Chapter one : the study of a megachurch congregation

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"Core members" accounted for approximately five percent of the church (250 households, 600 people). They were almost entirely Caucasian, middle aged, and middle class. They were overwhelmingly members of the clergy, church staff, and ministry leadership. These members often spent well over fifteen hours a week at the church. They always gave both a tithe (10 percent) and offerings (any amount beyond the 10 percent) totaling more than 15 percent of their income. They were almost all two parent families. For most of these members, the church was their life.

"Committed members" made up about fifteen percent of the congregation (750 households, 1800 people). These members always tithed, spent at least five hours a week at church, often volunteered in ministries, participated in small group gatherings, and submitted to the authority of their deacon and pastor. This group equally comprised white and black members, was somewhat younger and financially sound. Many were typical middle class families, although there were some singles and nontraditional families.

"Moderate members" totaled approximately 30 percent of the membership (1500 households, 3600 people). Moderate members attended church weekly, might tithe, and occasionally participated in church ministries. They were less inclined to submit to the authority and discipline structures of the church. Nevertheless, they were "good" members. Approximately 65 70 percent of this group were African Americans. This group was considerably more diverse in age and marital status, as well as economically and educationally.

Finally, "marginal members" accounted for the remaining 50 percent of the membership (2500 households, 6000 people). Persons in this group had low levels of commitment. They might attend once or twice a month. Seldom did more than a quarter of this group attend any given week. Only fifteen percent of this category had a record of any identifiable giving in a year. If others in this group contributed, it was anonymously in cash. About 75 85 percent of this group was African American. It also comprised more single persons and single heads of households, as well as more members of the working class and those persons with less education.
Juggling My Multiple Roles

I was an okay ”moderate“ member. I attended worship services every week just as other moderate members. I took copious notes. I chatted after church. I even volunteered to do menial tasks such as pasting labels on copies of the church newspaper. I was not just a participant; however, I was also an observer and researcher. This multiplicity of roles created for me, as it has for many other persons engaged in fieldwork, many complex social situations (Adler & Adler, 1987; Ammerman, 1987; Jorgensen, 1989; Warner, 1991b). I never tithed, nor submitted to the spiritual authority of my assigned "shepherding pastor" as a committed covenant member might. My hours away from the church were filled with the mundane but necessary research tasks such as the tedious transcription of conversations, a detailed recording of my observations, and the filing of the pounds of miscellaneous pamphlets, flyers, newspapers and bulletins collected in the field. I also had to balance the roles and responsibilities of PhD course work, a job, a marriage, and later raising several children with my research. At certain times the roles overlapped, and for the first several years my school duties kept me from too great a commitment to the field.

I had entered into this social situation with the hope of being an unobtrusive participant observer. Having previously researched smaller and more intimate social settings, I approached this massive organization with little worry of either affecting or contaminating its social dynamics. The church's size and reputation definitely gave me, as an unobtrusive researcher, a considerable advantage in interacting with most members. Nobody ever pretended to know everybody else and yet, as Charismatic Christians, most members were very outgoing and would talk to anyone. When I informed others of my research, the church's sense of self importance and uniqueness provided them with sufficient reasons for my interest.

Given this level of acceptance by the general membership, I spent many enjoyable hours listening to stories, sharing meals, swapping insights into an earlier sermon, and commiserating about the deteriorating state of the country. From these interactions I gained valuable information about members' lives and what the church meant to them. For the first two years of the research project these pursuits occupied what little free time I had apart from the PhD course work and my wife. The research was not my life, rather it was essentially an ”interesting hobby.“ I had no problem distinguishing between my researcher role and the many other parts of my self identity.

By early 1990, I began to realize, however, that Sunday worship and the views of the general members offered only one side of the story of the church. In order to get a fuller and deeper understanding, I would have to pass through a metaphorical "glass ceiling" which kept the leadership dynamics and the inner workings of the church hidden from a majority of the congregation. I later thought of this barrier to the upper echelon as a "one way mirrored glass ceiling" since from the point of view of the general membership those above looked just like the folks below. From the vantage point of the leadership, however, one could clearly perceive the considerable differences between the two levels.

In the ecology of the organization there were a number of ways to gain entrance into this exclusive realm. First, one could become a very active "covenant partner in the Kingdom" which required considerable personal sacrifice, including submission to a spiritual authority and large monetary contributions. Entrance in this manner would have necessitated a level of commitment which I was unwilling to adopt. A second mode of entrance was through blood or spiritual familial ties to Bishop Paulk. This path was not open to me either. A third path was to be employed on staff and then strive to gain the trust and confidence of those involved in this upper tier of church leadership. It was this third path that became my entrance venue. This avenue was inadvertently opened as a result of the role Bishop Paulk bestowed upon me, somewhat against my explicit wishes. He and the staff seemed to make sense of my presence and involvement by envisioning me as the unofficial chronicler of this "unique move of God." Staff members later told me they had seen me as the one who would proclaim to the world their efforts at embodying the Kingdom of God.

At first I thought this role might be acceptable. After all it had gained me entrance into the upper echelons of leadership. Functioning within this role, I could be "neutral" and objective about the "facts" I uncovered. The church leadership readily accepted many of my early observations, both those of praise and of criticism. I soon realized, however, that interacting at this level in the organization forced me to question both the role assignment and my implicit assumptions about "unbiased" research. My academic pursuits required me to ask challenging and sensitive questions. Pastors and staff members perceived me as disobeying my Bishop defined role because I was also interested in the less flattering church dynamics. I was encouraged to record insightful prophecies and moments of success, but reprimanded for writing down certain potentially embarrassing comments and actions.

As I dug deeper into the workings of this level, I began to hear people "joking" about my being a spy. Along with a commonly held suspicion of the press by most nondenominational Charismatic megachurches (especially during the scandals of Bakker, Swaggert and others), other events in the church's history had produced a guardedness among the staff. I was watched carefully. Access to unflattering documents was mired in verbal red tape. I later found out that conversations and interviews I had with staff members were reported verbatim to senior clergy persons. In formal meetings of ministry leaders or administrative personnel, my presence was always casually acknowledged, possibly so everyone knew I was in attendance. It soon became very clear that at this level in the church's organization, there would be no "inconspicuous marginality" to my interactions.

I began to compensate for the leadership's guardedness. I became more cautious about what questions I asked, and to whom I asked them. I also turned to an intense investigation of historical physical documents (tapes, church records, and videos) which were less easily distorted. Finally, and mostly unconsciously, I began to redefine my social role with certain staff members by becoming more personally vulnerable and socially intimate. This effort was successful to some extent, and my roles as informal church historian and social researcher blurred into friendship. These developing relationships provided me with a few key informants who offered accounts of meetings I missed. This evidence showed significant differences in what was said and done when I was not present at a meeting.

The redefinition of my roles and relationships was also partly a consequence of the now three years of involvement in the church and my growing commitment to this dissertation project as a full time venture. More of my self identity became tied up in this research. I began to lose a clear sense of my multiple social roles. Who I was had become more and more defined by my study of this congregation.

This dynamic was aided by another natural social psychological process. Unbeknownst to me, I had begun to be socialized into the ethos of the church. This ethos was characterized by an aggrandized devotion to Bishop Paulk, an elitist sense of self importance, a feeling of being persecuted, the knowledge of spiritual superiority, and a strong triumphalism. The influence of this perspective became more pronounced as I finished my exams and began to spend all my free time at the church. Over a period of years I unconsciously began to accept this exaggerated self portrayal. I heard myself defend the church's reputation before my colleagues. I, too, saw the efforts of the church as unique and on the cutting edge. I was becoming an ideological member, a native.

I was never fully conscious of my becoming schooled into thinking as a member of the group; although this process did create certain tensions in me, especially when I engaged in intense interactions with the core group of church leaders. Access to the closed ranks of the leadership increased the social pressure on me to conform and obey the social norms. At times, I left meetings feeling vaguely guilty about my lack of commitment to the church since after all I was questioning the decisions and judgments of the leadership. I found myself spending more time with the leadership, while distancing myself from interaction with the ordinary members. I began to cherish the weekly staff lunches, and the chance to see friends, exchange gossip, and laugh over some insider joke. Finally, I began to develop a mild sense of pride in having direct access to the leaders of this special move of God.

These natural processes of socialization and institutionalization, often indiscriminately labeled as "brainwashing" and "mind control," are subtle and effective.16 An incident took place, however, which both brought these dynamics to my attention and enabled me to reorient myself as a researcher. During a conversation with fellow students and my dissertation advisor Nancy Ammerman, I was confronted with having lost my "objectivity." My prolonged, sincere, and open interaction with the church and its leaders had allowed me to be re socialized by the group's ideology. At the same time, my encounters with my colleagues, and my later self reflection on their observations, illuminated and then diminished the power these social processes had on my sense of self.17

Through this process, I learned a powerful lesson about both the institutional and ideological pressures at the church and the dynamics of Earl Paulk's charismatic authority. The experience of becoming immersed in the church's ethos, of "going native," proved very valuable in making sense of the crisis the church was about to experience. I began to understand how a member's lack of alternative external perspectives contributed to many of the difficulties at the church. I also learned just how fragile and situational the membership's commitment and Paulk's charisma were. I had a glimpse at what it was like to be a member, not just a participating moderate member but also an indoctrinated highly involved insider.

From the standpoint of qualitative research methodology, this experience taught me that "going native" was not necessarily something to fear. It was not a condition from which there was no recovery. Rather it was a interactional stance in relation to another subject. The loss of an "objective stance" was not a loss at all. All "objectivity" is in relation to a frame of reference. For a while my dominant referent point became the church. Later, with the assistance of my academic conversation partners and especially my dissertation director, I returned to the disciplinary frame of sociology of religion. For me, this experience highlighted the importance of having multiple conversation partners or several frames of reference when one is engaged in long term field research. Yet, it also affirmed the importance of periodically stepping outside the social scientific frame of reference into the role of being a more authentic participant.

Another pivotal event, which took place many months later, again let me see the depth to which I had been socialized. It also brought to light the difficulty I had maintaining a consistent researcher role while investigating this congregation's complex, multi layered social reality. One morning during an informal interview, an unassuming staff member informed me that she would soon be leaving the church. Quite curious, I pushed her for reasons. She startled me with a tale that included emotional manipulation, sexual harassment, and spiritual intimidation at the hand of one of the associate ministers. Her personal account was augmented by similar stories, related secondhand, involving other employees, former members, and numerous pastors.

Our conversation appeared to provide her with a cathartic release; however, it left me surprised and intrigued. After several years of research, I was given, in a few minutes time, a glimpse into the back rooms of the inner circle of leadership, rooms I am certain that I was never to see. When I heard these allegations of abuse and betrayal by the leadership, my initial response was, like most of the congregation a year later, characterized by disbelief and skepticism. I set out to verify the truthfulness of her claims and, if they were true, to determine the full extent of the abuse. Interestingly, just possessing this "forbidden" information seemed to open doors for me to hear from other members similar stories of sexual harassment, intimidation, and the use of spiritual threats to insure compliance and obedience.

I was by this time quite conscious of the dynamics of socialization at work in the church, but at that moment I realized that these forces had been so effective that I had mentally down played many of the less flattering incidents I had observed and recorded. Past comments and events came immediately to my mind. I had discarded these incidents as insignificant anomalies in the character of the congregation. Suddenly I saw them in a new light. Knowledge of this piece of the organizational puzzle brought a clarity and unity to the entire picture. Whereas previously many aspects of the leadership culture and internal dynamics were confusing and disjointed, they now fit together perfectly; they made sense.

About this same time and for related reasons, a prominent female staff person, whose duties included public relations, ghostwriting Paulk's books, and acting as my liaison, quit both her job and the church. In numerous interviews after she left, she verified many of the stories I had heard and added countless others (see chapter ten). Evidence gathered from dozens of men and women since then has confirmed the existence of abusive power relations between certain pastors and members of the staff and core followers.

The two years of events that followed these revelations are extremely complicated, but briefly they included: a plethora of "rumors" circulating among members, the exodus of over two thirds of the membership including a number of pastors and members of Earl Paulk's own family, numerous television and newspaper stories, two pastors reluctantly admitting to "past and present indiscretions," a serious budgetary problem which included losses of $80,000 a week (half the budget), a layoff of two thirds of the staff, and the formation of an informal network of ex members dedicated to exposing the "cultic nature" and abusive practices which they argued were rampant in the church.

In the midst of all these events, my research role was tossed to and fro. Those inside the church saw me as a spy and perhaps even the person responsible for leaking stories to the press. Certain persons with whom I formerly had good rapport, began responding in stiff, predictable, and plastic phrases. Many of the clergy appeared embarrassed around me, well aware that I knew more than they ever wanted recorded about the church. Bishop Paulk redoubled his efforts to either persuade or intimidate me into presenting a favorable "official" account. To do this, he used spiritual threats about God striking down those who "touched an anointed move of God." When these intimidations did not dissuade me from interviewing former members, Bishop Paulk, in front of his entire staff, "joked" that he had a 38 caliber pistol and would load it and come after me if I used what I knew to discredit him or the church.

At the same time, many of those who had left the church related to me as either a confessor or as an expert to help them understand the spiritual betrayal they felt. Almost all of these former members envisioned me as the person who would expose the truth about this church and in so doing hasten the downfall of the institution they now abhorred.

Needless to say this conflict within the church provided me with an effortless, but not painless, "exit from the field." I realized that it was no longer possible to maintain my research role, even if I wanted to. Although it has not been said to me directly, the clear impression was that the clergy sincerely regretted allowing me to study them. As an involved participant, I had accidentally been present to hear their confessions of sin and witness the abuses of authority. As a sociologist determined to understand this religious phenomenon, I could not ignore those behaviors that were so central to the functioning of the organization.


The development of this dissertation parallels the unfolding drama of the congregation and its senior minister. Each chapter covers a distinct, often slightly overlapping, time period in the church's history. Many of the breaks between episodes, and between chapters, occur at natural transitions in the story. Several of the later chapter divisions, however, are based on my assessment of the church's development or shifts in the church's character and organization. Each of the chapters, while intimately tied to actual church events and incidents, offers a social and theoretical frame in which to understand that historical period as well as the unfolding portrayal of the complex dynamics of the growth and functioning of modern megachurches.

The story begins not with the church itself but with the early life of its founder and senior minister. Given the profound influence Earl Paulk Junior had on the development and character of this congregation, an examination of his personal history is essential to understand fully the dynamics of Chapel Hill Harvester Church. Chapter two traces his early life, his successful tenure with the Pentecostal Church of God denomination, and his subsequent dismissal from that body. The story continues in chapter three (1960 - 1972) with a description of the young independent ministry, Gospel Harvester Tabernacle, which Earl Paulk established after his departure from the Church of God. Chapter four sketches the three year period, from 1973 through 1975, following the church's move to a new suburban location. This period shows the church experimenting with diverse self-presentations as it begins to adjust to its new surroundings and a new name, Chapel Hill Harvester Church.

Nineteen seventy-six and nineteen seventy-seven, covered by chapter five, describe a gradual shift that took place in Earl Paulk's theological orientation following the introduction of beliefs from the Charismatic Movement. The period of the church's explosive growth from 1978 to 1980 is discussed in chapter six. At this point in its history the church achieved megachurch proportions as a result of the highly successful and somewhat controversial youth movement called Alpha. Chapter seven, covering the years 1981 through 1984, shows the various theological and structural adaptations undertaken by the church leadership to order the chaotic growth and to organize the congregation as a megachurch around the vision of Paulk's Kingdom Theology.

No sooner had the congregation stabilized than a series of internal and external crises threatens to undermine Earl Paulk's authority and the ideological foundations of this large church. This period of testing from 1985 to 1987 is described in chapter eight. Chapter nine, covering the years 1988 through 1990, offers an overview of the triumphant megachurch that emerges from its trials as a powerful and active "demonstration of the kingdom." The narrative of this congregation comes to a close in chapter ten with a description of the emotional events which take place during 1991 and 1992.

Finally, the concluding chapter ,eleven, offers a summary of the historical tale. Drawing on the story of Chapel Hill Harvester Church and other research on megachurches, a general description of this phenomenon is presented. These very large congregations have arisen within the last twenty-five years in relationship to a changing social and cultural context. It is their fit with this contemporary reality that makes them so popular. It is, however, the way they understand and organize the spiritual lives of their members that makes them bearers of a new, unique way of being religious in America.

1 See Wind & Lewis, 1994; Stokes and Roozen, 1991; Hopewell, 1987 for the history of efforts to study congregational life.

2 One exception to this generalization is Joseph Fichter’s excellent book Southern Parish (1951).

3John Vaughan (1984:30 32; 1993:17 28) , offers an excellent summary of some of these historic large congregations.

4Any exact count of the number of megachurches in the country is complicated by the independent, nondenominational status of many of these churches as well as their fluxuating attendance figures.

5 Several researchers (Brasher, 1992; Miller & Kennedy, 1991; Richardson, 1991) have done recent studies of megachurches, although these studies say little about the phenomenon as a whole. Only Vaughan (1993) and Schaller (1990,1992) have attempted to generalize about the megachurch movement.

6 Researchers doing initial analysis of megachurches were divided over what attendance figures constituted a megachurch with Brasher (1992) suggesting 1500, Schaller (1990) using 1000, and Olson (1988) even including church as small as 800. More recent research (Thumma, 1993; Zook 1993; Vaughan, 1993; Neibuhr, 1995) appears to agree on the 2000 figure as the general numerical cutoff for a megachurch.

7Warner (1991b:178) points out some of the problems with ”freeze framing social process to a static model“ and draws on Van Maanen (1988) in support of this position.

8Wind and Lewis (1994b) make a strong argument for employing historical insights in attempting to understand congregational life. This is one of the guiding premises of their two volume edited works American Congregations.

9 Following Adler and Adler (1987), Burawoy et al. (1991), Jorgensen (1989), and others, this path of investigation is based on the theoretical assumptions of the interactionist theorists Mead and Goffman as well as the ethnomethodologists and existential sociologists such as Becker (1963), Douglas (1976), and Schutz (1970). This approach is grounded in the insight that all social knowledge and meaning is the product of interaction. My intention was to study this congregation "in their own time and space, in their everyday lives" (Burawoy,1991:2).

10 This method of comparatively using diverse methods of data collection to arrive at a more complete perception of the social situation by compensating for the limitations of each of the methods has been called "triangulation" by Warner (1991b:177) and others.

11Warner (1991b:184 185) discusses his similar handling of his case study of Mendocino Presbyterian Church in an attempt to write ”real social history“ and yet protect the privacy of his subjects.

12The bias in this biographic narrative was confirmed by its author, Tricia Weeks. Likewise, in the following pages ample evidence will be offered to prove this point.

13See Warner (1988:73 79) for a discussion of using ones experiences as data for the case study.

14This categorization is only partially based on questionnaire data, my initial perception of these membership categories came from observation and interviews. The 1990 questionnaire over represented those in the most committed categories. The characteristics evident in the questionnaire for each member group confirmed my earlier observations.

15The generic descriptions of the size and characteristics of these membership categories are only approximate and function as "ideal types" (Weber, 1949:42 44)

16The literature on ”cults“ and the ”anti cult movement“ will be discussed further below. For an excellent summary of its history see Shupe & Bromley (1991).

17Several works on methodology (Such as Warner, 1988:70) speak of the need to intentionally maintain ones multiple roles and outside conversation partners. I did not purposely disconnect from these other voices, but rather it was a natural separation as I spent more time at the church and became socialized into their ethos.

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