Chapter one : the study of a megachurch congregation

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Congregations everywhere are thick gatherings of complicated actions, each parish distinctive in its expression, each possessing its own genius yet incarnating in that peculiarity the worldly message and mission of Christ.

(James Hopewell, 1987:17)

Welcome to Chapel Hill Harvester Church! Wherever you're from, whatever circumstance has led you to cross our path, we receive you with joy! It's not accidental that you have joined us today. Be assured that it's part of the divine purpose of God. By now you're probably aware that you've come to an unusual church today. For one thing, you'll find the message will be challenging. For another, the worship in music and dance may be a new experience for you. You may never have worshiped in a church of this size, or one with so many ministries and facilities. Maybe even the racial harmony is new to you. That's because Chapel Hill is a church with a vision -- a divine mission to fulfill. And that's what we hope you'll sense while you are with us today.

(Chapel Hill Harvester Church's first-timers brochure)

The religious life of Americans has been poked, prodded, and analyzed in every conceivable fashion over the last half century. Several times a year, pollsters report how many citizens believe in the virgin birth, claim to be "born again," or have ever spoken in tongues. The rising and falling membership rates of various denominations are watched as carefully as stock market fluxuations. The escapades of aberrant cult leaders and flamboyant televangelists are carefully scrutinized. Yet, even with all this attention being paid to religious phenomena, researchers and reporters seldom turn their attention in any depth toward the place of origin of these beliefs, the fortunes of denominational figures, and even the cult prophet or TV preacher    the congregation.

The congregation is the "bedrock of the American religious system" (Warner, 1994:54). It is in this institution, the local church, that the spiritual journeys of almost all religious persons are birthed and nurtured. Without an understanding of congregational life, data on religious beliefs and practices are little more than meaningless, disembodied statistics. These beliefs are not generated spontaneously out of thin air. They are grounded in a particular context, have a distinct historical tradition, and find their life or death within congregations.

Likewise, denominations are not composed just of membership figures, organizational styles, or pronouncements regarding homosexuality and the ordination of women. Denominations are collections of congregations. As go individual churches, so goes the denomination (Warner, 1994:58 59). After all, the local congregation long preceded the denomination as a social and religious institution (Holifield, 1994).

Even those media hungry TV preachers and televangelists are not just "talking heads." Most of them represent a particular church and shepherd a congregational flock as well as entertain a television audience. At the very least these religious entrepreneurs and purveyors of Christian infomercials were formed, for better or worse, in congregations. An appreciation of their specific religious traditions and revivalistic heritage might even make their messages and popularity more comprehensible.

This dissertation addresses religious beliefs, denominational trajectories, and television personalities as well as many other topics but within the context of the local church, the congregation. This is specifically the story of one megachurch, one very large congregation called Chapel Hill Harvester Church. It is a narrative which tells of the church’s founding, its senior minister’s life, its development into and appeal as a megachurch, and its near death as a viable congregation. Yet, this narrative also demonstrates the wealth of knowledge about religion in America that is contained not just in this particular congregation, but in any religious community when it is examined carefully. In the words of Wind and Lewis, "To overlook the congregational character of American religion is thus to overlook much of the source of American religious vitality" (1994:9).

The study of congregations does not just describe the religious sensibilities of Americans; it also provides one with a glimpse into American society. Congregations are not isolated, "closed systems" functioning independently of the cultural, social, and personal milieu of American society (Dudley, 1983). Societal influences are at work shaping each congregation, religious service, and church member. Even unknowingly these factors are reflected in the actions of every religious community. Whether it is the worship liturgy, the petitions in prayer, or the pastor’s sermon, volumes are spoken about the ideals of a group of people. Not only do these overtly religious acts tell of the everyday lives and cultural realities of the parishioners, but so too do the more informal rituals such as the greeting of visitors, the Wednesday fellowship dinners, and the gossip around the Sunday school coffee pot. Thus, a sensitive and nuanced analysis of one congregation can shed considerable light on the cultural, social, and personal religious dynamics present in the society. One picture of congregational life can be worth a thousand questionnaires, denominational pronouncements, and televangelist exposes when it comes to understanding religion in America.


The story of Earl Paulk and Chapel Hill Harvester Church demonstrates the "rich and strange" complexity of congregational life. This reality is true not only for a community of 10,000 but also for a fellowship of 100 (Williams, 1974). For too long, researchers and commentators on the religious life in the United States have overlooked the value of an intense socio historical study of individual congregations. This dissertation is offered as one of several recent efforts to correct that oversight.

The field of congregational studies, as this study of the cultures and world views of churches has come to be called, is a relatively recent addition to the examination of religion.1 Throughout the last century scholars made various attempts to survey and understand churches. These efforts almost always relied on either statistical analysis of questionnaires, theological critique, or pragmatic organizational investigations aimed at improving ministry. For the most part, these inquiries advanced the scholarly understanding of the congregation, although they often lacked a ground level perspective on the phenomena, overlooking the culture and meaningful everyday experiences of the social life of the participants.2

In the 1970's, several pioneering studies, notably Heilman (1973) and Williams (1974), employed ethnographic research techniques and the perspective of anthropology and symbolic interactionism to examine local religious communities. In doing this these authors provided a picture into the everyday lives and religiosity of real people. They treated their respective religious organizations, the synagogue Kehillat Kodesh and Zion Holiness Church, as distinctive subcultures with important and instructive stories to tell. Their rich "thick descriptions" of these communities offered a view that was seldom seen in the study of religious phenomena (Geertz, 1973).

In the early 1980's, another group of researchers produced a novel perspective of a single congregation. Carl Dudley, as the editor of Building Effective Ministry (1983), enlisted the participation of numerous scholars with different disciplinary approaches to examine Wiltshire United Methodist Church. What this study lacked in depth and richness demonstrated by previous studies, it made up for in breadth of analytical lenses. This book clearly showed the importance of multiple research perspectives in understanding the congregation.

Following this effort, the academic discipline of congregational studies began to take shape, aided by James Hopewell's Congregation (1987) and the collaborative Handbook for Congregational Studies (Carroll, et al.,1986). These books, and the several conferences and institutes supported by significant grants from the Lilly Endowment, gave the discipline a necessary boost. These efforts were paralleled by the more pragmatic, less academic, attempts by church consultants and growth specialists to provide practical insights and "how to" manuals for those interested in improving their own congregations (Mead,1972; Miller, 1990; Schaller,1980; Towns et al., 1981; Wagner, 1976).

More recently academic researchers have turned their attention upon singular congregations in an effort to understand religious life and history from the perspective of the local church (Ammerman, 1987; Warner, 1988; and Wind & Lewis, 1994a,b). Many of these studies intensely examined the subculture of specific churches while relating their internal realities to larger contextual and societal issues. In describing the functioning of one fundamentalist church, Ammerman (1987) offered an overview of the Protestant Fundamentalist movement. In a similar fashion, Stephen Warner (1988) illuminated the diverse societal trends and cultural tensions pulling at Mainline Protestantism in his study of Mendocino Presbyterian Church. The present study follows in that tradition in an attempt to describe a recent religious phenomena, the rise of megachurches, through the lens of an indepth examination of one such congregation.


Very large congregations have existed throughout the history of the world's religions. For centuries massive Catholic cathedrals, Islamic mosques, and Protestant ”First Churches“ had a presence in heavily populated urban centers. Likewise, an occasional charismatic personality might attract a following which numbered in the thousands.3 These numerically successful religious enterprises were often seen as marvels to admire, anomalies to investigate, or aberrant incidents to dismiss. Seldom have they been understood as symptomatic of distinct cultural currents or reflective of new societal trends. With the rapid numerical proliferation of these mega congregations in recent years, however, that is exactly how they must be viewed. Both religious researchers and the general public must begin to view these churches not as individual isolated cases of extreme success, but as a religious organizational pattern which has arisen in relation to distinct societal changes.

Since 1970, the numbers of these enormous Protestant congregations have risen dramatically. In 1949 an informal study of what were called ”very large“ Sunday school programs identified ten such congregations, all of which were Baptist (Entzminger, 1949). Twenty years later, Elmer Towns (1969) complied a list of 15 congregations with Sunday school attendance over 2000 persons. With the new decade, however, rapid growth took place within many churches. In 1976 Towns listed forty Sunday Schools with attendances that large (1976). By 1980, he and his coauthors reported at least one hundred congregations with average attendance of 2000 persons in worship services (Towns, et al., 1981). More recent efforts by several researchers, including Olson (1988), Vaughan (1990,1991,1992,1993), Zook (1993) and Thumma (1993b), have identified over 350 megachurches with worship attendance of 2000 persons or more.4

Megachurches, as they have come to be called, include the largest and some of the most powerful churches in the United States, yet they have been overlooked as a category of study by most academic researchers of religion in America.5 The appearance of these very large congregations is one of the most significant recent developments on the religious landscape in the last thirty years (Schaller,1990; Vaughan,1993).

The label of "megachurch" has come to denote any congregation with an attendance of 2000 or more persons each week at its worship services.6 This label has been applied to Protestant Christian congregations, to the exclusion of religious gatherings of Roman Catholics, Muslims, and persons of other faiths. The final chapter of this study will address this issue further as well as other structural and demographic characteristics which generally characterize megachurches. Initially, however, a Protestant Christian theological perspective and the size variable are presented as the definitive characteristics of the modern megachurch in the United States.

As of 1995, there were nearly 400 such congregations in the United States. The average weekly cumulative attendance at these churches is over one and a half million persons. Smaller churches continue to attain the megachurch size criterion at the rate of one every two to three weeks (Vaughan, 1990a, 1993). Many of the current megachurches are among the fastest growing congregations in the country (Vaughan, 1990b, 1991, 1992 ). The patterns of "successful" ministry, as demonstrated by these large churches, are held in high esteem by many smaller churches, patterns which they desire to duplicate (Schaller, 1990 &1992; Eiesland, 1995). From all indications, the megachurch phenomenon will not disappear anytime in the near future.

It is not just the rapid proliferation and powerful ministerial influence which makes the megachurch phenomenon such an important religious reality. These massive congregations have a distinct resonance, a "fit," with contemporary American culture and values, especially with the middle class, suburban, baby boomer segment of society. Parallels can be drawn between the appearance of these churches and the rise of other mega institutional realities such as the megamall, the warehouse supermarket, the multiplex theater, and the massive conglomerate high schools (Schaller, 1990 & 1992; Eiesland, 1995). The same social tastes, cultural norms, and market forces shaped each of them. A study of megachurches, therefore, has much to say about both the spiritual needs and cultural realities of a significant segment of American society. This theme will be addressed in detail in the final chapter.

Furthermore, the actual social power and influence these congregations exert is considerable. The monetary resources they generate, when combined with their abundant volunteer labor force, present a sizable force for societal change. In service to individuals in their communities, megachurches effect tremendous personal change through their "seven day a week" ministries (Schaller, 1992). These congregations offer tutorial and educational programs, health clinics, job networks, psychological counseling, and a diverse array of self help services. As an economic base of the community, these churches not only generate funds which are then distributed throughout the locale, but their extensive membership provides a considerable pool of clientele for the neighboring restaurants, gas stations, and other local businesses. These congregations may ensure social stability for neighborhoods in transition. Likewise, many of these churches offer their facilities to the local community as "public gathering spaces." Politically, megachurches have become the favorite haunts of those seeking public office. Politicians frequent these churches when attempting to rally support for new legislation. Few other social settings provide such an ideal opportunity for addressing thousands of concerned, registered voters as does the megachurch. With the power of this voting constituency in one's pocket, the megachurch pastor is able to wield more than just moral persuasion when attempting to influence the decisions of city and county officials.

Finally, the symbolic message of megachurches is at least as impressive as their actual presence in society. They represent a tangible and powerful presence of God in a secularized world. They seem to offer sizable evidence which directly counters the secular expectations of the demise of religion in modern society. Whether they actually challenge the secularizing effects of modernity is another question. With their size, central location, extensive ministries, and abundant public relations budget, however, megachurches are not only highly visible and prominently successful, but they also symbolize a powerful public religious presence.

For each of these reasons, then, an understanding of the megachurch phenomenon is necessary for anyone interested in religion in the United States. Yet like all religious realities, this phenomenon must be examined at ground level, in its congregational form, to be fully understood. This study attempts to portray this grounded reality.
A Particular Megachurch

At first glance, the church which is the focus of this study, Chapel Hill Harvester Church, seems hardly a representative example of an American congregation, either large or small. In 1991 the church was identified as one of the ten largest Protestant congregations in the United States. Even more unusual, it was one of the few very large Protestant Christian congregations which could boast of an integrated, multiracial membership. Its founder and senior minister, Earl Paulk Jr., has had a successful national and international television ministry. He is the foremost proponent of a variety of Pentecostal Dominionist thinking called Kingdom Theology. Likewise, few congregations have endured as much controversy and allegations of sexual and authority abuse as this church. Yet, even with all its distinctiveness, the narrative of Chapel Hill Harvester Church and the personal history of Bishop Earl Paulk, provide numerous insights both into the life of megachurches and into their fit in contemporary American religious life.

At the same time, the following historical narrative of Chapel Hill Harvester Church/ The Cathedral at Chapel Hill is not intended to function conclusively as the representative example of all megachurches. An investigation of the history, development, and structures of this church, however, does highlight many of the characteristics shared by a majority of large churches. The advantages of resources, community visibility, and social prominence are addressed as well as the considerable difficulties of organizational complexity, membership cohesion, and clergy authority which result from the mega proportions. Being a megachurch brings with it an unique set of both benefits and problems. This tension, along with many other dynamics of the megachurch, can be seen best through the lens of an in-depth study of one such congregation.

Before beginning an exploration of the church, however, a description of the methodological approach of this study is in order. My original intent was to examine the contemporary social reality of this congregation. I had planned to describe this phenomenon from the static, single frame standpoint of a present moment. I, then, expected to explicate the symbolic and structural components of this photographic image frozen in time with the aid of certain theoretical categories. Approximately two years into the study, however, I realized that a snap shot portrayal of this social reality would be inadequate and deceptive.7 Many of the most significant dynamics and characteristics of the congregation were those which could only be observed across time, longitudinally. For this church, and most megachurches, adaptation to a changing context is what facilitates their success. This contextual flexibility, likewise, shapes the nature of the interaction between the church’s leadership and its membership. Therefore, I intentionally adopted a social historical approach mid way into the study. Using this approach I was able to illuminate key patterns and significant trends evident within this congregation’s dynamic history, but often latent in its present everyday reality.8

In undertaking this study I chose what Wind and Lewis (1994a:10) described as "methodological pluralism" as the most adequate way to uncover the treasure within this ”earthen vessel“ (Gustafson, 1961). With that in mind I employed multiple disciplinary methods in the study of this congregation. For five years (from 1988 to 1992) I was engaged in participant observation of 145 worship services, numerous weekly staff and administrative meetings, and other classes, healing services, marriage retreats, and new members orientations.9 I formally interviewed 42 congregational members selected randomly from the church roster, as well as 49 members of the clergy and staff. I further conducted focused group interviews with 47 members from this random interview listing (Morgan & Spanish, 1984). In addition, I had informal discussion with hundreds of members, former members, Atlanta's community and religious leaders, and local residents in the church's neighborhood. I examined the church's extensive archival material and viewed over thirty video taped services from the period between 1978 and 1985. From the church's audio tape library, I randomly selected recordings of five services for each year from 1974 to 1991. I engaged in extensive content analysis of these tapes. I was also given tapes of certain sermons determined by the church presbytery to be "pivotal" for the life of the congregation. Finally, I distributed approximately 2000 questionnaires during Sunday worship services and performed analysis on the 694 useable forms which were returned to me. The research appendix contains more methodological detail, including copies of interview schedules, content analysis forms, and the questionnaire.

The data gained from these diverse methodological sources acted as a corrective to the subjective and perceptional biases sometimes associated with participant observation. By cross referencing and comparing the various results derived from the questionnaire, the content analysis of the audio tape and archival data, the findings from the interviews, my qualitative observations, and reflections based on my experiences, I was better able to check and correct misperceptions or mistaken inferences in relation to the empirical data.10 In an attempt to determine the representativeness of this single case, I also engaged in an extensive investigation of the writings on megachurches along with the literature provided by dozens of these large congregations throughout the country, and visits to fourteen megachurches in the Atlanta area and several others around the country.

The decision to frame my research as a social history, likewise, required me to reevaluate my predetermined mode of presenting my results. Rather than forming the chapters around set analytical and interpretative themes with the story as data, I chose to allow the story of the church to guide the writing. Not only did this presentational form seem better suited to the research method, but it also resonated with the character of the church itself. Although Earl Paulk has produced many books, the oral tradition of the congregation was central to his preaching, members' commitment, and the church's identity. The church grounded its sense of itself, its congregational identity, in this interactive and narrative portrayal of its history (Hopewell, 1987). With this in mind, a narrative retelling of the church's history seemed to be the most appropriate mode of presentation for this dissertation.

This work is not, however, just a rehearsal of the church’s history as the members would describe it. I have shaped the telling of their story in my own way. To deny this would be not only dishonest, but impossible to accomplish in the first place. All our portrayals of reality are personal and interpretative. Nevertheless, I have attempted to present as historically accurate a picture as possible. With that in mind, I use the actual name of the church, with the church’s permission granted in 1988. I have also not disguised the names of the church leadership since they are actual persons in this historical account. I have, however, avoided using names, or used pseudonyms for those persons who reported statements to me in confidence or regarding a sensitive subject.11

Many former members have confirmed this story's authenticity. They say they recognize themselves in it. That is high praise to an ethnographic researcher. At the same time, this portrayal is not solely in their "words." The theories of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and history inform its telling. It is not these theories, however, which guide this study. Rather it is the church's narravtive itself and those themes which arose in my research as important for how the church was structured, how leadership functioned, or how the congregation made sense of itself.

My rendering of this congregational narrative is based on a number of sources, some of which are more interpretative than others. Human recollection of past events are always reshaped to fit a present reality. This is certainly true of some of the resources used in this study. Much of the data regarding Earl Paulk's early life is derived from his official biography with its obvious agenda of presenting Paulk as an extraordinary man of God.12 Many of the "facts" reported in relation to initial years of the church are dependent upon this source. Although in terms of the church's history personal recollections and archival records temper the bias of the biography. Another factor influencing the presented data was that interviews with disgruntled former members were often the source for many of the more recent "contested allegations." Finally, an additional source of church’s history from 1985 to the present included my own direct involvement in and experience of the congregation.13 Hopefully, my self disclosures throughout this work will inform the reader of any of my own personal and theoretical biases.

This narrative, however, represents the diverse "facts" about the church as I came to uncover them. The story is shaped around the social patterns and time periods which appeared to be the most significant in understanding the life of this church. This portrayal is, at points, considerably different from the official version of the history which developed in the minds of the leadership and was transmitted to the membership. Paulk's biography and his various comments in news reports offer another side of the story, an official portrayal of the church's history and position on various significant events. Before I begin with the story of the congregation, however, let me lay out for you the story of my involvement in the church.

My Entrance: The Right Place at the Right Time

In the Spring of 1988 I sat in a Chapel Hill Harvester worship service with Frank Lechner, an Emory professor. Having previously studied the church's ministry to homosexuals (Thumma, 1987), I was there attempting to explain to him the general dynamics of this unique and intriguing congregation. Knowing that I would begin a PhD program that Fall, he suggested I make this group the focus of my dissertation. I initially balked at the idea of researching a congregation with as many members as the city of my birth had residents. Nevertheless, the idea appealed to me and in July of that year, I petitioned Earl Paulk for permission to study the church. This began five years of interaction with Chapel Hill Harvester Church.

My initial meeting with Bishop Paulk lasted several hours. In this interview the Bishop "tested my spirit" to see if I was as I claimed, "objective and unbiased." Once satisfied, he granted me complete access to the church, its records, and its membership. Earl Paulk encouraged me to record what I saw going on at the church and above all to be, as he said, "scientifically objective and critical. That way the world will respect what you report." The senior minister challenged me to correct the misunderstandings "the world" had about their ministry. He fervently insisted that I use the church's name and not attempt to disguise its identity. He asserted that their ministry was, "A model of the local community church, to enliven what I see as a dying church in America." Finally, he noted offhandedly that they were not a "cult" as some people had claimed since they were not isolated and secretative. He assured me they were open to the "world's reporters" including myself. After all, he insisted, they had nothing to hide.

What he, no doubt, also perceived in me at that meeting was ignorance. I was completely unaware that the church had recently been harshly criticized by the larger evangelical world (see chapters 8 and 9 below). My introduction into the congregation coincided with a period of intense public relations efforts initiated by the church leadership to correct their tarnished image. My suggestion of honestly reporting the activities and life of the congregation must have sounded enticing after what I later found they had just endured because of being judged by their "words" rather than their "actions." I had unknowingly given Paulk and the leadership another avenue by which the church's accomplishments could be recorded and proclaimed.

I chose to study this particular congregation for several reasons. First, I was already familiar with the church. I was also intensely fascinated by the success of this and other megachurches. I wanted to know how and why this tremendous growth had taken place. I was somewhat puzzled by how the church’s fervent conservative theology supported an active community outreach and progressive social ministries. I was also intrigued by the racial and economic diversity of the congregation, and how such differences could be unified. Finally, I had a great interest in Protestant Charismatic Christianity.

My studies in sociology of religion led me to realize that the Protestant Charismatic movement, especially among nondenominational churches, had been seriously neglected as an area of study. My personal religious quest had brought me into fellowship with several Charismatic congregations in the 1970's. Once upon a time I had learned the Charismatic "language," spoken in tongues, listened to Christian rock, watched people being healed, and been the recipient of several prophecies. Although the Charismatic Christian perspective was no longer my way of understanding God or framing my spiritual experiences, I was still sympathetic to this religious form. More than many of my colleagues in sociology of religion, I felt that I could relate to this religious community as an insider. I realized that the Protestant Charismatic world was one which was seldom given a voice in academic circles. And I felt as if I was in a perfect position to make that world accessible. With that in mind, I joined the church a few months into my study.
An Aside -- The Meaning of Membership

At Chapel Hill Harvester, as in many megachurches, membership is very loosely defined, theologically. Anyone can participate or join with a minimum of effort. What constituted "real“ membership for the church leaders was commitment. The church holds that total commitment to its vision is what actually defines a "real member." This commitment, described as "being in covenant," was primarily an internal and spiritual orientation. Externally, both committed and marginal members looked quite similar.

In reality, there were at least four observable categories of membership in the approximately 12,000 member (5000 households) Chapel Hill Harvester congregation of 1990.14 The first two categories, "core" and "committed" members, could be described as exhibiting a very high level of commitment with the majority of persons having joined the church prior to 1985. The third membership category, "moderate" members, was defined by a medium level of commitment, although still considerably higher than the average Christian as described by Gallup (1991) or Roof and McKinney (1987). This group of members included persons who joined throughout the church's history. "Marginal" members, the fourth category, were persons of low commitment levels, with a majority of these persons having come to the church since 1985.15

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