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08 January 2013

One-off Megachurch Ethnography

While traveling over the holidays, my wife and I grudgingly visited a megachurch with a couple of our hosts who had recently become members there. While by no stretch of the imagination systematic, rigorous, or thorough, I want to offer just a few notes and observations here on that experience.

Let me begin by highlighting a few themes. First, the mise-en-scène was all about entertainment. We repeatedly heard comparisons to "being at a rock concert," which were quite accurate. Instead of a formal liturgy, the service followed a pattern of brief message--music--brief message--music.... Second, the term "surrender" was recurrent. "Surrendering to God's will" is a very comforting message for those who lack agency in their lives (i.e. the marginalized) as well as for those who imagine challenges to their agency through social change (i.e. the privileged). There was no discussion about discerning God's will, and I would guess that this is due to the active avoidance of contentiousness in such congregations. Finally, there was a lot of talk tacitly and explicitly about persecution. "You are not alone" became a mantra late in the service, and the pastor equated being a Christian surrounded by non-Christians to sexism and racism, apologizing to those in the congregation who had felt wronged in their lives.

That final theme, persecution, is related to an interesting paradox: megachurches simultaneously offer anonymity and community. People seem to relish the experience of walking into the building without being pestered but then being told they "are not alone." This might at first seem contradictory. After all, can a true sense of community exist among strangers? Perhaps people are doing community differently today than in the past. That is, being alone together is only contradictory by pre-postmodernist standards.

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