Tracing the parallel histories of the American megachurch and the corporate-organizational complex.
WHEN PASTOR JOEL OSTEEN STRIDES ONSTAGE at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, klieg lights strobe, the Jumbotron flashes his perfect smile, and sixteen thousand worshipers roar their approval. It is an entrance worthy of a pro athlete or a pop star. Megachurches are often compared to big-box sports-and-entertainment venues, but Lakewood is one of the few that actually inhabits one: In 2003, the nondenominational church moved into the Compaq Center, a twenty-nine-year-old arena that had hosted the NBA Finals, bull-riding championships, and concerts by Paul McCartney and Kiss. The building, which came equipped with state-of-the-art A/V equipment, seemed like the most logical setting for the nation’s largest religious congregation.
And yet, Lakewood and America’s twelve hundred other megachurches—congregations that draw between two thousand and fifty thousand people per weekend—are not simply vast machines for passive spectatorship. Sunday services are convergences of worshipers who spend their weeknights at prayer groups, Bible studies, ministries, and missionary-training sessions. Successful megachurches are like well-run companies, with intricate corporate structures devised to keep each member personally engaged; their pastors are like chief executives, maximizing the productivity of laborers in the evangelism enterprise. Jumbotron notwithstanding, the architectural and organizational tropes of the megachurch are best compared to those of the modern white-collar workplace.
LARGE CHURCHES HAVE EXISTED since a few centuries after Christ, but the modern megachurch has its roots in nineteenth-century British and American Protestantism. This was the era of Christian camp meetings, forerunners of modern revivals that brought hundreds of enthusiastic worshipers out to the countryside, where they passed their afternoons listening to the harangues of charismatic men of God. England’s top evangelical leader in the 1850s was Charles Spurgeon, pastor at a London Baptist church that eventually outgrew its building and moved into a converted music hall. Spurgeon’s self-proclaimed forte was “soul-winning,” and every aspect of his ministry was tailored to attract and accommodate masses of people.
For a national day of prayer in 1857, he preached to a crowd of over twenty thousand in the Crystal Palace, the enormous pavilion built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 to showcase commodities from around the globe. (It was later moved to the bucolic suburb of Sydenham Hill, where it served as a venue for occasional exhibits and performances until burning to the ground in 1936.) Constructed of iron, wood, and nine hundred thousand square feet of glass, the Palace was an early example of the use of industrial techniques to create an interior environment that could accommodate the most diverse contents. Spurgeon’s flock paid a shilling each to stand amid horticultural displays and Assyrian statues as he preached.
THE INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY and its workers came to dominate American cities at the dawn of the twentieth century, and many middle-class whites escaped to new suburban developments. Their churches followed, but the architecture changed. Protestant worship services, once consisting almost entirely of preaching, had begun to include more elaborate participatory singing, recited exchanges between congregation and minister, and musical performances. Church architecture underwent a corresponding shift, from rectilinear designs modeled on early meeting houses to amphitheater-like layouts with radial seating and stages with elaborate pulpits and pipe organs.
As churches relocated to the outskirts, skyscrapers supplanted them as the most prominent buildings in large cities. (Presiding over the dedication of Manhattan's Gothic-style Woolworth Building in 1913, the Congregationalist minister Samuel Cadman nicknamed the edifice the “Cathedral of Commerce.”) After World War II, corporations began erecting towers sheathed in metal-and-glass curtain walls, symbols of technological progress that harked back to the Crystal Palace. Under the sway of new management practices laid out in the pages of journals such as Harvard Business Review, corporate leadership strived to create a new kind of work environment: a modular office that could be transformed to fit any arrangement of workers or space that management desired.
THOUGH OFFICE TOWERS might have suggested an ever-greater concentration of workers, the key organizational principle of the new corporation was actually decentralization. (The opening up of office space was echoed by the delegation of responsibilities to semiautonomous division managers.) Fittingly, the postwar office paradigm was most cogently realized not in the central city but in smaller corporate offices in the suburbs, which proliferated after President Eisenhower established the interstate highway system in the mid-1950s.
The General Motors Technical Center opened in 1955, in Warren, Michigan, twelve miles from downtown Detroit. Architect Eero Saarinen situated the 330-acre campus along an eleven-mile
roadway circuit; the low-slung blocks of gridded glass and steel evoke the triumph of industry while remaining linked to the natural world via expansive lawns, thick stands of trees, and an artificial lake. Saarinen said that the best view of the complex was not from a static position, but from the seat of a car driving by it at thirty miles per hour.
The same year, the preacher Robert Schuller—today best known as the host of The Hour of Power—began renting a drive-in theater in suburban Orange County, California, where he delivered Sunday-morning services from atop a snack stand. Worshipers would park their cars and watch Schuller through their windshields.
THE MIDCENTURY EMBRACE
of car-friendly, arcadian settings for work and worship drew on a sense of the uprightness of the rural that had been cultivated by prominent Americans from Thomas Jefferson to William Jennings Bryan. Even after Schuller's congregation moved into a new building on the same site in 1961, it maintained its connection to the drive-in church: Richard Neutra, its architect, made the signature feature a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with panels that slid open during services, merging the sanctuary with the parking lot outside, giving worshipers in cars and pews an equal view of the pulpit.
A similar aesthetic emerged in office design. The Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, wishing to move away from downtown Hartford in order to expand its headquarters, hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a new structure in the idyllic suburb of Bloomfield. The result was a low, crystalline block set on two hundred acres of farmland. “The magnificent mechanical efficiency and smooth flow of this building is economically important,” said one speaker at the building’s 1957 dedication, “but the lake, the swans in the lake, the green grass, the trees, and just plain space, lift the souls of the people who work here and the company for which they work. Compare it with the steel and concrete, the grim, impersonal jam which represents the city. Which is closer to God?”
The inside of the building was laid out according to an open plan influenced by the increasingly popular “office landscape” paradigm, which was meant to create a sense of spaciousness and encourage communication. Both the exterior and the interior of the office building had become landscapes, with architecture as a thin glass wall mediating between them.
THE IMAGE OF RURAL AMERICA as the paragon of morality and social harmony was buttressed by the specter of a nuclear attack on a major city. In the 1950s, municipal governments went out of their way to locate train stations, hospitals, shopping centers, and other critical infrastructure beyond the anticipated blast radius. While most mainstream religious leaders responded to the atomic threat with sermons denouncing nuclear weapons and grappling with the morality of war, many evangelical preachers exploited the apocalyptic mood to further demonize cities. Two days after President Truman announced the first Soviet atomic test, a young Billy Graham warned in a fiery sermon: “Do you know the area that is marked out for the enemy's first atomic bomb? New York! Secondly, Chicago; and thirdly, the city of Los Angeles!”
After WWII, the mass-production technologies used by wartime factories were employed to churn out prefabricated houses, as American families migrated by the hundreds of thousands to fields of tract housing that now ringed most major cities. The church was essential to suburbia, as it provided a sense of purpose for residents who might otherwise feel consigned to anonymity as they commuted between far-flung offices, commercial strips, and residential subdivisions. Corporations addressed the same problem by adopting the doctrine of “human relations,” which sought to boost productivity by giving each employee—each “organization man”—a sense of his personal value to the company.
FOR THESE DUAL INSTITUTIONS to minister effectively to suburbanites, they would have to be subdivided; they would have to adopt organizational and spatial frameworks capable of reducing their perceived size and conveying their appreciation for the individuality of workers and worshipers. In 1968, David Yonggi Cho, pastor of Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, restructured his ten-thousand-person congregation by dividing the city of Seoul into small groups, or “cells,” that would each meet on a weekday in a member’s home. Members were encouraged to invite their friends, and when a group reached a certain size, it would undergo what Cho called “cell division.” Within a decade, the church was the world’s largest, with two hundred thousand members. The cellular model quickly migrated to the US, where it fostered a new breed of churches.
They began pushing Bible-study groups, teen groups, young-professionals groups, single-parents groups, addiction-recovery groups, motorcycle-enthusiasts groups, bowling groups, and ballroom-dancing groups. The church experience no longer revolved around the Sunday service.
That same year, the Herman Miller furniture company created the “Action Office,” the forebear of the modern cubicle system. It has since sold five billion dollars’ worth of “systems furniture.” Businesses loved cubicles because they enjoyed favorable tax status as compared with conventional enclosed offices. Workers would love cubicles too, the theory went, because the structures would provide them with personal space while promoting communication and collaboration.
IN 1977, SCHULLER'S CONGREGATION, having outgrown Neutra’s building, began construction on the Crystal Cathedral. The Cathedral, designed by Philip Johnson, would hold three thousand people and serve as a sound stage for the pastor’s TV show. It sits in the middle of a parking lot, and from the outside appears to be a mute, symmetrical, reflective object. But the inside feels like a giant greenhouse: Worshipers look through the space-frame structure directly out to the surrounding woodlands and the sky above. A/V equipment clings to the metal struts above the pulpit; behind it is a section of wall that swings opens during services. “After I am dead and gone, the development will outshine the preacher,” Schuller told The Christian Century in 2002. “The real preacher that attracts people and ministry is going to be the structures, the grounds and the landscaping.”
In the same decade, the headquarters of the Weyerhaeuser forestry company, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was built near Tacoma, Washington. Weyerhaeuser deliberately selected a site with a rural feel that was nevertheless in full view of an interstate highway, using the pastoral setting as a marketing tool. To create a collaborative, democratic ethos inside the building, the company adopted an open floor plan and gave every employee a view of a window, if not a window view. (Here, too, communications technology was fully integrated: Telephone and electric lines were buried beneath the floors, and speakers continuously broadcasting white noise allowed workers to have private conversations.) Whereas the Crystal Cathedral’s glass walls stood in for divine illumination, here each pane symbolized corporate transparency.
THE 1980S AND ’90S SAW THE RISE
of so-called seeker megachurches, which targeted those disillusioned with religion. Rather than enforcing traditional worship styles, they embraced counterculture and youth rebellion. Chief among them is Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, in Orange County, California. Built in the ’90s, Saddleback plays down crosses and other conventional Christian signifiers and avoids mention of its Southern Baptist denominational affiliation. Instead of a massive auditorium, the church occupies multiple midsize structures scattered across a lush 120-acre campus. Visitors customize their worship experience by choosing from a range of services: “Saddleback Classic” in the main Worship Center, “OverDrive” for youth, and “Praise!” for gospel-music lovers.
As Warren’s model gained traction, the ideology of the democratic office was taken to new levels by management theorists associated with the Quality of Work Life movement. They recommended radically open office environments that would give workers control over their environment and dissimulate corporate hierarchy. “Office facility planning should be a systematic process that encourages employee participation, promotes innovation, and champions mobility,” advised a 1985 article in National Productivity Review
Corporations paid millions for the advice of consultants like Peter Drucker, whose thirty-nine books include People and Performance
and Managing for the Future
. Drucker argued that “knowledge workers”—people who are productive with their minds, not their hands—need progressive workplaces that minimize authority and make them feel like they can express themselves freely.
DRUCKER'S PROTÉGÉS HAVE GONE ON
to head GE, Proctor & Gamble, Intel, and other companies, and his influence has been felt in countless new workplace designs—nowhere more than the “Googleplex,” built by Studios Architecture in 1997 as the headquarters of Silicon Graphics and acquired in 2006 by Google. Its designers conceived of the space as a “destination office”: Though it is densely packed with workstations, one does not go there merely to work, as evidenced by the Ping-Pong tables, lava lamps, exercise balls, and nap spots provided by the company.
The correspondences between the Googleplex and Saddleback are remarkable: Rigid building models were broken down into amorphous, disaggregated masses, screened from their parking lots by trees and artificial hills; both campuses include plush lounges, landscaped paths, beach-volleyball courts, and cafés (with “outdoor seating for sunshine daydreaming,” Google’s website boasts). The architecture is meant to persuade church members or secular employees—especially younger people—to spend their most productive time there. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said, “knowledge workers believe they are paid to be effective, not to work 9 to 5.”
It's no coincidence that Saddleback mirrors the top office environments of its day. Warren was a good friend of Drucker’s (the consultant died in 2005), and the books he has written for pastors quote Drucker liberally. Drucker, in turn, was so impressed with the business acumen of evangelical leaders that in 1998 he declared the megachurch “surely the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years.”
RECENTLY, SOME MEGACHURCHES HAVE ANNOUNCED that they are extending their reach back to the secular urbanized areas they had left behind. Before being ousted for "sexual immorality," Ted Haggard, the pastor of Colorado Springs’ New Life Church, exhorted members to practice “grid praying”—canvassing a town block by block until it had been covered in prayer. Other churches are expanding their physical presence by building or buying shopping centers and mixed-used developments that will attract the unchurched. Some evangelicals have started preaching the virtues of New Urbanism, the urban-design movement that aims to mitigate the feeling of placelessness induced by Alphaville-esque developments by grafting them with brick facades and privately owned “public space.” Pastor Randy Frazee’s 2001 book The Connecting Church encourages the faithful to “rediscover neighborhood” and “implement a common place” in order to win souls in what has become “the loneliest nation on Earth.”
Workplace designers have taken up a similar meme. In a 2004 article for a company publication, two Herman Miller executives suggested that New Urbanist ideals of walkability, increased density, and commingling of social and work life might be applied to office design to create “a work environment that could approximate the richness and vitality of the urban experience.” Along the same lines, an architect with the design and consulting firm Gensler announced in an article last year: “Place-making is back in the corporate vocabulary.”
It is unclear whether or not these moves represent genuine engagements with the city. But megachurches’ and corporations’ embrace of the idea of the urban is the logical next step in their colonization of everyday life, part and parcel with the ever-more-diffuse protocols they have developed for managing souls. Evangelical congregations now publish books and brochures and offer courses to help members navigate their lives beyond the church; with attendance increasing as the recession has deepened, the church has been charged with offering consolation as well as guidance.
In the corporate world, even in the midst of today’s layoff campaigns, companies strive to maintain an image of caring, and human-resources departments cultivate the psychological well-being of their employees by providing depression and anxiety counseling, online databases of relationship and parenting advice, and referrals to life coaches. Modern-day management acts as an organizational superego, struggling to order the behavior of employees and keep existential terror at bay.
The corporation achieved the status of legal personhood more than a century ago (and enjoys this benefit without having to suffer the frailties of the human body). But the underlying corporeal metaphor for an all-pervasive organizational infrastructure had been established long before the advent of modern companies. As Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians says: “No man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.”