The American religious landscape is increasingly dominated by the influence of megachurches. A common criticism of megachurches is that they reinforce the bad habits of consumer culture. They do so by commodifying religion for the easy consumption of the religious consumer. Using Vince Miller’s account of consumer culture, and Michel De Certeau’s theoretical project of articulating ways consumers act subversively and creatively, Aaron B. James argues that such criticisms of megachurches, while valid, are shortsighted. He uses megachurch architecture as an illustration of the ways in which megachurches engage consumer culture creatively and subversively. Mr. James is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Cedarville University.

In his book Consuming Religion, Vince Miller argues that the primary problem of consumer culture is not merely a problem of ideals or values (for example, people value material goods too much), though of course these ideals and values may well be problematic. Rather, the problem of consumer culture is fundamentally a problem of formation. Consumer culture ingrains the habit of interpreting anything and everything as a commodity – an object sundered from any disciplining connections and hence free to be fully possessed and manipulated by the consumer. The challenge of consumer culture is the inculcation of the interpretive habits that turn religion into a commodity.

By the lights of most critics, megachurches are both a prime consequence and agent of the insidious process of the commodification of religion. In this essay, I will use Vince Miller’s account of consumer culture, and Michel de Certeau’s theoretical project of formulating ways of recognizing the tactics consumers employ, to redirect criticisms offered against megachurches. My claim is not that criticisms of megachurches as instances of consumer culture are invalid criticisms. Rather, I argue that they are myopic criticisms. I argue that a more helpful approach to megachurches will be to look for the subtle, ironic ways in which megachurches use the commodification of culture to their own ends and purposes, potentially to ends amenable to the gospel. Such an approach allows us to acknowledge the ways in which megachurches both display and reinforce consumer culture, while still recognizing the creative, perhaps even subversive ways, they interact with consumer culture.

The essay will proceed in five parts. First, I will give a rough description of megachurches in order to limit the scope of my argument. Second, I will consider Miller’s argument about the commodification of religion in more detail, and relate it to contemporary criticisms of megachurches. Third, I will introduce the French cultural theologian Michel de Certeau’s argument for how best to understand the subversive ways consumers engage dominant cultural powers. De Certeau will provide a set of concepts to analyze the ways megachurches play on the field of consumer culture. Then, I will turn to megachurch architecture as one test case for what such play on the field of consumer culture looks like. In the final section, I will argue that megachurch architecture is a subversive, tactical insertion of memory on the dominant field of consumer culture which allows megachurches to use the dynamics of consumer culture to their own ends.

Identifying Megachurches

What is a megachurch? Because of their variety, one is tempted to say about megachurches what Ludwig Wittgenstein said about games. Wittgenstein notes that the concept of a game is extraordinarily difficult to define.1 For instance, what kind of definition could include professional football (a competitive, team activity played against an opponent for money), and solitaire (a single-person activity played against no opponent for no money) under the same definition? Yet, because we are skilled in the language and the practices attendant to games, we are pretty good at knowing one when we see one. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity I will attempt to give a description of megachurches. The following characteristics are imprecise, and there will be exceptions to nearly every one. But they will serve the function of clarifying what sort of church I have in mind.2

As the name might suggest, perhaps the most basic characteristic of megachurches is their size. Scholars debate over how many attendees a church must have to be considered a megachurch.3 But clearly, a church of 150, though large by some standards, is not a megachurch. Approximately 2,000 in attendance on any given week is a common number used to identify megachurches.4 Though perhaps the most basic characteristic, the size of megachurches by itself is in the end not terribly helpful in identifying them. This is because there are, for instance, many large Roman Catholic parishes that in terms of their size would then count as megachurches. Furthermore, as we will see below, large gatherings are not new to the evangelical heritage. Something more than size, then, must be included in the description.5

Another possible way of identifying megachurches is by noting their relationship to the church growth movement.6 There is debate over what exactly constitutes the “church growth movement,” but for our purposes it is enough to note that it self-consciously analyzes the factors that contribute to the growth of a church in terms of the numbers of attendees/members.7 Though their historical relationship with the church growth movement as founded by Donald McGavran is in question, megachurches do display this self-conscious emphasis on increasing the numerical size of the church. Furthermore, the shape that these churches take is directly related to the way in which they conceive of their ability to grow. Hence, whatever the genealogical relationship, megachurches do borrow from the movement. Furthermore, their self-conscious use of growth techniques is one important marker of difference between a megachurch and, for instance, a large Roman Catholic congregation.

One of the more distinctive features of most megachurches is their “full service” approach to ministry. Megachurches tend to offer a variety of ministries – sports and recreation opportunities, family events, coffee and book shops, meeting areas, trips of various kinds, ministries aimed across the spectrum of age groups and often divided among men and women or families and singles, as well as community service and outreach ministries. Some megachurches have schools affiliated with them as well as childcare services. Another important ministry that is common among megachurches is small groups. Partly because of the sheer size of the church as a whole, and partly because of a theology of discipleship, many megachurches promote participation in smaller groups, often made up of 6-12 people. Some groups are special interest groups (for example, Bible study or ministry groups). Some groups may be two or three families who regularly meet together. Several larger ministries in the church (youth groups, or men’s and women’s ministries) regularly break up participants into smaller groups. The purpose of the groups is to provide members more personal involvement in the life of the church, as well as a location for discipleship and growth in Christian maturity.

Another important feature of megachurches is their worship services. Megachurches tend to be identified as innovative or progressive in their worship services. They usually make the most of whatever multimedia technology is available. Lights and sound are often choreographed to the music and worship leaders.8 The songs are nearly always contemporary, and if hymns are used they are generally performed in a contemporary arrangement. Sermons (though they are often not called that) are generally delivered in a low-key, conversational style, by a friendly, happy, casually dressed pastor (usually, but not exclusively men). They almost always center on practical issues – how to raise kids, what to do when you are afraid, how to keep your integrity at work, and so on. The Bible usually functions as a source of wisdom and truth for everyday life and circumstances.

Architecturally, megachurches tend to be designed and built for functional reasons. On the one hand, there is quite a variety of architectural styles.9 While most megachurches do seek a contemporary look, some still incorporate more traditional elements in the architecture, elements that would identify the building as a church. Others build complexes that look like office parks or concert halls, with no features that would identify them as a church, at least from the outside. On the other hand, there are a couple of important architectural characteristics common to the majority of megachurches. First, because of the large numbers of attendees on a given Sunday, they are big. That they are big is important, because, especially with respect to the larger ones, not only do they have large auditoriums that seat anywhere from 2,000-7,000 people, they must also have space for parking, ministerial staff offices, room for group meetings and activities.10 Secondly, most megachurches, whether they incorporate features traditionally associated with churches or not, design their buildings with the comfort and convenience of the attendees in mind. The purpose of the architecture is to put the attendee at ease, to invite them into a friendly, welcoming place, and to provide a functional space that will facilitate the often-elaborate worship components and the preaching. The result is that even churches that incorporate traditional architecture tend to have worship spaces that look more like a concert hall than a traditional sanctuary.

Finally, megachurches tend to be evangelical. Even megachurches aligned with mainline denominations tend to be of the evangelical variety of that denomination. By “evangelical” I mean on the whole more doctrinally conservative or orthodox than progressive, joined with an emphasis on evangelism and conversion.11 In fact, most megachurches see their prime purpose as evangelism. The emphasis on evangelism is a major contributor to the style of such churches – they do what they do and look like they do for the purpose of attracting people to the gospel.12 Their ethos or style is largely, though not exclusively, a function of their evangelistic impulse.

These characteristics are rough, imprecise, and far from exhaustive. It would be easy to point to a church that is recognizably a megachurch that violated or improvised on any one or more of these characteristics, with the exception that they are all quite large, both in numbers of attendees and in their facilities. For the purposes of this essay, rather than hammering out who counts as a megachurch and who does not, I will simply restrict myself to one variety of megachurch: namely, those of the conservative evangelical variety who prize “innovation” or “adaptation” in worship styles and structures and whose architecture reflects such innovation by minimizing or altogether omitting architectural features traditionally associated with churches. These churches are roughly 2,000 in weekly attendees on up. They are almost exclusively located in suburban areas on large, spacious campuses containing a variety of services, and frequently in the wealthier sections of suburbia. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in Southern California are archetypal examples.

Consumer Culture and Megachurches

The issue I want to address is the relationship of these megachurches to the wider culture. Specifically, I will address the ways in which megachurches actively participate in consumer culture as described by Vince Miller. Miller argues that consumer culture is “primarily a way of relating to beliefs – a set of habits of interpretation and use – that [with respect to religion] renders the ‘content’ of beliefs and values less important.”13 This is done through a process of commodification, whereby culture itself is approached with the same interpretive habits one would approach a literal commodity. As commodities are severed from the labor that produced them, so cultural elements become severed from their tradition, the result being that “they are put to decorative uses far removed from their original references and connections with other beliefs and practices.”14 People approach the beliefs of a tradition the way they approach commodities in a store.

For Miller, though consumer culture may proffer and even depend upon certain ideologies, for Christianity the primary threat of consumer culture is not those contrary ideologies, but that consumer culture renders Christian values and beliefs as commodities. Believers are trained by consumer culture to approach their religious tradition with the interpretive habits and skills with which they approach commodities. Consumer culture changes the relationship to religious traditions. Christians continue to practice them, but they lose their ability to form Christian lives substantively. Hence, consumer culture neuters the formative power of religious tradition over the lives of its followers.

Critiques of megachurches frequently stem at root from the relationship of megachurches to the wider culture. Yet, the critique of the relationship between megachurches and the wider culture is usually made in terms of beliefs or values. For instance, Gailyn Van Rheenen argues that the church growth movement, and by extension megachurches insofar as they self-consciously adopt similar kinds of techniques, lack a sufficient theological critique of the wider culture.15 Craig Van Gelder argues that they lack a sufficient ecclesiology, and so do not properly conceive of the difference between the church and the wider culture.16

However, if Miller is right, though these are not unimportant critiques, they miss the larger problem of consumer culture – namely its ability to commodify any belief or value, including critiques. In this paper, then, my concern is not with megachurches’ correct or incorrect ecclesiology, or the extent to which they self-consciously criticize or blindly participate in consumer culture, however relevant these critiques may be to the life of megachurches. Rather, my concern is with the ways in which consumer culture structures Christian practice in megachurches, and by implication the ways in which megachurches do or do not participate in the formation of the habits of consumer culture.

A critique of megachurches in light of Miller’s account of consumer culture would have to look something like this: Insofar as megachurches adopt techniques that reinforce the creation of the habits of interpretation that characterize consumer culture and that eviscerate the church’s formation of Christian habits in the lives of Christians, megachurches are not merely responsive to the interpretive habits of consumer culture. They now actively participate in the very formation of those habits. Megachurches, rather than resisting the commodification of religion and its attendant interpretive habits, actively foster it. This is problematic because then any claims that the church, including megachurches, might have on the formation of disciples is neutered because Christians approach those claims with the same interpretive habits they approach items at a grocery store. That is, they approach with the interpretive habits that would take church discipline as a commodity, something they can take or leave as they choose. Thus, in Miller’s terminology such a critique would claim that megachurches do not steward the tradition; they sell it.

Michael Budde offers a critique along these lines. Budde, a Roman Catholic, argues that the church growth movement mimics culture industries. By church growth movement, Budde means

an integrated strategy to increase church membership and income by utilizing the full array of marketing tools and research. Church activities, architecture, liturgy, and theology are then adapted to fit the preferences and desires of the target population.17

Clearly, Budde has in mind here megachurches.18 The thrust of Budde’s critique is that insofar as churches function more like IBM, they lose the ability to form a distinctively Christian people. Hence, rather than forming people who can more fully participate in the gospel, and consequently offer meaningful critique to consumer culture, megachurches simply reproduce the formation of consumer culture.19 That is, megachurches fail to enact the gospel faithfully insofar as they fail to form Christians with the interpretive skills necessary to see and enact the difference between consumer culture and Christian faithfulness.

For the sake of this paper, I will simply assume that megachurches are indeed so implicated in such deformation.20 However, I submit that that critique and others along the same lines, though important, are myopic. They are myopic because they fail to take into account the ways megachurches, to anticipate the language of de Certeau, creatively use the very consumer culture that nevertheless eviscerates megachurches’ claims over their members.

I will use de Certeau to articulate a theoretical framework within which we might widen critiques of mega-churches. De Certeau offers us a theoretical framework in which to make claims about how megachurches, while being structured thoroughly by consumer culture, nonetheless play tricks on it, using it for its own ends, and in the meantime offer a measured, stuttering resistance to it. The advantage of de Certeau’s approach is that, while we may still recognize the malignant influence of consumer culture on megachurches, we ought not simply dismiss megachurches as a wholesale capitulation to consumer culture. Rather, we may view megachurches as operating on a field they do not own, participating in discourses they do not control, and doing so creatively.

De Certeau on Tactics and Strategies

De Certeau writes of the subtle, surprising, and rupturing ways in which everyday people subvert, change, and transform their surroundings, surroundings determined by operations over which they have no control.21 Producers have power over a space, a space which is theirs and on which they can operate from a stable position of dominance. Yet, the “ordinary man,” or the consumer, through everyday practices (or “subversive acts”) transforms the landscape by which he is dominated. The consumers have no stable location of power and move within the space by means of “coupes.”22

Consumers operate according to tactics. Because they have no position from which to survey and influence the larger field, they are restricted to “isolated actions, blow by blow.”23 Tactics are actions “determined by the absence of a proper locus.”24 In contrast, a strategy is a “calculation (or manipulation) of power relations” that is possible when a subject locates a stable, controllable place from which to act and from which to survey the field. Strategies are fundamentally managing activities by which the field is organized.25 For de Certeau, consumers are limited to tactics because of the pervasiveness of the dominant field. There is no place for consumers to go to act strategically.

That consumers have no stable location is central for de Certeau’s framework. It is not the case that through tactic consumers can overthrow the dominant field. They do not have the power to reshape the landscape to suit their own ends. De Certeau does not write as a revolutionary, but as an observer of culture and cultural actors. His is an argument about recovering the agency of consumers in a world that is not theirs. Rather than reading them as passive objects, shaped and moved by larger forcers, de Certeau seeks to describe their agency as larger forces configure the space through which they live and move. Such agency is limited to small subversions. Though users have agency and act tactically, they lack a location of power from which to reshape whole landscapes. Furthermore, because they act on another’s field, tactic in some sense cannot help but reinforce the terrain of the field insofar as a subversion depends upon the foreign configuration to be a subversion at all. That it stands out, that it is notable at all as a tactic, reinforces the configuration that would make it stand out as odd or noteworthy.

Consider one of de Certeau’s examples of tactic, a worker who makes a personal project on company time out of company resources.26 The worker siphons a small pittance of resources from the company, and in doing so subverts the company for his own project. But the resources that are taken are replaced by company acquisition from suppliers. Capital still moves. Profit is still made, even if shifted from one factory to another. One company’s small subversion is another’s small profit. The time the worker spends making his small project (his mini-vacation) reinforces the notion that work cannot be play, and so in a small way simply reinforces the “seriousness” and management of work and the commodification of play. Or, put differently, that there are rules to be subverted leaves standing and reinforces that there are rules, that the factory has sway over the worker and positions the worker as worker subject to the rules and goals of management. The tactical moves consumers make, though subversive, also at the same time reinforce the configuration of the landscape.

Any account of megachurches through the theoretical framework of de Certeau must start with the observation that megachurches, and for that matter any church in contemporary Western culture, has no stable location of power. Returning to Miller’s analysis of consumer culture, because consumer culture is primarily about the interpretive habits of consumers, and because such formation is so pervasive, at least in the West, any criticism of megachurches must take into account the ubiquity of this landscape. If Miller is correct, then, in the framework of de Certeau, consumer culture is the dominant field over which churches have no real control. The power of this field is precisely that it can absorb any critique the church might make of it. Indeed, in an important sense any trenchant critique is what ironically, even tragically reinforces the dominant power, because trenchant critiques are usually the ones that get noticed, the ones that can sell books and turn academics into minor celebrities, and hence get hijacked insofar as the critiques become an instrument for the formation of the interpretive habits of consumer culture.27 There is no place, including critique, that is not already under the sway of consumer culture.

This is what critics like Budde fail to consider fully. Consumer culture is not merely a threat to the church. It is the very field in which all churches (at least in Western locations) exist. Consumer culture, on this read, has colonized all of life. There is no location free from its influence for the church to plot its strategy. If this is the case, then critiques of megachurches that highlight their complicity in consumer culture, while perhaps not wrong, are also helpful in only a limited way. What may prove more fruitful is to notice the ways in which megachurches engage consumer culture. I argue, then, that what we ought to look for are the tactical moves megachurches make within this field over which they have no strategic control. This will free us to acknowledge the ways in which megachurches participate in and even reinforce the interpretive habits of consumer culture, while still recognizing the ways in which megachurches tactically engage consumer culture.

Megachurch Architecture as an Example of Tactic

Up to this point, I have not said anything specific about how a megachurch might act tactically. Rather, using de Certeau I have tried to outline the way in which such an account might be made. Namely, we will have to look on the level of tactics.

Megachurch architecture is a good example for my purposes because it is an obvious target for critiques of megachurches’ use of wider culture. The construction of a church building based on the convenience and comfort of largely white, affluent suburbanites looks like a clear example of the way megachurches cave to consumer culture. If crosses make consumers feel uncomfortable, as gruesome instruments of torture and death no doubt should, then simply remove or hide them.28 Though some megachurches have retained more traditional, churchlike appearances, the largest and most successful (in terms of sheer numbers of attendees) generally have not. If one did know what it was, the Willow Creek church complex outside of Chicago would almost certainly be mistaken for a large office complex. The first building that Saddleback church in California built was a large multi-purpose building, first used for worship, then eventually transformed into a sports center. Its most distinctive features were its extensive landscaping and its contemporary style barrel vault roof. Congregants referred to it affectionately as “our airplane hangar,” though perhaps multipurpose gym, or even civic center would be as appropriate an appellation.29 In short, these large megachurches look more like modern office buildings, convention centers, sports complexes or, on occasion, even shopping malls than churches.30

I will argue below that the way megachurch architecture acts tactically on consumer culture is in the form of a memory inserted on the foreign terrain of consumer culture. Before turning to de Certeau’s account of memory as tactic, I will give a very brief history of megachurch architecture in order to show the connection between contemporary megachurch architecture and its Puritan and revivalist forbearers. Such a history is well told by Anne C. Loveland and Otis B. Wheeler in From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. My reliance on their work for the descriptive history of church architecture will be evident below. Loveland and Wheeler argue that megachurch architecture is in fact not new or unique in the history of American Christianity. It rather “evolved from earlier religious structures built by nonliturgical Protestants.”31 Loveland and Wheeler note that there is an important strain of American Protestantism that from the beginning prized functionality in the service of evangelism in architecture. Megachurches historically are part of this strand.32

Loveland and Wheeler begin with the Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. Those Puritans built austere, plain meetinghouses that lacked the distinctive features familiar to English Anglicans that would identify the building as a church. They did so partly to distinguish themselves from Anglicanism, and partly because their reformed tradition refused to recognize such a thing as sacred space. “Church” applied to the gathered community. The building in which the church gathered was simply a functional space to carry out the activities of the congregations. Puritans preferred the term “meetinghouse” for their structures to highlight the neutrality of the building. In fact, early Puritans frequently used the meetinghouse for civic and social functions as well as church meetings. Loveland and Wheeler argue that Puritan architecture bequeathed this “functional aesthetic” to megachurches, an aesthetic that “mandated designing religious buildings to suit the purposes, beliefs, and activities of the people who used them.”33

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this functional aesthetic, wedded to a renewed emphasis on evangelism, shaped the form of the structures used by many of the revivalists. The revivalists saw their purpose as converting sinners to Christianity. Their structures were designed for this purpose. The revivalist innovation of the large camp meeting, sometimes lasting days at a time, included simple structures whose purpose was to gather large crowds to hear a message of salvation. The bare minimum was a crude podium from which the speaker could project the message. Aside from the ability to gather large crowds to hear a message, the very novelty of the camp meeting was an intentional part of the evangelistic strategy. The spectacle itself was part of the draw. The revivalists had no qualms about attracting people based on spectacle and novelty, for once the people were present they would hear the message of salvation. For example, James Gallaher in the early 1800s used a large, moveable tent to facilitate the crowds. His inspiration was a traveling circus. He noticed how the tent itself, along with the attendant frenetic activity, was enough to draw large crowds. Circuses were generally seen as banal, if not sinful, worldly amusement. Yet, the features of a traveling circus could be freely appropriated for Christian functions if it served the evangelistic purpose.34 Loveland and Wheeler argue that megachurches incorporated similar evangelistic strategies in their architecture, insofar as the spectacle of the building is part of the draw.35

Charles Finney’s use of a theater building for a church in the nineteenth century is another example of evangelicals borrowing from suspect sources. The theater in general was frowned upon by nineteenth-century Christians of Puritan influence. Yet, not only the building but also the techniques actors used to convey emotion and elicit responses from the audience were mined by Finney for better effect by preachers. Rather than build a new building, Finney, following the influence of New York city businessman and fellow evangelical Lewis Tappan, agreed to the restoration of an abandoned theater for the location of a church in the heart of New York City which was intended to evangelize those who would not set foot in a traditional church, either because they found them unpleasant or because they could not afford the pew rent.36

Following in the footsteps of Finney, auditorium churches dominated the evangelical architectural landscape from the mid to late nineteenth century well into the twentieth century. With auditorium-style churches came curved and banked seating, as well as further innovations with respect to the staging area. The architecture was a response to the emphasis placed on preaching, and the need for all in the congregation to be able to see and hear the speaker. The concern about the congregation was partly a function of the large capacities of these auditoriums. As early as the second half of the nineteenth century, auditorium churches were built with seating capacities ranging from roughly 2,000-4,000 people. To facilitate the preacher, platforms were constructed with no barriers and curved outward into the audience. The purpose according to Henry Ward Beecher, whose church in Brooklyn was completed in 1850, was to foster a feeling of “homeness [sic] and fraternity” between the speaker and the audience.37 J. T. Lloyd, a late nineteenth-century biographer of Beecher, observed, “one would never take it for a church at all.”38 The architecture again was in the service of evangelism. It functioned to draw in crowds who might not otherwise set foot in a traditional church, and furthermore facilitated the message to the crowd. The point was to provide a space in which attendees would feel comfortable enough to be receptive to the message presented.

By the early to mid twentieth century, Sunday Schools had taken root as a central part of the life of the church. Auditorium churches were supplemented, and often renovated, to include space for smaller groups and other functions besides preaching. Furthermore, because of their desire to draw in any and all, many of the evangelically minded churches with large auditoriums welcomed concerts, recitals, speeches and other public events into their buildings. Evangelicals increasingly wanted to serve “the whole man,” as P. E. Burroughs and Adam Clayton Powell put it in 1923.39 Hence, gymnasiums, locker rooms, showers, as well as smaller attached venues for public meetings and other social functions became more and more common among evangelical large churches in the twentieth century. Again, all of this was in service to evangelism. Church architecture was functional insofar as it both reflected as well as facilitated the outreach of the church.

In the case of megachurches, the reasons behind megachurch architecture are descended from this Puritan evangelical heritage. For example, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, pastors of large megachurches in California and Chicago respectively, have adopted this outlook. The logic for megachurches to look like anything but a church is to provide a neutral space, a place people will feel unthreatened when entering. Furthermore, the size of the church itself is part of the draw, part of the spectacle, as Gallaher used the circus tent. Loveland and Wheeler quote Rick Warren as saying that just as people will drive past shopping centers to go to a major mall, so will “people drive past dozens of little churches to go to a larger church that offers more services and special programs.”40 Megachurch architecture, then, is not new insofar as it continues the Puritan functional aesthetic, coupled with the evangelical emphasis on evangelism. The continuity is not in the shapes of the buildings, nor even in the attempt at convenience and comfort (Puritans did not construct their buildings for the sake of comfort). Rather, the continuity is in the functionalist aesthetic (inherited from the Puritans) wedded to the strong impulse for evangelism (inherited from the revivalists). Loveland and Wheeler argue that megachurches took from this heritage “that the church building was an instrument of evangelism and that architecture could and should be used to make an impression on the unchurched and unsaved that would lead them to attend a worship service or become involved in some other church-sponsored program or activity.”41

This strand of Protestantism, then, always prized functionality in the service of evangelism. Furthermore, as is especially evident in Finney and others influenced by his methods of evangelism, “packing the pews” was a valued and instrumental technique for spreading the gospel. By whatever means people were brought into the service, the point was to get them there, for then they were present at the proclamation of the gospel. Loveland and Wheeler conclude that megachurches have “kept the faith – in the functional aesthetic as well as in the tenets of their religion – on a scale that doubtless would have amazed and gratified many of their predecessors.”42

De Certeau and Memory

With this account of megachurch architecture in mind, I will argue that megachurch architecture, though it may indeed participate actively in the formative aspects of consumer culture, nevertheless also acts tactically upon it. De Certeau’s account of memory as tactic will provide the framework. De Certeau argues that memory is one of the ways in which consumers tactically act on the dominant field. Memory, according to de Certeau, upsets the settled relations because it inserts in a mapped, managed time a foreign operation. Through stories, memory contains in “the smallest volume” all that came before, and it does this in a small volume because it “concentrates the most knowledge in the least time.”43 Memory temporarily subverts the order of the producers because it carries in it all the past “ordinary” knowledge and inserts it all into a mapped space/time that is not big enough to contain it.

The insertion of memory is not formalizable in terms of a theory. It is rather an art that “intervenes at the ‘right moment’ … and produces modifications of the space.”44 Thus, de Certeau argues

memory mediates spatial transformations. In the mode of the “right point in time” (kairos), it produces a founding rupture or break. Its foreignness makes possible a transgression of the law of the place. Coming out of its bottomless and mobile secrets, a “coup” modifies the local order. … But this change requires the invisible resources of a time which obeys other laws and which, taking it by surprise, steals something from the distribution of owning space.45

Furthermore, “an ‘art’ of memory develops an aptitude for always being in the other’s place without possessing it, and for profiting from this alteration without destroying itself through it.”46

Though memory performs operations on the field, perhaps even subtly destabilizes it, such operations are limited and un-enduring since they are operations of tactic. The insertion of the memory does not overthrow the dominant field. The “coup” that occurs by the tactic is a mini-coup, one that upsets for only a moment. Its effects may endure in a mute fashion, but no wholesale change of space has occurred. This is because the art of memory lacks the location of power and survey that strategy would afford. As tactic, it lacks the power to rupture the whole field, or to reconfigure the whole landscape. It settles for small subversions and temporary destabilizations. The memory itself is what endures, and in so doing lives another day to perform another tactical operation.

I submit that megachurch architecture is such an instance of the tactical operation of memory. It is a tactic because megachurch architecture, in embodying the functional, evangelistic aesthetic of its forbearers, inserts a foreign memory into a field it does not own and cannot control. How to name exactly what the subversion is or looks like is no straightforward matter. De Certeau describes memory as a “‘space’ of moving nowhere”; its “mobility” is the “oddest” thing about it. This is because the content, or details of the memory, can never be isolated from the operation of the memory itself: “details are never what they are: they are not objects, for they are elusive as such; not fragments, for they yield the ensemble they forget; not totalities, since they are not self-sufficient; not stable, since each recall alters them.”47 If memory is a “transgression of the laws of the place,” then there is no way to give an account of the memory in terms of the dominant discourse that would situate it logically among other objects in the field. That is, naming the subversion in terms of the discourse of the dominant field (for example, outside the life of the memory) cannot help but reproduce a description of the dominant field – or, put differently, the subversion that the memory would name one way (in this case, “evangelism”) cannot be translated into the discourse of the larger field. The memory is rather artfully inserted, and the result is a rupture or disruption, not a new saying in the old language. This is because the memory, foreign to the dominant field, lacks a point of power from which to manipulate the grammar for the purposes of a smooth translation. Rather, the memory is artfully inserted “ungrammatically” – it is a bump in the discourse, a tiny rip in the fabric that the larger field can only poke at in terms of its own discourse. An evaluation of the success of the tactic must come from within the memory, from the discourse of evangelism in this case. Nevertheless, we can say something tentative about it using the framework of de Certeau.

To do so, we must remember that the challenge of consumer culture is one of formation. The problem Miller identifies with consumer culture is that any critique (in this case memory) can be commodified. Furthermore, in the case of megachurches, their architecture is one feature among many that undermines the critique of consumer culture by the gospel. Remember Rick Warren’s stated reason for a big church: consumers shop around. Hence, even if it is plausible that megachurch architecture is an enacted memory inserted into the foreign field of consumer culture, such an insertion simply plays the game of commodification insofar as megachurch architecture in effect commodifies the gospel by placing it within the interpretative frame of shopping. Furthermore, it reinforces the interpretive habits that would approach the gospel as commodity. So, to say something about the way megachurch architecture is a tactic, we must say something about the problem of formation.

To help sort this out, consider again de Certeau’s metaphor of a coup. Coups, though subversive, are in fact only limitedly so. Political coups, to press the metaphor, do not overthrow the very power structures that constitute the discourse of nations and governments. These sorts of coups presuppose those structures, and in fact reinforce them insofar as they take their form. They live in them and modify small spaces and localized configurations of government by overthrowing a particular, local government. Likewise, within de Certeau’s framework we would be expecting too much to ask that a tactic overthrow the very field within which it operates. Memory does its thing not by overthrowing commodification – such wholesale overthrowing is not an option when one lacks a place to act strategically. Rather, it offers small coups within the process of commodification. It does not directly challenge the interpretive habits of consumer culture; it uses those habits for its own ends.

A consumer may well approach the gospel, by way of megachurch architecture as well as other operations, as one approaches items in a shopping mall. The consumer may treat the claims of the church as one treats cans of corn on the shelf. And yet, some shoppers will take home the commodity that is the gospel, and unbeknownst to them, they take home a bomb that in some cases explodes into something unexpected from a commodity. One of de Certeau’s examples of a memory as tactic is a bird of one species that lays an egg in the nest of another species – surprise at hatch time!48

Consider the following as an example of such deceptive egg-laying. Chris Haw, along with his wife and some friends, live in Camden, New Jersey, one of America’s most polluted and dangerous cities. They live in an intentional Christian community, practicing a communal, simple lifestyle as a way of bearing witness to the gospel in a very troubled place. What is perhaps surprising about this is that Haw is from suburban Chicago and spent his formative high school years in Willow Creek Community Church. As Christianity Today relates his story:

At Willow Creek Community Church, Chris first learned about social injustice. A group of interns … “started asking questions about our way of life as contrasted with the call of the kingdom. I was taught about sweatshops, injustices, homeless people, mercy to the outsider, and other things unfamiliar to me.” Haw learned to be a disciple of Jesus. “Willow Creek taught me that 90 percent discipleship is 10 percent short of full devotion,” he says. “I took them at their word and set out to work through giving all.”49

Megachurch architecture faithfully embodied the memory of the Puritan/evangelical functional aesthetic insofar as it got Chris Haw through the door. Once in the door, Haw was exposed to a message that, though commodified, had power to reshape the interpretive habits with which he approached the world. The architecture played its trick: Haw showed up and was evangelized, and the evangelization began in him a process of discipleship, of Christian formation, counter to the formation of consumer culture. By commodifying the message, megachurch architecture gets consumers through the door, and once in the door they are exposed to a gospel that even in its attenuated form has the power to counter the formation of consumer culture. Perhaps such counter-formation is not even what Willow Creek intended. That this may be so says much about the power of the gospel, which is according to Paul “the power of God for the salvation of those who believe” (Rom. 1:16).

Megachurch architecture, then, is an instance of such a rupturing memory – it borrows the form of consumer culture, but uses it for its own ends. In doing so it no doubt reinforces the formation of the habits of consumer culture. And yet, this is precisely what we would expect if Miller and de Certeau are correct. As the worker’s small, personal project on company time reinforces the structure of factory and management even while subtly subverting it, the megachurch cannot help but participate in the formation of consumer culture. This is to be expected because megachurches, like the factory worker, have no other field from which to act. Yet, as I have tried to show, saying that they reinforce consumer culture is only part of the story, for it fails to acknowledge the ways megachurches act within that foreign field. It may commodify the message in the form of its architecture, but in doing so it frames the gospel in a shape that consumers can approach, and once they have done so the gospel has the chance to work on them in surprising ways.

Perhaps Chris Haw is an exception. If so, perhaps that is a grounds for criticizing megachurch architecture as a not terribly effective tactic even in terms of the memory’s own discourse, evangelism.50 Indeed, roughly 80% of those who attend megachurches are in fact not unchurched people.51 Nevertheless, to do so would still be to change the terms of critiques of megachurches. Now we can recognize the complicity of megachurches in forming consumers while still recognizing the creative ways megachurches use consumer culture to preach the gospel.


I have tried to identify megachurch architecture as an example of a tactic insofar as it is an embodied memory of church evangelism taking form on a stage over which it has no control. By using de Certeau I have argued that criticisms of megachurches as instances of consumer culture colonizing the church are not incorrect. They are, however, incomplete. They fail to take into account the creative ways megachurches act tactically in the field of consumer culture.

There is of course much more to be said. First, my argument suggests areas of future research, both sociological and theological, into the effectiveness of megachurches. It would be helpful to return to the example of Chris Haw. Is his story in some way representative? How effective are megachurches at transforming attendees into faithful disciples? There is of course research already done with respect to the effects of megachurches. However, if my argument is persuasive it suggests further work in grappling with what discipleship looks like in a world dominated by consumer culture and the commodification of religion, and what we would expect to see in terms of effectiveness given this dominant context.

Second, even if my overall approach is persuasive, it is not clear whether it is good news or bad news. That is, we may be able to identify megachurches as creative tacticians on consumer culture, but it is unclear where that gets us in the long run if in that process megachurches reinforce the very habits that undercut Christian formation. Furthermore, it is unclear to me whether my use of de Certeau and Miller results in a defeatist position that would be forced to acknowledge that the gates of hell in fact have overcome the church; or, in contrast, if the small operations of tactic are the very witness to why the gates of hell have not over- come the church. The line between good news and bad news is an incredibly fine one in this instance, and knowing the difference requires sustained attention to ecclesiology, among other doctrinal considerations.

Finally, my approach still does not obviate the need for criticism of megachurches. There may yet be much to criticize rightly about megachurches. But it does redirect where and how those criticisms would be made. Any criticism, if my argument is persuasive, cannot simply dismiss megachurches without attending to the ways they tactically live in and act on consumer culture. Furthermore, it raises interesting questions about how to evaluate churches that would eschew megachurch methods. If consumer culture is so pervasive and so adept at commodifying any critique, in what ways does a liturgical church, putatively in structure and message resisting consumer culture, reinforce those habits simply by its existence as an alternative that can be marketed and sold? In any case, if this argument is at all plausible, things are even more complicated than perhaps both critics and supporters of megachurches previously realized.

Cite this article
Aaron B. James, “Rehabilitating Willow Creek: Megachurches, De Certeau, and the Tactics of Navigating Consumer Culture”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:1 , 21-39


  1. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscomb (New York: MacMillan, 1953) § 66.
  2. Scott Thumma and Dave Travis offer a four-fold typology of megachurches: Old Line/Program-Based, Seeker, Charismatic/Pastor-Focused, and New Wave/Re-Visioned. Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 30-41. As I indicate below, the sort of megachurch I have in mind would most closely fit the Seeker type. However, as Thumma and Travis grant that there are no hard boundaries between the types, and given that the types share enough in common to be identified under the general description of a megachurch, the argument I make in this paper would apply in principle to all churches, in one way or another, fitting the general description of megachurches. Consequently, the various characteristics I describe below (characteristics reflected by the large amount of data reported by Thumma and Travis throughout their book) would be shared by churches of each of the four types, though perhaps to the greatest degree by churches of the Seeker type.
  3. See Nancy L. Eisland’s brief overview on the debate about the minimum number of attendees required to constitute a megachurch in “Contending with a Giant,” in Contemporary American Religion: an Ethnographic Reader, eds. Penny Edgell Becker and Nancy L. Eiesland (London: Altamira Press, 1997), 193.
  4. Thumma and Travis claim that 2,000 in weekly attendance has become the working standard in much of the literature on megachurches (xviii). Though, as they admit, there is nothing “magical” about the number 2,000, they “see this number as a convenient marker for a Protestant congregation that is large enough to possess many of the characteristics definitive of this religious phenomenon” (Thumma and Travis, xix).
  5. Thumma and Travis define a megachurch as “simply a Protestant church that averages at least two thousand total attendees in their weekend service.” They specify “Protestant” because of the fact that there are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish temples, and other kinds of worship centers that regularly attract large numbers. However, they argue that megachurches are a different category because “these [Roman Catholic and so on] churches are organized and led in distinctively different ways that separate them as unique phenomena from Protestant megachurches” (xvii).
  6. The extent to which megachurches are directly related to the church growth movement is a matter of debate. However, whether direct lineage or indirect influence, the impact of the church growth movement on megachurches is not in doubt.
  7. “Church Growth” is a contested label. It often gets applied to any church that self-consciously makes an increase in numbers a prime goal. The term, however, was coined by Donald McGavran, a missionary in India who studied the factors that he thought contributed to the growth of churches. Those of the McGavran camp would argue that the popular perceptions of church growth as shameless marketing to increase attendance is a parody of true church growth principles. See Gary L. McIntosh’s introduction to the collection of essays in Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, eds. Paul E. Engle and Gary L. McIntosh (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 7-28.
  8. A friend of mine recently sang with one of the worship teams for our church. The ironically “ritualized” choreography of our low-church worship hit home with him when he had to memorize the worship leader’s instructions for beginning the service: (Said in rhythm with the opening song) “Music starts; lights up; step, two, three, four; smile; sing.”
  9. For numerous pictorial illustrations see Anne C. Loveland and Otis B. Wheeler, From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003).
  10. Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX seats over 7,000.
  11. Of course, “evangelical” is itself a highly contested term. For one brief but responsible survey of the idea, see the entry “Evangelicalism” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001). One oft-cited way of identifying evangelicals is David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral of priorities” of evangelicalism. They are conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 3.
  12. Both Bill Hybels, head pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, and Rick Warren, head pastor of Saddleback Community Church, among others, have written on their conception of the church. Rick Warren has arguably had the most widespread impact with his book, The Purpose Driven Church, which articulates his principles for church evangelism and growth. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 1995).
  13. Vince Miller, Consuming Culture: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2003), 1; italics in original.
  14. Ibid., 32.
  15. See Gailyn Van Rheenan, “Reformist View,” in Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, 165-206.
  16. See Craig Van Gelder, “Centrist View,” in Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, 148-164. Though a concern about ecclesiology is not directly to the point with respect to the commodification of religion itself, I nevertheless do suggest in the conclusion to this paper that attention to ecclesiology is relevant with respect to considerations of what effectiveness of megachurches looks like in the context of consumer culture.
  17. Michael Budde, The (Magic) Kingdom of God (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 113.
  18. The extent to which such a definition fits “church growth” as McGavran conceived it is debatable. In fact, even most megachurch leaders would want a much more nuanced description. But Budde’s description serves the purpose of locating his critique. See Michael Maudlin’s and Edward Gilbreath’s interview with Bill Hybels in “Selling Out the House of God? Bill Hybels Answers Critics of the Seeker-Church Movement,” Christianity Today 38.8 (July 18, 1994) on why Hybels thinks such a description is inaccurate.
  19. See Budde, especially pages 113-115.
  20. The assumption, however, could be supported by sociological and theological study on megachurches. For one example, G. A. Pritchard in his in-depth sociological and theological study of Willow Creek Community Church argues that marketing techniques have been crucially important for Willow Creek’s growth. Though Pritchard does not evaluate these techniques in terms of consumer culture, he does offer his reservations about them. In sum, he worries that the marketing techniques have unintentionally rendered a gospel of personal fulfillment. Though I do not have the space here, a plausible link could be made between Pritchard’s description of personal fulfillment, in particular the interpretive habits that constitute such a thing, and the interpretative habits that constitute the commodification of religion. For Pritchard’s description and analysis see G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), in particular chapters 3,4 and 18.
  21. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).
  22. Ibid., 88.
  23. Ibid., 37.
  24. Ibid., 37.
  25. Ibid., 35-36.
  26. Ibid., 25.
  27. Miller notes how the 150th anniversary of Marx’s Communist Manifesto was turned into an effective marketing opportunity to sell reissued editions of the book. It is a perfect example, of course, because consumer culture is too happy to welcome values fundamentally opposed to it, because even those values can be marketed. Miller, 18.
  28. The first time my wife and I visited the megachurch we would eventually join, I was heartened when I saw that there were no American flags present in the sanctuary – until a friend pointed out to me that there were no crosses either.
  29. Quoted in Loveland and Wheeler, 151.
  30. In some instances, they are in fact located in buildings previously used for just such purposes.
  31. Loveland and Wheeler, 2.
  32. In fact, Thumma and Travis rightly remind us that “in terms of size, charismatic leader- ship, multiple programs, or the use of small group ministries” megachurches are nothing new to evangelicalism. What is new is their “rapid proliferation” since the 1970s. Beyond Megachurch Myths, 6. 3
  33. Loveland and Wheeler, 5.
  34. Ibid., 16-18.
  35. Ibid., 14.
  36. Ibid., 24-28.
  37. Ibid., 41, quoting Lyman Abbott, a biographer of Beecher writing in 1903.
  38. Quoted in Ibid., 40.
  39. Quoted in Ibid., 70.
  40. Quoted in Ibid., 117.
  41. Ibid., 128.
  42. Ibid., 260.
  43. De Certeau, 83; italics in original.
  44. Ibid., 84.
  45. Ibid., 85.
  46. Ibid., 87.
  47. Ibid., 88; italics in original.
  48. Ibid., 86.
  49. Rob Moll, “The New Monasticism,” Christianity Today 49.9 (September 2005): 38-48. Moll gives accounts of several small Christian communities that seek to a live communal, simple lifestyle. What is most notable about these communities is that they are largely made up of young evangelicals with backgrounds not all that dissimilar from Chris Haw.
  50. Though not in terms of consumer culture, Willow Creek’s own internal study suggests that their approach has not been as effective at making mature, committed disciples as they had hoped. See Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Reveal: Where Are you? (Willow Creek Resources, 2007). On the basis of that data, as well as further survey work with other churches, Hawkins and Parkinson offer a model for spiritual growth and suggestions for how churches can implement it. They also relate some of the changes Willow Creek made as a result of the initial survey. See Hawkins and Parkinson, Move: What 1000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011). Of course, more theological work needs to be done on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of how Willow Creek defines spiritual growth, especially in light of the concerns I have raised about consumer culture.
  51. Budde, 114. Thumma and Travis note, however, that this may not be unique to megachurches. They say, “it is important to keep in mind that many scholars have argued that nearly all churches – large or small, conservative or liberal – grow either from more births and good retention rates or from ‘circulating saints’ who go from one church to another.” Beyond Megachurch Myths, 124; citing Reginald W. Bibby and Merlin B. Brinkerhoff, “Circulation of the Saints 1966-1990: New Data, New Reflections,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33.3 (September 1994): 273-280.

Aaron B. James

Cedarville University
Aaron B. James is a former Professor of Theological Studies at Cedarville University.