Dallas Paper Reports As LCMS Mega-Church Competes Against New Giant Baptist Mega-Church
by Rev. Jack Cascione

 

Six weeks after this story was covered in Christian News, The Dallas Morning News has now reported on the opening of giant contemporary Prestonwood Baptist Church . It also observes its effect on a smaller LCMS mega-church, Prince of Peace Lutheran of Carrollton, Texas, one mile away. (See two articles published in May 1, 1999, issue of The Dallas Morning News accompanying this article.)

The March 29 issue of Christian News broke the Prince of Peace/Prestonwood story in an article titled, "Texas Mega-Church Monopoly Risks 10’s of LCEF Millions."  This article is also on the www.reclaimingwalther.org website.

Like main street stores replaced by strip malls that are replaced by larger shopping centers, and mom and pop shops replaced by K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Home Depot, mega-churches are drawing people away from doctrinally void small and middle sized congregations.

Pastor Steve Wagner, a recognized LCMS Church Growth authority, positioned his new church about four years ago in a converted auto dealership for about $12 million, $8 million of which they borrowed from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund. His congregation, LCEF loan, and future are now at risk with the advent of Prestonwood. Prestonwood seats 7,000 people, more than three times that of Prince of Peace.

American mega-churches, regardless of denominational affiliation, basically follow the entertainment format of nondenominational Willow Creek, in Barrington, IL. The worship of Prince of Peace Lutheran and Prestonwood Baptist are virtually indistinguishable. The main difference is in Prestonwood’s programs, facilities and soon to be built 55,000 square foot sports facility that are beyond anything that Prince of Peace can offer.

What will Wagner do? The Dallas Morning News reports that he is praying. "‘The Rev. Steve Wagner of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church said that he, the Rev. Jack Graham of Prestonwood and other pastors have prayed together for one another's ministries.’"

Wagner is considered an expert in church marketing. Wagner states, "‘We are believing that the uniqueness of these large churches being in this particular spot, there is a synergy that perhaps we don't even understand,’ Mr. Wagner said, ‘We believe that we bring strengths to each other and that we can share our resources.’" On the other hand, what if Wagner does understand as does The Dallas Morning News? From all appearances, a bigger mega-church is about to gobble up another mega-church.

This writer remembers being told in 1975 by Southern Baptist, Bob Jones, II, of Bob Jones University, that he was angry with Dr. Walter Maier of the Lutheran Hour because Maier would not pray with him when Jones visited St. Louis. We’ve come a long way, baby. Now Pastor Steve Wagner of Prince of Peace Lutheran and Baptist Pastor Jack Graham pray together for each other’s ministries. They understand that God knows that all mega-churches are the same except for their size.

We are told that todays church going crowds are not seeking churches for their theology as much as for their facilities, programs for their families, and entertainment. They are looking for a combination of the YMCA and a religious rock concert.

As more and more LCMS mega-churches pattern themselves after Willow Creek, they become more vulnerable to larger mass marketing mega churches with the same shallow format. The entire LCMS Texas District is trying to reshape itself into Willow Creek. The Texas District has joined the Willow Creek Association and promotes Willow Creek Association Conferences.

The mega-church model gives a decided advantage to the Baptists who don’t have to make many changes in terms of worship. All they need to do to make the transition is adopt the transformational dialectic processing common to the Church Growth Movement. However, the Lutherans are at a decided disadvantage in trying to explain their "Lutheran-God" with His "Lutheran-God-sacraments" and "Lutheran-God-confession-and-absolution." This "Lutheran-God" has to be hidden, or at least greatly curtailed, if Lutherans are to succeed at Mega-Church Monopoly.

The Texas and Michigan District Offices have long since given up marketing the "Lutheran-God" and replaced Him with the "Mega-Church God." The same kind of competition taking place in Texas is also going on in the Detroit suburbs of northern Macomb County.

Kensington Church just opened up in Troy Michigan and near by Bethesda Christian is adding a huge addition. They are now going head to head with Faith Lutheran in Troy, Trinity Lutheran in Utica, and Immanel Lutheran in Macomb, all LCMS congregations that have switched to the Willow Creek format. My money is on Kensington.

The Texas District Office in Austin is about to eat its lunch on this one. They forgot the axiom, "If you are going to sin, sin boldly." Trying to go "mega" and still calling themselves Lutheran is like a Ford Mustang with a Model-T engine. Affiliation with Lutheran identity puts them at a decided disadvantaged in the mega-church marketing wars.

While the Texas District Office is positioning itself to compete in the Willow Creek arena and shape the lay peoples’ faith into a "non-sacramental-one-world-mega-friendly" religion, the biggest worship story in Texas has yet to break. As I write this article, Our Savior Lutheran Church LCMS, Houston, and Pastor Laurence White are building the most historically significant Lutheran structure in North America.

They are erecting what an observer would call a "Lutheran Cathedral." The entire architecture of the church, including its significant investment in religious art, is designed to present Lutheran theology. This is not another vanilla Radio-City-mega-church-theater, but a public confession of faith in stone.

How will the public react? Doesn’t Our Savior know the research shows what the public wants? Mega-church groupies place correct doctrine, catechisms, and written confessions of faith as their last priority when attending a "Seeker Service." On the other hand, if people are drawn by truth over glitz, proclamation of repentance and forgiveness in worship over entertainment, and sacraments over feelings, then every brick in Our Savior will also become a tomb for the Texas District Office.

While the majority of the LCMS Texas congregations are being led to be like Willow Creek, Our Savior is making a very expensive and valiant effort to be "Lutheran." These are long odds. The stakes are high. The media will study this one very closely. Our Savior is going against the market research, and has decided it wants to stand for the Lutheran Reformation instead of being another victim like Prince of Peace.

It is all a question of perspective. Is Lutheran theology a liability or an asset? Is Our Savior a trend setter or a recalcitrant holdout?

The LCMS has yet to decide what its "market niche" is and pursue it vigorously. Oddly enough, with 10 teachers colleges and the second largest parochial system in America, the LCMS chooses to compete in the mega-church arena, its weakest and most vulnerable market position.

By the grace of God, we pray that the Lutheran Church under the leadership of Our Savior in Houston will rise again out of the Willow Creek-Texas District debacle.


Following are two articles from The Dallas Morning News of May 1, 1999.


On the rise
Experts seek to explain surge in new churches as Prestonwood opens

By J.C. Conklin / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

 

Prestonwood Baptist Church, a behemoth among megachurches, opens its new 140-acre campus in Plano on Sunday at the height of an unprecedented regional building boom among places of worship.

Last year, nearly $150 million worth of religious buildings were constructed in Dallas, Tarrant, Rockwall, Denton and Collin counties - more than double the previous year and the most of any year in history, according to F.W. Dodge Research Unit.

That represents 1.9 million square feet - more than four times the size of Texas Stadium.

Religious construction is surging nationally, too. Last year $6.4 billion was spent on it - a 64 percent jump since 1994, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those numbers represent new churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious buildings as well as additions to existing structures.

"Churches are sprouting up like fast-food restaurants," said Dr. Bryan Stone, a Boston University professor of evangelism who spent seven years as a pastor in Fort Worth.

Several trends fuel the construction: The population in general is growing. People are moving from cities and old suburbs to new suburbs. Others are moving from small, old congregations to new megachurches such as Prestonwood. There's a boomlet among African-American and Hispanic churches creating what some observers call a "silent revival." Then there is the exploding stock market, which fattens worshipers' portfolios.

The growth is great news for believers but raises questions for some.

"Even though a lot of these churches are growing and there's some logic to the boom, you want to make sure it's for the right reasons," said Robert Wuthnow, a leading religion sociologist at Princeton University in New Jersey. "If people are just sitting in a fancy building once a week, that might contribute to the commercialism and materialism in the culture that everyone worries about."

Inflow of job-hunters

In the Dallas area, the building stems in large part from a steady pilgrimage of people seeking employment. Last year, an average of 311 people a day moved into Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, Rockwall and Denton counties, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Even if only 20 percent go to worship - a conservative estimate - that's an extra 23,000 people who were seeking out religious institutions last year.

"I've never seen anything like this. It's beyond my wildest dreams," said Andrew Farkas, president of Anshai Torah, an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Plano, which is negotiating to build a new 25,000-square-foot synagogue. Six new synagogues have been built in Dallas and Collin counties in the last year, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.

Some credit an increased interest in spirituality. Leaders at Valley View Christian Church in Carrollton, where a new 1,500-seat sanctuary will be dedicated on Father's Day, say much of their growth is due to people who hadn't been attending church.

But the construction has a downside, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive president of Empty Tomb, a religious research institute in Champaign, Ill.

"Congregations are using money they used to spend on missionary work on building new churches," she said. "Nowadays people are more focused on what they can get out of church rather than how they change the world through it."

Congregants are giving churches 4 percent less of their incomes than they did in 1980, she said. In 1996, the latest year for which statistics are available, that meant 2.5 percent.

Despite the cost, Prestonwood's leaders see its $36 million campus and 7,000-seat sanctuary as crucial to all of its missions.

The church's job is to save souls, "and parking and facilities can limit the fulfillment of that mission," said the Rev. Mike Buster, Prestonwood's executive pastor.

Dallas' personality

And big churches have always been part of Dallas' personality, said Dr. Stone of Boston University.

Consider the Rev. Charles Swindoll's plans for the 6,000-seat Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco. Or the Rev. T.D. Jakes' planned 14,000-seat sanctuary at Potter's House church in southwest Dallas.

"People in the Dallas/Fort Worth area have never been shy about liking newer and bigger buildings," Dr. Stone said. "In Dallas, expanding old buildings isn't as popular as building new ones because it's part of the culture - newer is better, bigger is better and land is plentiful," he said.

No one keeps exact numbers on how many new buildings have been built by various religious groups, including the groups themselves. An informal survey of area architects who specialize in religious buildings indicates great demand among Baptists and Pentecostals, but the growth appears to reach all faiths and denominations.

The Dallas Central Mosque, which has doubled its membership to 1,000 in the last year, is just completing an expansion, according to administrator A.B. Syed.

"We are starting to see a lot of growth" in Muslim congregations, he said, noting that ground has been broken on new mosques in Irving, Plano and Arlington.

The Dallas Catholic Diocese is straining to accommodate new worshipers, particularly in the northern and southern suburbs, spokesman Michael McGee said. Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Plano, for example, has added three buildings in five years.

The Dallas Baptist Association doesn't count buildings, but it does monitor membership. Since 1970, Southern Baptists have seen a 44 percent increase, to 523,932 members, in the region.

Two hundred people joined Mimosa Lane Baptist Church in Mesquite last year, boosting membership to 700. Though the church built a $1 million addition two years ago, it is already considering more.

Gilbert Davis, minister of senior adults and pastoral ministries, said the church may build a two-level parking garage to conserve space, and that it hopes to buy more land.

"They want to mortgage the life out of us, but we'll see what we can get. We need the land," Mr. Davis said of the adjacent property.

Some exceptions

But not all sanctuaries are full.

The Rev. Tom Boone of Richardson East Baptist Church said his 170-member church hasn't grown in the past five years - and it may have gotten smaller.

"It's hard to compete with the super churches with huge choirs," said the Rev. Don Smith of Stonebridge United Methodist Church in McKinney. "Plus, we don't have the education center that newer churches use to attract young families."

But even when they can't afford new buildings, some congregations find ways to benefit from what more prosperous churches leave behind.

When NorthWest Seventh Day Adventists in Fort Worth didn't have enough money to build, they bought. Four years ago, the congregation bought a Baptist church for $140,000. The church has continued to grow so much that dinners must be held in the parking lot.

"We pray to the Lord for no rain each time we have dinner," said the Rev. Joe Gresham. "So far we've been lucky, but this can't go on forever."

The solution? Not building, he said: expanding.

J.C. Conklin is a writer in Dallas. Staff writers Deborah Kovach Caldwell and Jeffrey Weiss contributed to this report.

Reprinted by permission of The Dallas Morning News, copyright 1999.


In the shadow of Prestonwood
Smaller congregations say there's room for everybody near megachurch

By Berta Delgado / The Dallas Morning News

 

If it weren't for the lazy "S" curve in the road, the gigantic new Prestonwood Baptist Church in west Plano would stand in plain view of its country cousin, First Baptist Church of Hebron.

That you can't see it from the small church's parking lot less than a mile west makes fibbers of many in these parts who say Prestonwood can be spotted from most anywhere in the north Carrollton, Far North Dallas, west Plano area. "Preston World" or "Prestonwood Arena" or "Prestonatorium" they call it, because, after all, it sits on 140 acres, seats 7,000 in its worship center and will eventually include a 55,000-square-foot sports and fitness center.

"It's so big, we're definitely in the shadow here," said Steve Mitchell, who attends First Baptist Church of Hebron, a congregation of about 100 on a good Sunday.

Don't get them wrong. People who attend any of a handful of churches within a mile of Prestonwood are delighted about their new neighbor at West Park Lane and Midway Road. Prestonwood, one of the largest churches in the Dallas area with about 15,000 members, will celebrate its first service at its new location Sunday.

"The more the merrier," said Beth Glass, a member of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Prestonwood's closest neighbor. "The more churches we have, the more it blesses this corner of the world."

And what a corner it is.

More than 2,000 people attend Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, which has occupied a former car dealership on Midway Road for about four years. Just west of there, and still only a mile from Prestonwood, is 2-year-old Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, where 3,500 people attend on any given Sunday. And across the way from Bent Tree, on Marsh Lane, about 700 people worship at Sojourn Church. Sojourn, a nondenominational church, moved to its new building 18 months ago.

And then there's First Baptist of Hebron, the smallest and oldest of the bunch. A historical marker greets visitors out front of the red-brick church, which has stood there for nearly 80 years. The congregation itself formed long before, in 1883.

"This area used to be called Hebron, which is very much a biblical name," said the Rev. Terry Moore of Sojourn Church. "I believe God named this area through the people who settled here. We believe God preserved this area for the churches. And we're excited about the variety.

"We are all blessing each other. We tell our people, 'When you drive by the other churches, speak a blessing for them.' A lot of people in the Dallas area need help, and we need to work together."

The Rev. Steve Waggoner of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church said that he, the Rev. Jack Graham of Prestonwood and other pastors have prayed together for one another's ministries.

"We are believing that the uniqueness of these large churches being in this particular spot, there is a synergy that perhaps we don't even understand," Mr. Waggoner said. "We believe that we bring strengths to each other and that we can share our resources."

They also realize they'll be sharing the roadways, especially West Park Lane, which turns into Hebron Parkway. The two-lane road, which won't be expanded for a couple of years, handles much of the church traffic coming off the Dallas North Tollway in that area.

"We just don't have the highways to handle it," said Joe Grimes, who has attended First Baptist of Hebron since 1944. "Soon as that road is widened, it should help."

Said Al Moon, who attends Bent Tree Bible Fellowship: "It's going to be a mess, a little Texas Motor Speedway on Hebron Parkway."

For others, the potential traffic problems aren't that worrisome.

"That's the best kind of traffic to have because at least it's people going to church," said Lois DeFatterlee, a member of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. "I don't mind being stuck in traffic with people who are on their way to praise the Lord."

If people want to attend church, they'll do it regardless of traffic, said Vicky Davis, who has attended Prince of Peace Lutheran Church for 25 years.

Church members and pastors said that even with so many churches so close to one another, they don't expect to compete. Although many joked that if Prestonwood can't handle its throng, they'll gladly welcome the overflow.

"As a church, we're not in competition with other churches," said Rev. Pete Briscoe of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, who has heard the area called God's Green Acres. "We're in competition wit h other activities on Sunday morning. Our heart is that people get to know Jesus and grow with him, and if they do it with other churches, that's fine."

And although all of the churches are Christian, all are different "flavors," Mr. Briscoe said. Even First Baptist of Hebron, which shares a denomination with Prestonwood, considers itself very different.

On a recent Wednesday evening, a dozen people gathered for praise and prayer. Thousands are expected to attend Prestonwood's similar service on Wednesday nights.

"The people who come here will continue to come here because they want a smaller country church," said Cathy Jones, who drives in from Lewisville. "The things we can offer are entirely different than the things Prestonwood can offer."

Some members said they've attended larger churches in the past, but they didn't feel the sense of family that they get at First Baptist of Hebron. There, they get to know everybody in their church and not just the folks in their Sunday school class, they said.

"I think there's room for both of us," said John Roach, who has been attending the quaint little church for eight years.

"Although people might wonder if we're Prestonwood's wedding chapel."

Reprinted by permission of The Dallas Morning News, copyright 1999.


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May 3, 1999