Come All Ye Faithful

The size and technology of Dallas' new megachurches are changing the face of that old-time religion.

D Magazine , July 2002

Some of the most significant new buildings in Dallas won't win any architecture prizes. They don't resemble sculpture or embody literary theory. Like the shopping centers and business parks around them, they generally feature tilt-wall construction--giant concrete forms poured on-site and lifted into place. They look pragmatic and ordinary, attractive but not striking. They don't shout their importance to passersby.

But don't mistake their restrained exteriors for modest ambitions or cultural insignificance. These are cathedrals for a media age: megachurches that use technology to reach both the congregation at worship and the community at large. These churches and their architects are inventing a new model for the Protestant church--not only in organizational function, but also, necessarily, in form. Dallas is the red-hot center of megachurch growth. Led by the Beck Architecture firm (the architecture studio of full-service builder Beck Group), it's also the national center for megachurch design.

Friends tell me stories of attending "megachurch" services in Atlanta and Kansas City. The churches are huge, they say, with more than 1,000 congregants. I scoff. In Dallas, a thousand people is not a megachurch. It's a home Bible study group.

Over Easter weekend, the Fellowship Church in Grapevine had a "nice crowd," says Owen Goff, the ministerial care pastor. "We had 29,167 people." On normal weekends, Fellowship counts between 15,000 and 17,000 attendees at four services.

One of the oldest local megachurches, Prestonwood Baptist, moved to Plano in 1998 to accommodate its growing throngs, locating as far south as it could and still acquire 100 acres. The new sanctuary seats 6,200 instead of its former 3,700. Prestonwood is in form and content a fairly traditional Baptist church. It's just a lot bigger. "It's the biggest, baddest Baptist church," quips architect Tom Greenwood, who joined Beck a year ago from the Southern Baptist Convention. Beck has designed a new wing for the church, including a Starbucks-like common area with armchairs for 900 people.

At the Potter's House near Dallas Baptist University in Southwest Dallas, the old auditorium could barely accommodate 3,000 people. The Beck-designed sanctuary, however, which opened in August 2000, seats 8,200. (By comparison, Notre Dame in Paris seats 9,000, but the sightlines aren't as good. The Crystal Cathedral in California seats 2,890.) The two Sunday services typically draw 6,500 and 8,000 people.

Scale is the biggest challenge in designing a megachurch. "How do you reinforce that sense of community and oneness of a congregation in rooms of that scale?" asks Greenwood. Ceilings can't soar, or worshippers won't be able to hear each other sing. Acoustics matter tremendously, which means that a lot of money goes into keeping the building's air conditioning and heating systems quiet. At Fellowship, which is in the flight path to DFW, the roof required special sound insulation.

The dominant element of any megachurch sanctuary isn't a cross, a stained-glass window, a communion table, or a pulpit. It's the giant video screens that flank the front platform. Windows are out, at least until display technology improves, because sunlight would wash out the screens that give everyone a good view.

Designing a sanctuary for thousands is more like creating a theater than a traditional church. In fact, Potter's House, the first megachurch to hire the firm, came to Beck not because of the architects' work designing smaller churches but because Beck is well-known for its movie theaters. (One of its recent projects is the Magnolia in West Village.) These architects worry as much about sightlines as symbolism, and that's the way their church clients want it.

Nat Tate, the chief engineer at Potter's House, served as the church's main liaison with the architects and builders. He says he told the designers that the church didn't "want to spend a lot of money on the outside. We don't worship on the outside."

Instead of a fancy exterior, for its $41 million, Potter's House got a building with a sanctuary that gives everyone a great view of the church's masterful preacher, Bishop T.D. Jakes. "We wanted to make sure there wasn't a cheap seat in the house," says Tate. Digital video projected on 25-foot screens lets Jakes employ the subtlety of a movie actor rather than the broad gestures of a stage performer.

"To 8,200 people, he can give them a line that says, 'And do you believe that?' and he will just wink--just a little thing--and they'll all get it, because they see it on the screen," says Rick del Monte, managing director of Beck Architecture. The audio system is similarly sensitive, allowing for both whispers and shouts.

The Potter's House sanctuary is also a full-broadcast studio, with services airing on both the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television, and it incorporates the sophisticated audio and video equipment that big-time television requires. Before joining Potter's House in Dallas, Tate was director of engineering and satellite communications for the Christian Broadcast Network.

Because the enthusiastic Potter's House congregation is as important to the experience as the preacher, microphones hang down above the pews to provide "sweetening," so people watching services on television can hear the crowd sing. Lights are positioned to put 35-foot candles on each person's face, lest the congregation disappear on camera.

Del Monte points to the arrangement of seats to demonstrate how the worship patterns of different churches dictate different architectural approaches. At Potter's House, the seats circle around to the sides, so that worshippers see not only the bishop and choir, but also each other. At Fellowship Church, by contrast, the entire focus is on the stage at the front--and it's a real stage, with wings and curtains, not simply a platform for preacher and choir.

Fellowship's charge to the architects was blunt: "When you go into the sanctuary, we want you focused on the stage," recounts del Monte. "When the curtains open, we want you to have the sense that anything could happen this Sunday." One time the pastor drove a tank on the stage! One time he came out in a Mercedes convertible! One time it was raining! Such stunts get people talking over lunch during the week, drawing curious new worshippers to Fellowship.

The sanctuary is designed to enhance Fellowship's theatrical appeal. Church leaders didn't balk for a moment when the architects told them the room should be black, a dark room with a bright stage.

A Fellowship service is closer to a rock concert than the traditional combination of hymns, preaching, and prayer. The video screens project song lyrics and shots of the five-piece rock band and "praise team" of singers. Skits and video clips illustrate sermons. In a recent address, Pastor Ed Young got a laugh by referring to what Fellowship isn't: the "First Church of the Frozen Chosen." While church representatives are careful to note that many traditional churches are doing great work, they tend to use the word "boring" to describe them.

"We try to do music that uses words that people understand today," says Preston Mitchell, the pastor of spiritual development. "So it's culturally relevant. It's exciting. We do drama. We use visuals. We do video. We have lighting. We try to have a stage presence."

Fellowship believes so strongly in its model of what a church should look like that it repeats the same layout--a stage with curtains, wings, and flanking screens--in the rooms where its kids gather, from the preschool (where video screens are replaced by puppet shows) to the Wednesday night teen hangout. The new Creative Communications Center, which opens this month, features four children's church rooms along the same model. When I toured the site in April, cables for the video and audio were sprouting through the cement floors of each room. Fellowship kids grow up expecting church services with high production values.

The exterior of the new center is more interesting looking than Fellowship's earlier buildings, with a striking interior rotunda mirrored in a curved outside wall. In contrast to the church's otherwise neutral tones, the curved wall is painted blue-gray. As they grow, megachurches tend to embrace more complex exterior aesthetics. Comparatively traditionalist Prestonwood, whose building already sports a band of stained glass along the front of the glass-fronted lobby, is adding a 150-foot tower and a chapel with an interior modeled after the Perkins Chapel at SMU.

But these are still evangelical churches, whose traditions are suspicious of ornamented buildings and sensory elements in worship. They emphasize missions, defined broadly to include such things as athletic programs that attract families, rather than symbolically elaborate buildings. However, in the age of PowerPoint and MTV, mission and medium have merged. A plain building wired with the right equipment can turn light and sound into a new form of preaching.

In their influential 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour noted that contemporary American "monumental architecture" was different from its forebears. In the past, really big buildings were constructed for crowds united by civic or religious purposes. The old buildings were vertical, lit by windows, and open to the outside. In late 20th-century America, by contrast, large horizontal gathering places, such as shopping malls and casinos, hid the outside world, instead "glittering in the dark" from electric lights. In these new monuments, individuals pursued their own separate purposes.

"We should admit," wrote the architects, "that our cathedrals are the chapels without the nave and that, apart from theaters and ball parks, the occasional communal space that is big is a space for crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other." In the plain yet glittering spaces of the megachurches, the nave has returned.