Churches are looking forward to Easter Sunday, when sanctuaries overflow with regulars as well as once-a-year worshippers for celebrations marking the resurrection of Jesus.
The biggest Christian outreach day of the year takes on ample new meaning in the megachurch era.
Snohomish County is now home to four of these modern meccas of evangelism – Protestant churches that draw 2,000 or more worshippers on weekends. Together, they draw more than 9,000 county residents each weekend for singing and sermons alongside shots of espresso and electric guitar playing.
Some of the churches plan to make a big splash on Sunday in an effort to convert one of the nation’s least religious areas. The number of people who attend Christian churches in Snohomish County dropped from 21.5 percent of the total population in 1990 to 20.7 percent in 2000.
Among the churches trying to change that is Cedar Park Assembly of God church in Bothell, which draws 40 percent of its 1,900-plus membership from Snohomish County and has a branch church of 175 in Lake Stevens.
The church will again perform its Easter play “The Victor,” a sweeping musical that includes a cast of 100, an elaborate set and a full orchestra, costing $20,000 on top of volunteer labor.
“Seeing the story of the Passion of Christ re-enacted seems to change hearts in a wonderful way, when they see what Christ did for them,” said Sue Timpe of Maltby, the church’s worship pastor. “It’s worth the effort and the money.”
Meanwhile, the 8,300 people who attend the Seattle-based Christian Faith Center will give a shout for God along with Shaun Alexander, the famous Seahawks player and church member, at the Qwest Field Event Center.
The church includes a satellite campus in Everett that’s its own megachurch, with a congregation of 2,000. Pastor Casey Treat anticipates that 10,000 people in all will show for “the greatest Easter service ever in the Northwest.”
“We’ll go to Shaun (Alexander’s) house on Sunday, but when we get there, it’ll be God’s house,” he said.
Snohomish County megachurches will be more subdued.
The 2,000-strong Westgate Chapel in Edmonds, Cascade Community Church in Monroe and the 2,500-strong New Life Center Foursquare Church in Everett will stick to more traditional pageantry.
Still, parishioners will find larger choirs, more elaborate decorations and beefier sound systems, sprinkled with doses of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and U2 songs.
Anatomy of a mega
Nationally, megachurches are nothing new.
About a dozen had appeared by 1960, mostly in the South, though it wasn’t until the 1970s that they started growing and attracting national attention, according to researchers.
Today, there are more than 1,200 megachurches nationwide – nearly double the number in 1990, according to the Connecticut-based Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Washington is home to 30 of them.
Cascade Community Church in Monroe was started nine years ago out of Northshore Baptist Church in Bothell with 70 people, then grew fast. Last year, Cascade started its own church in Duvall, and it continues to grow.
“Every time I think we’re solving a growth problem by sending people away, it seems more people show up to take their seats,” Pastor Nate Hettinga said.
Megachurches appeal to pop culture, with many local pastors now even podcasting – or “Godcasting” – sermons.
“(Church here) is more comfortable. When I was a kid, it was pretty starchy,” said Nina Therres of Lake Stevens, who attends Cascade.
There’s no shame in selling what people are looking for, said Brad Abare, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Church Communication.
“There’s not a single day when McDonald’s doesn’t sell a hamburger, the thing they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “But there are many days when churches don’t see members or new visitors come into their church or people come to Jesus.
“The premise of churches is we have the greatest story ever told. Churches realize they have to learn how to tell the story better.”
How church is done
Megachurches speak to the current American mind-set, said Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute.
“We go to large high schools, large colleges, work in large businesses, go to malls and shop in Home Depots. What seems incongruous to us, then, is to do that all through the week and then go to a church service on Sunday and see only 75 people,” Thumma said.
Megachurches are less an anomaly than they are a magnified reflection of how church is done these days.
New Life senior Pastor Nate Poetzl draws inspiration from the Bible’s New Testament in adapting services to today’s culture.
“God came to be a man and he fit into the culture of the day, which was first-century Palestine,” Poetzl said. “So relevancy, without compromise, is very important to us.”
Within the megachurch model are many ministries, such as youth, outreach, missions and clubs, all of which make the mega manageable.
They are also a sign of the impact churches can have with added manpower and money, said Alec Rowlands, senior pastor of Westgate Chapel in Edmonds, which draws 2,000 worshippers each weekend.
The church recently purchased a $600,000, 12-bedroom house to turn into a home for men recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
“Being a larger church gives us the financial flexibility to do that kind of ministry,” Rowlands said.
Indeed, while many pastors may say they don’t pay attention to the size of their congregations, “it makes a big difference when you go to the bank,” said John Vaughan of the Missouri-based Church Growth Today.
The average income of megachurches is $6 million a year, according to the Hartford Institute, reflecting a nationwide intake of $7.2 billion a year.
Making a mark?
Bethany Christian Assembly in Everett is nearing the mega mark, with more than 1,200 attendees each week and a $5 million, multiphase expansion to attract even more families.
The church started 96 years ago as a Swedish mission. It now offers more than 100 ministries that involve about 1,000 volunteers.
“Those of us that are here now feel a firm responsibility to stand on the shoulders of those who came before to make a bigger impact, because the needs are so much bigger” now, senior Pastor Rob Carlson said.
So far, however, the impact of megachurches may be more symbolic.
Nationwide, more people are identifying themselves as having no religion, including atheists and agnostics, according to telephone polls by the American Religious Identification Survey. Fourteen percent said they had no religion in 2001, compared with 8 percent in 1990.
Washington remains the second most “unclaimed” state in the nation behind Oregon, with 67 percent of the population claiming no organized religious faith, according to numbers kept by the Association of Religion Data Archives.
Megachurches are taking on the challenge. More are cropping up, and they’re getting bigger than ever, researchers say. Churches now need more than 3,000 attendees to even crack the top 10 in Washington.
The biggest churches and greatest stories are yet to come, said Vaughan, the church growth consultant.
“When you believe in God, you don’t dream small dreams.”
Reporters Scott Morris and Krista Kapralos contributed to this article. Reporter Melissa Slager: 425-339-3465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.