Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Those aren't pews, they're stadium seats

I missed this article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press a few weeks ago when Eagle Brook Church moved from White Bear Lake, MN to Lino Lakes, MN.


New mega-church lures worshippers by embracing trends.
Pioneer Press

Hundreds of worshippers stomped snow off their boots in the lobby of Eagle Brook Church Saturday — and marveled at God's new $24 million house.

"It's wonderful! It's breathtaking!" said Cherie Broberg as she entered the colorful 2,100-seat sanctuary.

It was the crowning achievement of years of work and a whole lot of praying, said the Rev. Bob Merritt, preaching in an arena the size of a jet hangar.

"Miracles happen," he said, his voice choked with emotion. "It's indescribable. Twelve months ago, this place was cornfield, some dirt and a dream."

With Saturday's inaugural service, Eagle Brook Church shouldered its way into the ranks of the state's biggest churches. Mega-churches are the fastest growing kind of church in America, experts say.

The new building in Lino Lakes sits on 91 acres — bigger than some airports. It dwarfs the old Eagle Brook Church building in White Bear Lake. Its sanctuary is smaller than the immense Grace Church of Eden Prairie, but it attracts more visitors every week — 6,000, and rising.

In fact, growth is the main worry of operations director Scott Anderson. "We might not have enough seats," he said, taking a break from mopping the floors of the church's "Café 500" last week.

While many smaller churches languish, this is the kind of problem that plagues mega-churches.

Mega-church leaders, including those at Eagle Brook, believe that the more people in the doors, the better. They avoid anything that might be turn-offs for the unchurched.

A typical mega-church features:

• No pews. Instead, there are comfortable movie-theater-style cushioned seats. Stadium seating ensures good views of the stage.

• No Bibles or hymnals. Parishioners sing hymns by following the words on a large screen.

• Non-churchy architecture, without steeples. They look like high schools, malls or convention centers.

• Few symbols of religion. Stained-glass windows and even crosses are far less prominent.

• A dizzying array of specialized services, with specialists in geriatrics, teens, addiction and early childhood.

• No asking for money during a service — a turnoff for newcomers. There never is "passing the plate."

• High-energy music, with an in-house rock-style band on a stage ablaze with theatrical lighting.

• No pulpits. The pastor speaks informally from a simple stand on the stage.

• A fundamentalist and charismatic worship style, with a politically conservative viewpoint.

When 13-year-old Noelle Lindahl walked inside the natural stone lobby of Eagle Brook, she gushed: "It looks like a mall!"

"Mega-churches are successful because of the increasingly consumerist attitude of the day," said the Rev. Timothy Johnson, director of the Minnesota Church Ministries Association, which represents 90 members.

"They can offer something for everyone," he said.

Johnson said the vast majority of churches in America have fewer than 100 weekly worshippers. "The smaller churches are always looking over their shoulder."

Churches become almost generic, with "brand names" like Baptist, Lutheran and Catholic fading away. "The age of denominationalism is largely over," said Johnson.

Johnson said Christian values can be taught in a setting of almost any size. "But from my perspective, you have to ask, what kind of product do you have at the end of the day?" said Johnson. "Are you really changing the spiritual life and orientation of a person or not?"

The Eagle Brook Church always was focused on that goal, say church leaders. But in the 1990s, the name of the church was the First Baptist Church of White Bear Lake, and the church leaders wanted to grow.

They turned to a marketing technique — focus groups — and determined that the word "Baptist" kept people away. So, in 1997, the church name was changed to Eagle Brook.

Out went traditional styles of worship. The church decided it wouldn't avoid worldly trends — it would embrace them.

The youth service, with louder music, is called "The Edge." The Saturday service had an 11-piece rock band on a 60-foot-wide stage, with three huge rear-projection screens for videos, words to songs and ever-changing designs.

The architecture is airy and modern. "We don't want it to look like a traditional church," said Anderson.

The building opened to rave reviews Saturday.

"I'm so excited — what an awesome worship space!" said Kristi Shannon, who attended the White Bear Lake church.

If the aim was to appeal to younger worshippers, it was working on 15-year-old Kelsey Broberg. "A lot more kids will like to come to church here," she said.

Her friend Justine Coller added, "It's not old-people-ish."

Upstairs in the children's area, staff member Kristine Wendt was passing out free popcorn as fast as it would pop. Mobs of kids romped in a playroom room packed with 11 games — air hockey, pinball, basketball.

"This conveys relevance," Wendt hollered over the commotion.

"It's so awesome to see this, having been part of the vision. I have held back my tears five times today."

Downstairs, in the sanctuary, the audience was treated to a lineup of entertainment — a rock band, a comedy skit and a testimonial — all with a Christian message.

But most parishioners said the core message was what mattered — devoting lives to Christ.

"It isn't about the building. It's about the people," said Amy Lindahl as she dropped off her kids in the day-care rooms. "We put our prayers and hearts and souls into this place, and hopefully God will be glorified."

The next step in attracting people? Cup holders, perhaps.

"We are a Caribou church," said Anderson. "Half of the people come in here with coffee. It's such a part of who people are today, maybe we should add them.

"It all has to do," he said, "with relevance."

Bob Shaw can be reached at bshaw@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5433.


spottiswoode said...

i hope that apart from the great architecture, the fantastic music & the cosy atmosphere, the church preaches Christ as the only way to eternal life? Otherwise, it would be $20+million down the drain, no?

Chris Meirose said...

Indeed it would be a waste, but no fear, Eaglebrook Church communicates the Gospel well. They are a Baptist General Conference church, though they don't "advertise" that as they don't want anyone's preconcived stigma of what a Baptist is keeping them from coming to check out their church.

Big Chris