Empty Megachurches in Pictures April 24, 2009

Empty Megachurches in Pictures

Photographer Joe Johnson has a new exhibit in Boston’s Gallery Kafayas that displays photos of empty megachurches.

If you’ve never been to a church like this before, you should see some of these photos. It’s unbelievable how decked out they are:


That one is a children’s ministry.

One setup (“Instruments, St. Louis MO”) looks likes the set of the musical Rent.

Another picture, the one with all the empty seats (Titled: “Seating, Temperance MI”), just gives me the creeps.

The Boston Globe says this of the exhibit:

[Johnson’s] stunning and provocative images of the mammoth churches lay bare the cogs and gears that create their spectacle-driven services. With all the sets, smoke machines, light effects, and huge plasma screens, the churchgoing experience has ironically turned, in places like this, into something resembling a heavy-metal concert or a Las Vegas stage show, complete with stadium seating.

You can see more of the images here.

It makes you wonder whether the money is really as well spent as it could be.

Are these extravagant churches really necessary?

Could they accomplish their goals without all the extravagance?

Who are church leaders trying to impress with all this, anyway?

How much of this is to help churchgoers have a “better experience,” and how much is really just part of the arms race with other megachurches?

(via Articles of Faith)

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  • SarahH

    Wow, some of those are kind of haunting. I think the most striking is the poignant flowery kleenex box wedged between two of the millions of identical chairs.

    Also, the one with the theatre set with blood coming down from the prison made me wonder if that’s a permanent fixture on their stage or if it was just up for an Easter Passion play or something.

  • Alex

    Just like the pope’s ornate costumes, religion (i.e. con men, charlatans) has always had to enshrine itself with hide behind pomp and circumstance. This is because they lack things of substance, and that is all they really have.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Personally, I think that all the money would be better spent on more heavy metal shows.

  • matthias

    Yeah, those churches are TOTALLY what jesus would have built….

  • Stephen P

    I was about to say that it was just a religious version of Las Vegas, but I see the Boston Globe got there first. Remind me again – wasn’t Christianity supposed to have some connection with piety, humility, morality and such matters?

    (Typing hurriedly, that came out as Christinsanity the first time. Most inspired typo I’ve ever made.)

  • Robyn

    I couldn’t look at but a few before feeling more than a little sick. Then I laughed. That’s the kind of thing you do for a SHOW. And that’s all this is. Then I was sad because people believe in this sort of thing.

    I’ve never understood how people squared the Jesus telling us to sell our goods and all that rot and this prosperity gospel they love so much.

  • Takma’rierah

    Seems to fit very well with the various theatric religions that have been present throughout much of history; like these other religions, the leaders of it dress up in outrageous costumes and put on grand displays to convince people of their power. This is as opposed to, say, Harrapan civilization, which from what we can tell so far had a fairly pragmatic, quiet approach to their faiths.

  • mikespeir

    The Holy Spirit seems better able to draw people to God in churches with a lot of gee-whiz gadgetry. It’s a mystery.

  • 5ive

    I agree with Robyn… These sorts of churches are all about marketing. It is a show and it is meant to entertain people. I have attended a church such as these, with live music, big ‘ol screens showing clips from blockbuster movies (is that even legal?) and different theme music for each “worship leader”. (although, I would love to have theme music accompany what I say. hehe…)
    It is a show. It is meant to draw you in and entertain you and throw in an insidious message or two and make you feel better than everyone else. At least, that appeared to be the goal of the one I attended.
    And the kids! How can you not fall into their line of belief when you are inundated with music, lights and television? It is a pure draw to get the little ones hooked in. I find it dishonest and grotesque.

  • If the trend continues, there will be just one gigantic mega church… And everybody can watch from home on their big wide-screen high-defintion TVs and send donations in using their Wee remote control.

  • Christinsanity


    I’ll have to use that.

  • vivian

    We have a church like this in our VERY small community. My daughter’s dance recital was held there and I’d never seen anything like it. When you walk in, there’s a lounging area and a cafeteria with tables, then you keep walking and run into the first hall that goes to the nursery and it’s done in a very extravegant jungle theme (it was almost frightening how massive the fake lions and other jungle animals were). I didn’t get to go down any of the other halls, but there were around another 4 or 5 of them, and toward the end is where the congregation goes. It must seat at least 200 people and has a bigger stage than my high school did!

    My husband and I are hoping one day that particular church goes under and we’d like to buy it. We could hold all kinds of non-religous events in that building and !BOUNUS! it would also piss off the former church members.

  • Dennis N

    This is crazy, this gallery is less than a mile from my apartment! It’s actually on a backstreet right by about the 5 churches in my small area. Now I have a filled up afternoon next week.

  • It makes you wonder whether the money is really as well spent as it could be.


    Are these extravagant churches really necessary?


    Could they accomplish their goals without all the extravagance?

    Yes, assuming their goals are to preach the “word of god” and commune with one another in faith.

    Who are church leaders trying to impress with all this, anyway?

    Good question.

  • Sarah

    I used to work at a church like this. Even when I was still a Christian, this sort of thing really bothered me. I worked in the graphic design department, and one time we designed a giant scrabble board (used as a prop) that cost $1000 to produce. When I asked if we would be reusing the board, the answer was “no.” I wrote a letter of complaint to the pastor and had a meeting with the Chief Financial Officer to complain how the church’s finances were being managed.

    On a positive note, this kind of Christian excess led me to search for a kinder, more “social justice-y” Jesus which led me to liberal Christianity which eventually seemed ridiculous and brought me to atheism 🙂

  • while the church i was raised in certainly wasn’t a megachurch, it was the same denomination as a lot of these extravagant temples. with all the money that came in, i expected it to have a good homeless outreach or something. but no. they instead used the money to buy four xboxes for their youth room (among other things).

  • zoo

    So. . . in the picture in the post, what’s with the chair -directly- behind the column?

    And you’d think so, wouldn’t you josh? Actually in my area there are several quite large churches, but they’re different from what you describe (pleasant surprise), where one has quite a large mental health ministry (with actual licensed clinicians, not just Christian counselors [which also have licensing, but they’re still not the same thing]) which charges according to ability to pay, among many other programs. Another runs a free language/citizenship school for adults from other countries who want to become citizens (and they offer free childcare to the students). Others have other programs and/or partner with places like food pantries or homeless shelters. Sometimes it must be nice to be a big church because you can do bigger things. It becomes a problem when running the big church enlarges the leadership’s heads. Of course this area is not immune to that, but you can quickly tell which churches do care about people (as in seeing actual needs and actually attempting to fill them, even if they do come with a dose of evangelism [the better ones obviously make this optional or at least not pushy]) and which care about showing off “what God has given them”

  • Stephen P

    Anyone feel brave enough to go along to one of these with a television crew (not during a service but, say, immediately afterwards) and confront the pastor with Mark 11:17 and 10:21-25? And point out to him that his church represents the absolute antithesis of the biblical Jesus?

    It would take skill and restraint to do it without coming over as just another religious crank, but it could probably be done.

  • Prowler67

    I used to go to that church in the photo that you posted. It seems while theit childerens ministry look over the top, it didnt used to. Their main stage is fairly simple but huge. They did have a lot of musical stuff on stage though. Kinda odd to belive when I first started going there as a child, they were in a warehouse (well, several anyways). I believe they even have a school on sight as well. That church had a big role in me not being christian anymore. Its scary to think that the church is far more simple than a lot of others.

  • dvsrat

    One could point out the similarity to these contemporary monstrosities and the European cathedrals of old.

    The church was supposed to inspire awe. The magnificence of the interior was intended to create an other-worldly atmosphere. I see the mega churches (never been in a mega church nor a Byzantine cathedral all I know is from photos and reading) as being of a similar intent as that of the cathedral. To create an atmosphere that is far outside of the normal experience of the member of the congregation.

    When I read the title of this article I thought that it was about the dwindling membership of these kinds of places. Something that I thought would be likely to be occurring, as a trend, since the Ted Haggard scandal as well as the more recent embarrassment of Sarah Palin’s pathetic attempt and numerous other socio-political factors that have happened since the Christian right had its heyday.

    I have not researched the statistics on mega church attendance over this time but I’m wondering if there are some of these places that will either be converted into something else soon or — meet the wrecking ball. Perhaps some will remain as ruins such as Jim and Tammy Baker’s Heritage USA. This was a Christian theme park like a Jesus-centered Disney Land. It has been abandoned and decaying for many years now.

  • Julie Marie

    Who are church leaders trying to impress with all this, anyway?

    They are trying to capture the attention of “unchurched Charlies.” Once you join, and start tithing, you are asked to come to the least desirable services (8 am) to leave seats for newcomers at the 11 am service. You are told if you don’t want to be an active member, just leave, because frankly, “we need the seats.”

    I notice that the mega I used to attend has 2 large tracts of land for sale now…land they paid DEARLY for at the height of the real estate boom.

    My husband and I just finished paying off the debt we incurred because we tithed – and went beyond that to “sacrificial giving” for so many years. It took us 3 years to pay it all off. We have some strong feelings about that, but honestly, if money is all it cost, that would be the least of it. The biblical marriage thing was almost the end of us because neither of us are wired that way; it was a poor fit that led to mutual resentment.

  • Gary

    It’s all PR and marketing, because the subtance itself is so weak and suspect. I found this to be completely true in Scientology. Huge glitzy events with dazzling graphics and statistic charts with highest ever lines with no x or y legends. They are on a huge program to buy and renovate buildings to create “ideal orgs”. Only problem is there are very few people at these churches and instead of paying for them through delivering services, which is what is supposed to happen, they just constantly hit on the rich few to donate huge sums to buy the buildings. So now instead of old, dumpy empty orgs they have a few nice shiny empty orgs.

    Such a scam, many are seeing this and leaving. Good for them.

  • That is astounding. It blows my mind that anyone would consider religious services as anything other than theatre. (This is why, if I am invited to a church and feel like the speaker did a quality presentation, regardless of the message, I put a couple of bucks in the plate. Otherwise, I just donate for the coffee and donuts. In this way, if anyone were to say I “got a freebie” from the message or the goodies, I can say, “I paid for it.” The balance remains -0-)

  • dvsrat

    The last time I accepted an invitation to a church was back in ’89. A guy I worked with invited me to meet his family who stopped by the shop. We were just closing up.

    Dad suggested that we go have pizza (me invited) at a place down the street. We had a nice dinner together. It was mom, dad, my co-worker, his younger brother, and a 17-year-old “exchange student” from Russia. It turned out that this particular “exchange student” was enrolled in a home-school program here in the US while the “student” — my co-workers older brother — was in the Soviet Union. Doing what? They never said it but it’s probably obvious that he was there to proselytize.

    Then dad announced that we were all going to church. They told me that I would have no problem with a ride.

    Ok, so I did it. Assemblies of God. Big church. As soon as you walk in the door there is a big display of these colorful little pamphlets. A closer look reveals that these colors are created by colored glossy photographs of dead, or mutilated, or slow roasted after being marinated in a nice garlic sauce and a side of spinach steamed with bacon — human fetuses.

    Hmmm.. That is a rather strange obsession.

    Then the “music” started as we sat in the — what is those? Long wood things — to sit in – when you’re in church? Oh Yeah! Pews.

    — real person level — I need to take a break. i will be glad to provide part two of this tomorrow night.

  • It’s really sad that the churches these days are spending SO MUCH MONEY unnecessarily on elaborate stages and mechanics when there are so many people are living in poverty and could desperately use that money on things like food, house repair, or bills. And I’m sure that these very people the church SHOULD be helping attend service at these churches regularly – and likely even tithe there, despite their situation.
    I went to Christian school, and was basically brainwashed into belief as a child, and as those beliefs were so deeply rooted I sometimes have a hard time separating myself from them – but churches like this one make it really easy.

  • Donna

    I completely agree that churches should not be elaborate theaters. Money should be going back to the people. It’s very frustrating. I had to make the choice to decide if I would reject God over this, or not let these things keep me from God. Needless to say, I don’t go to these kinds of churches anymore, but I am more committed than ever to determine how God wants me to worship.

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