By a generous estimate, evangelical Christians are as much as one third of the U.S. population.  In fact, they are the only Christian demographic that has shown exuberant growth in recent decades—a period during which church attendance overall has been steadily eroding.  A significant part of this growth has taken place in the nondenominational or loosely affiliated “megachurches,” though not all of these are evangelical.  Some, strictly speaking, are fundamentalist, though the distinction between the two is not always clear to outsiders.  In Sacred Subdivisions Justin Wilford focuses exclusively on what he calls “post-denominational evangelicalism,” especially as it manifests itself in the megachurch phenomenon.  Wilford is well aware that a number of books and hundreds of articles have analyzed the evangelical success story, but he is persuaded that one important aspect of it has been either ignored or given at best superficial treatment.  In short, as his subtitle suggests, Wilford argues that the growth of megachurches like Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, must be understood not only sociologically but geographically.  Those who adopt the currently fashionable “religious market approach” to explain the rise of the megachurches often claim that their success is simply a matter of effective marketing of a new religious “brand” to a large pool of “seekers” who are alienated by the more traditional forms of Christian worship.  Wilford certainly doesn’t deny that savvy marketing is an important explanatory factor, but he insists that a more convincing account of the popularity of the megachurches will focus on how they manage what he calls the “socio-spatial work of making, sharing and negotiating meaning.”

Most importantly, it is necessary to understand how this “socio-spatial” work is a deliberate response to the emergence of the “postsuburban” environment.  For a long time, evangelicalism has had a close association with the migration of city dwellers to the suburbs.  But, Wilford argues, the term suburban no longer adequately describes the geographical zones where tens of millions of middle- and upper-middle-class Americans live, work, and worship.  Until as recently as the 1970’s, suburbia was still an idyllic enclave centered on an urban core and defined by its political, economic, and cultural relationship to that core.  Now the suburban satellites have become quasiautonomous “nodes” in a vast metropolitan sprawl.  The term postsuburban describes an environment that lacks not merely a traditional geographical center but a moral one as well.  The old suburbia was, however tenuously, part of a public sphere with shared ideas of the common good.  Postsuburbia, with its increasingly specialized (and privatized) functions and spaces, is a realm of moral and cultural fragmentation.

Urbanists often point to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, as a prototypical example of postsuburban development.  Tyson’s Corner sprang to life in the 1960’s as an interchange on the Capital Beltway.  Today it has some 20,000 full-time residents, while another 100,000 commuters from the surrounding bedroom communities flow in each day to work in its roughly 33 million square feet of office, industrial, and retail space.  It has no civic life to speak of, unless shopping in Tyson’s Corner Center, the largest mall in Virginia, can be said to be a civic duty; nor does it have any genuinely public space.  But it does have a megachurch, McLean Bible Church, which boasts over 13,000 members on its several “campuses.”  Of the nation’s 50 largest megachurches, all but 6 are located in areas much like Tyson’s Corner.  That most of these churches mirror the environment in which they flourish is far from accidental.

While Wilford does provide some comparative nationwide data on megachurches, his primary focus is Orange County’s Saddleback Church, which is among the most imitated.  Saddleback’s pastor, Rick Warren, is best known for his bestselling The Purpose Driven Life, but it is his Purpose Driven Church (1995) which has provided the script for hundreds of ambitious evangelical pastors across the country.  What Warren seems to have recognized from a very early stage in his ministry is that the postsuburban fragmentation of daily life presented him with an unprecedented opportunity.  The metropolitan fringe is a world in which the individual’s ties to a wider community have been severed, in which even the nuclear family is no longer so much a “haven in a heartless world” as it is a convenient association of consumers in perpetual search of new identities, driven to distraction by ever-increasing (and conflicting) demands upon their time—spiritually adrift and, more often than not, unchurched or barely churched.  This is the demographic that Warren, with stunning results, sought to evangelize.  The formula was, and is, simple enough.  As Wilford writes, evangelical megachurches continually “innovate and discard programs, styles, practices and organizational structures in order to seamlessly [sic] blend into the daily rhythm of their ever-changing constituents’ lives.”  If the lives of its “constituents” are fragmented, then the church must itself accommodate that fragmentation.  It must, for example, abandon the notion that Sabbath worship in a consecrated and sacred space should play a central role in the lives of believers.  On the contrary, one of Warren’s most innovative moves was to displace the sacred core of Christian life, to move it from the temple and into the home.  Sunday services have their place, to be sure.  Saddleback has no fewer than ten “venues” for Sunday worship and multiple styles, including adult contemporary, alternative rock (at three different age levels), Spanish adult contemporary, African-American contemporary, traditional, and more.  Indeed, one can even take in the Sunday service via simulcast at the Terrace Café, Saddleback’s outdoor coffee shop.  But Sunday services are really “marquee” performances, designed to draw the “seekers” (read: shoppers) who might, in time, choose to make a deeper commitment.

The ultimate goal is to send new members back into the world, especially through involvement in “small groups” or “cells.”  Most typically, small groups meet on weeknights, usually in a member’s house.  These are not, strictly speaking, prayer meetings, though prayers are offered, and Bible study sometimes as well.  As Wilford (who attended many such meetings over a period of several years) attests, these gatherings most resemble therapy groups.  Members share the trials and tribulations of their secular lives, their difficulties with work and family, their personal hopes and frustrations, their struggles to live the Faith.  One megachurch that has adopted this model, Northridge Church on the outskirts of Detroit, promotes small-group participation as a process of “unmasking.”  Members are invited to discard their secular masks or roles at the door and to enter into a refuge where their “true selves” may be revealed.  Paradoxically, writes Wilford, “the more committed one is to Saddleback [or any of its sister megachurches] the more geographically dispersed his or her religious life becomes.”  Yet he insists that this process of dispersal plays an integrative role in the lives of the small group members:

These small groups become performative events in which “the world” and “the church” are not separated and purified of [sic] each other, but are instead brought together under the symbolically integrating power of the residential home.  Thus small groups . . . serve as sacred archipelagos in a sea of secularized postsuburban fragmentation.

One of the weaknesses of Wilford’s analysis is that it is far from clear how small groups gathering in private homes can be understood as “sacred archipelagos.”  If the “world” and the “church” are not in some sense “separated” from each other, then clearly the traditional boundaries distinguishing the sacred and the profane are erased.  It is only in the final chapter of his book that Wilford makes some attempt to grapple with this conundrum.  There he admits that the term sacred seems to be “too strong a word for the affective energy that surrounds these spaces.”  If one defines the term in its traditional, pre-Reformation sense, residential gatherings are not sacramental.  Yet he insists that the term can still somehow be validly appropriated to describe a “performative” spirituality that consists in acts of prayer, singing, small-group participation, and missionary endeavors:

All of these acts are sacred in the formal sense of being set apart from mundane life.  But their sacrality is dependent upon them being woven into mundane, everyday life so as not to appear ritualistic, artificial and inauthentic.

In short, megachurch evangelicalism is “creating a distinctly postsuburban sacrality because evangelical sacred action is bound tightly to the everyday materiality of postsuburban space.”  This is a hopeless muddle.  If the spirituality of small groups is “woven into” everyday life, then how exactly is it “set apart” from that life?  In an earlier chapter Wilford notes that “Small groups allow for an intense and centered spiritual practice that is nevertheless free of the seemingly burdensome demands of sacred space and time.”  In yet another passage he opines that “the design of the postdenominational evangelical megachurch is carefully crafted to meet the highly differentiated needs . . . of the postsuburban self.”  Taking all of these statements at face value, would it be hasty to assume that the “sacred” center of postsuburban spirituality is not so much the small group or the home as the self, the ineffable, postmodern therapeutic self, which emerges triumphantly when all the ritual trappings and social norms of the past are stripped away?

Wilford is a cultural geographer, which is to say that his academic specialty is closely aligned with sociology, and many of his most important sources are drawn from that field.  While he is critical of secularization theory—the view that traditional religious belief is gradually being superseded by scientific rationalism—he does accept the claims of the influential American sociologist Peter Berger (among others) that religion in the modern era can flourish only where “non-religious spheres” are separated from the religious, and where religious belief is increasingly relegated to the sphere of individual subjectivity.  But if that is the case, then surely the flourishing of religion under the conditions of modernity can only occur where religion concedes the sovereignty of the individual.  And if the individual is sovereign, what becomes of the communal and vertical dimension of faith?

Émile Durkheim, one of the pioneers of sociology, looked forward to an era when supernatural religion would be displaced by a religion of the individual.  Scion of the Enlightenment that he was, Durkheim imagined that the authority of science would replace the authority of the Church.  Propelled by the democratic revolution, liberated from the oppressive institutions of the past, sacrosanct in his rights and inherent dignity, the individual would exercise his rational sovereignty for the greater good.  Had Durkheim read more deeply in the works of his contemporary, Sigmund Freud, he might have been less sanguine about the likelihood of rational self-restraint and the renunciation of egocentric desire on the part of the liberated masses.  Even better, had he recognized the wisdom of an even greater psychologist of human desire, Saint Augustine, he might have foreseen what is now painfully evident.  As philosopher Stephen Gardner has recently argued, the collapse of vertical, hierarchical authority has produced not a millennial paradise of rational agents but a hell of sovereign “demi-gods” driven by a fury of insatiable desires, pandered to by a priesthood of marketers, publicists, and shameless politicians, “unable to find adequate satisfaction by immersing [themselves] either in the common good or the higher spiritual ambitions of traditional culture.”  Lacking the centripetal power of “communal integration,” Gardner argues, democratic man is “forced . . . to create himself, to become the author of his own ‘personality.’”

It is difficult to see how the brand of Christianity practiced by the evangelical megachurches offers much resistance to this ongoing revolution, one that will not be played out until every iota of the traditional moral law has been rendered null and void.  It is certainly true that most of these churches remain, at least outwardly, socially conservative—opposed to abortion, gay marriage, and the like.  But how deeply rooted is this apparent resistance to the growing acceptance of such practices in popular culture?  Our therapeutic regime has now acquired an overwhelming power—largely through the instruments of the media—to persuade us that moral judgment is not simply intolerant, but ugly and uptight.  Is it likely that a faith whose mode of worship signifies “a relaxed comfort with the world” will long maintain a countercultural stance against an incessant deluge of disapproval by the culture it seeks to convert?  Wilford hints that the decentralized structure of small groups may itself provide a breeding ground for “politically progressive” ideas to develop, “or for some groups to harbor openly gay and lesbian members.”  Given the therapeutic, “accepting” ethos of such groups, this does not seem unlikely.


[Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, by Justin G. Wilford (New York: New York University Press) 220 pp., $24.00]