Megachurches in New England

Increasingly, New England’s churches aren’t defined by white steeples on village greens, but by evangelical megachurches changing the religious landscape.

By Cynthia Anderson

Dec 16 2008

Mike Mancini

Faith Church congregant Mike Mancini holds his son, Isaac, as his wife, Karalyn, looks on.

Photo Credit : Johnson, Hesh
Megachurches in New England
Faith Church congregation calls out a response at Sunday services. Faith, in New Milford, Connecticut, is one of the largest evangelical communities in New England.
Photo Credit : Johnson, Hesh
The first time 27-year-old Mike Mancini set foot in Faith Church, he did so as an atheist. A musician who had transferred from Berklee College of Music in Boston to Western Connecticut State University, he’d been hired by Faith to play bass in the church band. Mancini seemed an unlikely candidate for the job. His days involved getting up around noon, grabbing something to eat at Taco Bell, and settling in to watch TV or—less often—to study before heading out to a party.

But in the fall of 2004, the New Milford, Connecticut, megachurch needed a player, and Mancini needed work. It was just a gig, he told himself–$100 a week, steady money. Even so, he steeled himself for what he would find. “I thought Christianity was for simple people who couldn’t get through life on their own,” he says. “Basically, I believed Christians were ignorant, close-minded, and conservative.”

His first few months at Faith, Mancini kept to himself. No one proselytized him, which came as a relief. Then, one Sunday as he was playing a worship song, “my eyes welled with tears and I got goose bumps,” Mancini says. “I looked around and saw other people crying, too.”

Afterward, he sought out Faith’s music pastor for an explanation. “That was the Holy Spirit,” the pastor told him matter-of-factly.

Although Mancini comes across as a laidback, bearlike man who laughs easily and often, he also possesses a tenacious intellect, and the pastor’s words left him far from satisfied. “I had to understand what was happening,” he says. “I started looking into things with an attitude of inquiry.”

He read the Bible, from Genesis straight through to the end of Revelations. But Mancini needed more than words. One night, driving, he uttered his first prayer: “God, if you’re real, prove yourself to me in a tangible way.”

Soon after, he was at a convenience store buying gas when he found a pamphlet about Christian salvation curled into the pump handle. Believers and nonbelievers may part ways on the meaning of that moment, but for Mancini it was enough. An hour later, he met with a pastor in the Faith parking lot. What followed was simple yet defining: “I asked for repentance, and I asked Christ to come live in my heart.”

Now a music teacher in a New Haven charter school, and married with a year-and-a-half-old son, Mancini has a full-color tattoo of a tree covering the length of his left arm and shoulder. He got it after baby Isaac was born. The Biblical passage Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God forms the base; the trunk is surrounded by sunflowers, his wife’s favorite. Mancini still has moments of doubt, he says, “but that’s not unhealthy. Doubt forces you to examine your faith and strengthens it.”

On a recent Sunday, Mancini played onstage with the band at Faith. Dressed in jeans and sandals, he leaned over his bass, intent on the music as lyrics appeared on an overhead monitor: You’re the miracle that I long for. Your love is all I need. Only You can change my heart and set my spirit free.

In the auditorium-like sanctuary, 800 people sang along, some with palms raised in devotion, others clapping in rhythm. The doors opened and closed, as latecomers hurried down a carpeted hallway–past the SonBucks coffee shop and Disneyesque murals of small-town America–to enter the sanctuary, and parents with crying babies exited. The crowd was as diverse a group as you’d find anywhere in the state: Latino, Caucasian, African American, Asian. When the sermon began, backstage translators offered it in Spanish and Portuguese to churchgoers wearing headphones.

Two decades ago in New England, there were virtually no megachurches, loosely defined as those with a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more. Faith Church now figures among 18 in the region. And megachurches are far from all of it. Many evangelicals attend smaller churches across New England–Assembly of God, Baptist, Pentecostal, nondenominational–all bound by a belief in the authority of Scripture, personal conversion, and salvation through Jesus Christ. They’ve prospered as mainline Protestant churches have continued to struggle.

According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, about one-third of New England’s Protestants currently identify themselves as evangelical. That number approaches 50 percent in Massachusetts, Rhode Island,and Connecticut. Even though they remain a minority in a place where Catholicism remains the predominant religion, “evangelicals, who used to be virtually invisible, are now clearly discernible on the New England landscape,” says Andrew Walsh, associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford.

The same day Mancini was on the bass at Faith, Senior Pastor Bryan Wilkerson delivered a sermon titled “Image Isn’t Everything” to 1,000 congregants at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, as technicians seated at computers recorded it for radio. A few miles south of downtown Boston, Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan released worshippers from the second of three services at its 1,250-seat sanctuary in a converted supermarket on Blue Hill Avenue. No sooner did the Jubilee parking lot empty of one group of vehicles than it filled with another.

Across New England, evangelicals who didn’t make it to church in person could listen to rebroadcast services on CD or via audio stream on the Internet and, throughout the week, to head to church for athletic activities, support groups, and classes on topics ranging from the Biblical approach to recovery from addiction to the management of family finances.

Although it’s clear that evangelicalism has made inroads in New England, what’s less clear is why. Successful proselytizing may have something to do with it, although evangelistic outreach does not seem to have focused disproportionately on New England in recent years. Part of the reason may be shifting demographics and an increased number of immigrants looking to embrace a Christian lifestyle. It’s possible, too, that the disillusionment of some Roman Catholics with the Church’s policies and practices has spurred an interest in evangelical denominations. (At Faith Church, for instance, members with Catholic backgrounds make up the single largest constituency.)

Megachurches in New England
Faith Church grounds, more than 35 acres.
Photo Credit : Johnson, Hesh

It may also be that the regional reign of intellectualism over religiosity has diminished as the general population tips toward one that is more mobile, less entrenched, less influenced by a culture in which the church on the town green holds more architectural than religious relevance.

Yet if New England demographics have changed in recent decades, so, too, has the evangelical movement. Instead of the old church model, which entailed establishing a religious structure and expecting conformity, many pastors are tailoring their places of worship to the felt needs of those they hope to attract. Jubilee founder and senior pastor Bishop G. A. Thompson has referred to this tactic as “scratching where they itch.” Faith Church cites as part of its mission a desire to help people “fulfill their personal destinies by discovering the winner within them through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

What they’re talking about is Biblically derived self-esteem. Fortuitously for its cause, the new evangelical perspective focuses less on a punitive, vengeful God than on a loving one who wants His children to succeed. Churchgoers, by extension, are taught to view themselves through a similar lens. At Faith, Senior Pastor Frank Santora calls it “seeing yourself as God sees you.” Santora can talk tirelessly about the theme of the New Testament: grace, which translates as God’s favor, he says. According to Santora, God is the ultimate affirmer of human worth.

The fact that Santora and other evangelicals tend to define Christianity in terms of the New Testament and Jesus, whom they see as a merciful manifestation of God, has an important regional implication. In a place where the stringencies of Puritanism long held sway–early New Englanders were taught to be far more God-fearing than Jesus-loving–perhaps a kinder, gentler Christianity offers particular appeal. Puritanism set forth an unbridgable chasm between sinful humanity and a righteous deity. And that–if you listen week after week to the messages now preached at evangelical churches across New England–is no longer the case.

Grace Chapel, founded in 1948, sits on a back street in Lexington, not far from the Minuteman statue on the town green. As it grew into a megachurch through the 1980s and ’90s, Grace was an object of considerable curiosity and, in some cases, outright suspicion: Was it a cult? A haven for right-wing intolerance? Over time that suspicion seems to have dissipated. So too have worries that Grace would draw from the town’s existing congregations. In recent years, community groups have begun meeting at Grace, and one recent July a youth theater troupe gave its performances of Willy Wonka there, evidence of Grace’s current place in the town and perhaps of the popular view of it as just another church.

But Grace isn’t just another church. A recent 75,000-square-foot expansion doubled its size and added, among other things, a gym, a cafe, and a computerized child registration center. If a baby cries while being looked after in the child-care center, a pager flashes in the sanctuary, summoning his or her parents. More than 3,000 people attend four Sunday services, and the number swells to 5,000 on Christmas and Easter. Unlike those of its nearby Episcopal and Unitarian counterparts, the parking lots at Grace are full almost every day of the week.

On one Monday night, more than 100 people gathered for “Celebrate Recovery,” Grace’s local branch of a national program, which, according to materials given to newcomers, seeks to reach those who believe they’re “being held back from experiencing God’s best plans due to a past or current hurt, habit, or hangup.” The evening began with a meal of deli-style sandwiches and salad. At one table, a boy told stories about his cat as his mother smiled at him and at the surrounding adults in whose attention he basked. At another table, a woman spoke in low tones about her sobriety. “It’s day by day,” she told a fellow attendee. “You know what I mean.”

After dinner, the group gathered in another part of the room to sing. Some swayed and others stood stock-still as words appeared on a monitor: How wonderful, how marvelous, is my Savior’s love for me … Between songs, the music director addressed the group. “You’ll notice that we sing about God’s love an awful, awful lot,” he said. “That’s because a lot of us try to get love and can’t from people. God is always there.”

“Amen,” said a woman, to a chorus of echoes.

Individual introductions were not unlike those at a 12-step meeting, with And I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ added at the end. A man in a pink polo shirt approached the front to offer testimony of his recovery. The group listened as he described his issues: “depression, divorce, abuse, addiction, and”–he offered a small smile–“until last week I didn’t realize I suffer from codependency, too.”

People laughed and then grew somber as the man described his childhood. “It was a house of anger,” he told them, a place with deadbolts on the doors to every room. By 13, he was breaking into homes, targeting those he knew because he couldn’t stand their happiness. There was an accident and a lengthy hospitalization. The man glanced at his watch. “I’m running out of time, and I’m barely getting started.”

The group murmured support, and he pressed on. He married, the couple had a child, no one was happy: “It was everything that I didn’t want for my son coming true.” He spoke rapidly–another injury, illness, then one Easter a turn to God. He looked up and paused. The following week, he told them, would mark a year without drugs. The group broke into applause. Several people stood in ovation. “That’s all right, I’ve still got other problems,” the man said. He smiled, wept. The message was simple, he said: “You want to get to heaven?” He wiped away tears. “Love each other.”

Megachurches in New England
Faith Church congregant Mike Mancini holds his son, Isaac, as his wife, Karalyn, looks on.
Photo Credit : Johnson, Hesh

Grace Chapel, as it turns out, has had a lot of collective experience with recovery and redemption. In 1987, former senior pastor Gordon MacDonald publicly admitted an adulterous affair. Although MacDonald was not in a pastoral position at the time of the affair or his admission, he returned to Grace in March 1993 for a time–a move that prompted dozens of members to leave. Those who remained drew closer. Elizabeth Clark joined Grace the same year MacDonald came back. “He was open and humble,” recalls Clark. “As a new Christian, I found that amazing.” Clark was equally struck by the reaction of the congregation: “There was so much forgiveness. It spoke to me on a personal level.”

That sense of acceptance and communal embrace propelled Clark deeper into Grace, so much so that it’s now the hub of her life. Her husband participates in “Celebrate Recovery,” and she leads a women’s Bible study. The couple co-leads one of the small worship groups that meet in individual homes, and most of their friends attend Grace.

Not everyone finds the same easy fit. Karen Tokmakoff, who began going to Grace in 1999, left after several years because it started to feel restrictive. “There’s so much mystery involved in faith and in the working of the Holy Spirit,” she says. “I believe my job is to love my neighbors the way Jesus would, but I wasn’t comfortable with the notion that I was supposed to go out and save them.” Of her new church in a nearby town, Tokmakoff says, “I feel more freedom to be who I am,” even though the scope of what it offers is more limited.

Megachurches, in particular, do tend to provide ready community in a welcoming, if supersized, environment. Cafés are customary, as are bookstores, gyms, and common areas furnished with overstuffed chairs and couches, where members gather long after the service has ended. Throughout the week, in addition to self-help groups and Bible studies, there are classes in art, drama, music, or household and fiscal management. Some churches have funds to help members through financial crises. The message is implicit: If you’re one of us, we’ll take care of you.

Ready-made community may be one reason why immigrants figure prominently in many evangelical congregations. Those with established religious ties in their countries of origin tend to build their own churches. According to Boston’s Emmanuel Gospel Center, recent counts, for instance, showed some 400 evangelical Brazilian churches in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, along with 15 Cambodian ones. Immigrants have also been drawn into existing churches: St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, has reached out to the thousands of Liberians who live in the Ocean State, for example, and Faith has a sizable first-generation Latino population.

Jack Davis, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, says the sense of community experienced by evangelicals in the region is intensified by their relative scarceness. “There’s a feeling of being an outsider and a minority,” he says, with respect to the dominant Catholic religious presence and general secular culture. At the same time, evangelicals in the Northeast differ from those in other parts of the country because they’re less conservative. In general, they identify more with New England culture than with a Southern evangelical one, says Andrew Walsh: “The [cultural and political] evangelical package is unfamiliar to them. Most of them are not active religious-right types. They are, by and large, people who accept religious pluralism and think of religion as private.” For this reason, large national denominations have approached the Northeast “gingerly,” Walsh says.

The region’s younger evangelicals, in particular, tend to hold political views not typically associated with born-again Christianity. When Mike Mancini, who describes himself as pro-choice and unopposed to gay marriage (“It’s just a piece of paper to ensure rights,” he says), undertook his initial, marathon reading of the Bible, he discovered a mandate for social justice that underscored his own beliefs. “[Social justice] should be a priority of every Christian,” he says, “and liberal politics line up with that.”

On the national stage, evangelical politics have shifted in recent years. If the old stance zeroed in on individual morality, the new focus seems to be on broader issues: the environment, global poverty, human rights. The environment, and global warming in particular, has received particular attention of late. The Evangelical Climate Initiative, along with a statement signed by 86 church leaders, was released in February 2006, and in March 2008, 44 leading Southern Baptists issued a statement urging that denomination to be more aggressive in its response to environmental issues. Stewardship of the Earth, in Christian parlance, has become a rallying point for those who want a break with the religious right.

At the church level, the trend seems to be to step aside from politics and to focus on the individual, addressing issues like economic hardship and emotional distress in a personal way through hands-on teachings. This people-not-programs approach dovetails with an intention to draw individuals in one by one. As one Web site puts it: “Grace Chapel is an upbeat, energetic place that allows you to be you. Whatever your background, religious or not, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, committed or simply curious–you are welcome at Grace Chapel.”

That’s not to say that New England’s evangelical churches don’t proselytize. They do, and sometimes vigorously so–often through outreach by individual members, although the approach tends to be more subtle than the in-your-face witnessing of old. At the corporate level, Grace Chapel will, for example, issue open invitations to its holiday services through newspaper ads or mailed postcards, says Executive Pastor Bill Burke. “We’d rather show what we believe than actively convert,” Burke says. “The idea is to invite people in and to be who we are while they’re here. We want new members, but we don’t want to go about it in a forceful way.”

Many modern evangelical churches are modeled on the “seeker church”–among the best known of which are Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Beyond their perhaps oversimplified image of targeting the unchurched and the spiritually hungry, seeker churches have for 50 years addressed the problems of everyday life while offering Biblically based assistance. In so doing they’ve blurred distinctions between the secular and the religious. Indeed, in a mission statement that sounds equal parts religion, motivational-speak, and Big Business, the Willow Creek Association (WCA) offers to provide its 12,000 member churches around the world with “life-changing experiences, tools, and innovations” and to assist them in reaching “their full redemptive potential,” which translates at least in part to large-scale congregation building.

Yet Frank Santora, for one, bristles at the label of “seeker church,” even though Faith, as well as Grace, belongs to the WCA and Santora makes no bones about wanting to grow Faith as big as possible. To him, the term connotes a watering-down of Biblical principle. He objects also to suggestions by conservative Christians that the portrayal of a loving God equates with a pick-and-choose, feel-good Christianity geared primarily toward marketing and unduly emphasizing pop psychology. Santora’s God, he says, wants His people to thrive, and, moreover, Christians should experience his presence directly in their daily lives.

For evangelical pastors, there’s a paradox: To facilitate what congregants consider an open, nonhierarchical link to the divine, the pastor himself must have sufficient presence to keep people coming week after week. And commanding the attention of hundreds or thousands of congregants requires more than old-fashioned charisma. Many pastors make frequent, widespread use of artifacts from the secular world: physical props, popular songs, dramas, and video footage from contemporary movies. For inspiration they may go online–creativepastors.org and pastors.com are two popular sites–and most belong to a variety of resource associations such as Willow Creek.

Yet, even though they share a common theology and similar practices, evangelical churches vary widely in terms of their styles of worship and the populations they draw. That style seems foremost to reflect the pastors themselves: extroverted and hip at Faith, for instance; more understated at Grace; exuberant yet somehow formal at Jubilee. In part, what accounts for the seemingly broad, even disparate, constituencies of New England evangelicals is that along with location, the collective personality of a church vectors it toward a given population: Caucasian and Asian suburbanites in the case of Grace; urban African Americans at Jubilee. A pastor’s own sensibilities factor in, as well. Faith’s former Catholics might be less drawn to the place if Santora–who himself was raised Catholic–didn’t understand their perspective.

Perhaps New England is ripe for a new kind of evangelicalism precisely because it’s New England. Douglas Hall, president of Emmanuel Gospel Center, argues that the region always has been a hotbed of religious change–beginning with the Puritanism that prompted the first governor, John Winthrop, to inform settlers of Massachusetts Bay that they had taken out a divine “commission” to make their New World society a godly “city upon a hill,” visible to the entire world but also a beacon for lost humanity. When Unitarianism began to take hold in America at the end of the 1700s, traditional Christians responded with a flurry of church plantings of their own.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, evangelical Christianity experienced several regional resurgences, most famously including the First and Second Great Awakenings, under the preaching of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s-1740s, and Lyman Beecher in the 1820s, respectively. “New England has been the base of national and international revivals for centuries,” says Hall. “As parochial as we think New England is, it’s often a center for the outreach of Christianity.”

It’s clear in any case that New England’s evangelicals consider themselves a breed apart. Mike Mancini, for one, doesn’t even like being called an evangelical. “That term brings to mind so many stereotypes–Southern, hard-hitting, holier-than-thou–none of which expand the kingdom of the God of love,” he notes. Elizabeth Clark, too, prefers to dodge the label. “Just call me a Christian,” she says. Felicia Brown, who attends Jubilee South in Stoughton, Massachusetts–an outgrowth of the main Jubilee in Boston–also prefers to be known simply as a Christian. “I’m not sure I want to be associated with everything that comes with the term ‘evangelical,'” she says.

Labels aside, Brown, who works at a pregnancy resource center, is certain about her path–one that was foreordained by God, she says: “Counseling is my calling. I want to cause change in others’ lives … to watch them blossom when they come to experience Jesus Christ.” Ultimately, she intends to be a life coach, she says: “I know that’s my purpose and my destiny.”

Not long ago, Brown attended a leadership conference at Grace Chapel, taking notes as Harvard Business School professor Bill George addressed the crowd via a simulcast from Willow Creek Community Church. “Mmmmm,” Brown murmured when George posited that leadership is about responsibility rather than fame or power. “We’re servant leaders,” George told the audience. “People are not there to serve you. You’re there to serve them.”

“That’s right,” said Brown. “Amen.”

Three days later, Brown sat in the sanctuary at Jubilee South. Again she reached for her pen as Pastor Troy Goode preached from John, chapter 20. “Even though God has wired you for greatness, even though God has wired you to lead,” Goode said, “unbelief is always there.” Brown nodded her head: “Amen, yes.”

Toward the end of the service, Goode urged congregants to step forward physically, “into a new realm” of deeper faith. Brown zipped up her Bible and moved to the aisle. “We’re breaking down fear,” Goode said. “Where there was fear, there is courage.” With the aisle filled behind and in front of her, Brown stepped forward once, then again.

Last September, Jubilee South celebrated its one-year anniversary. Other churches are observing markers of their own. Grace Chapel hopes to soon turn a single worship service into several by designating different areas of the church for different styles: an informal coffeehouse in one place, say, and acoustic unplugged in another. Each service will run separately but will be synchronized in the main sanctuary.

At Faith, Santora’s goal is to keep up what he’s been doing: growing his church at a rate of 20 to 30 percent annually, which translates into some 500 new Christians every year. There are also plans for an 11,000-square-foot youth center with a skate park and indoor basketball court, along with an auditorium, iPod lounge, and Internet cafe. Build it, Santora figures, and the kids will come.