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Gigachurches can serve thousands
MINNEAPOLIS – The 23rd Psalm rolled off the Rev. Jason Strand’s tongue with soothing familiarity, the way it had since he memorized it as a boy.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters ...”
But up on the 16-by-24-foot screens flanking Strand, the PowerPoint version displayed the updated words “quiet waters” instead of the “still waters” of Strand’s memory.
Amy Anderson noticed the problem instantly. She began scribbling notes in her three-ring binder, then flipped to a new page to catch up with what Strand was doing next, watching every word.
There would be follow up: If Strand might slip again and say “still” in one of the remaining services that weekend, the word needed to be changed in the PowerPoint.
“We don’t want anything, no matter how small, to knock the worshipers out of the mood of the service,” explained Anderson, executive director of worship.
It’s a recipe for worship that has worked very well for Eagle Brook, the largest congregation in the state of Minnesota, which holds 10 services each weekend. No longer just a “megachurch,” Eagle Brook now qualifies as a “gigachurch,” the term for congregations of more than 10,000 members. It serves an average of 11,000 worshipers a weekend – and swells to 17,000 on Christmas and Easter.
There are a dozen megachurches in Minnesota and 1,200 nationwide, a phenomenon traceable to the 1960s. But it really took off about 15 years ago. Usually drawing members from second- and third-ring suburbs where residents may lack historic ties to more traditional local congregations, they remain the fastest-growing churches in the country, according to a 2005 survey by Leadership Network, nonprofit church consultants.
Eagle Brook has matured to three Minnesota campuses with four services at Lino Lakes and three at each of the others. There are 32 ministers on the staff, the equivalent of 140 employees and an army of 3,100 volunteers. Every weekend, about 650 of those volunteers report for duty.
Most first-timers show up at Lino Lakes, at the cavernous sanctuary that can seat 2,200. Services at the other two churches have their own music and pastors, but everyone gets the same sermon in person at Lino Lakes and via video at the other two venues.
The hub of all this is a computer-laden control room playfully dubbed “Houston.” “This way, when something goes wrong, we can call them and say, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’” Anderson said.
At 11 a.m. Saturday, five hours before the first service, Sinead Barry pulls into the shopping mall-sized parking lot around Eagle Brook’s modern brick building.
Neither a pastor nor a choir director, Barry is nonetheless central to what will happen at the 10 services that will span Saturday and Sunday.
Her title is “producer.” She’s a former volunteer with an aptitude for running an electronic control board.
Also among the first arrivals is Steve Duede, who leads the Christian rock music crucial to the megachurch experience. His T-shirt and faded blue jeans are emblematic of Eagle Brook’s laid-back approach. When frequent greeter Cindi Franer sizes up the crowd for first-timers, she often spots them because they’re overdressed. “A coat and tie is a dead giveaway,” she said.
Barry has spent the week developing video graphics to accompany the music. She and Duede will spend the next 90 minutes “working the plan” to achieve the desired effect.
“Our goal is that everything has a purpose,” Anderson said. “We want the worship service to be vertical, not horizontal. Meaning we want people’s eyes on the platform.”
Strand is holed up in a small rehearsal room going over his message. He wrote it two weeks earlier. In the interim, it has been critiqued by the other pastors, refined and critiqued again. According to Barry’s log book, it will run 28 minutes and 45 seconds, every word of it spoken from memory.
Strand spends his Saturday ensuring that his presentation comes off as conversational. That would pay off later, when worshipers laugh at something that seems ad-libbed.
“I’m always a little nervous for the first service,” he said. It doesn’t show. In a golf shirt and crisply pressed casual slacks, he looks like he’s headed for the first tee at a country club.
By 1 p.m., the praise band – guitars, drums, a violin, a vocalist – is set up and ready to rehearse. A platoon of technical support people deal with lighting, sound and TV camera shots for the video screen.
Greg Montero looks like a cat burglar. A volunteer stage manager, he dresses in black to blend with the platform backdrop so no one will notice him creeping out to move things during the service.
Like most of the technical staff volunteers, he will be at the church for all of the weekend’s services in Lino Lakes, staying until 7:30 or 8 p.m. Saturday and then back by 7 a.m. Sunday.