he believes that churches over the past few decades have lost relevancy. He wanted Wiregrass to be a church that mattered to its congregants.

If Elder is any indication, those efforts are working. The assistant manager at Dothan's Dollar General store said he normally works Sundays and didn't regularly attend a church before Wiregrass opened, but he plans to take off more often in the future.

''I'll be back,'' he said.

On the Net:

Wiregrass Church: http://www.wiregrasschurch.org

North Point Community Church: http://www.northpoint.org



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