by Tom Raabe
Tom Raabe, an editor and free-lance writer, ponders church growth and other topics in Aurora, Colorado.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Autust 29, 1989, p. 717. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
A prediction of what the future holds for the megachurch movement. Where will this apotheosization of numbers for numbers’ sake end?
Remember the superchurch movement of the 80s, when megachurches were in genesis and the glorification of largeness ran rampant throughout the Christian world? Remember how church-growth pastors the world over set seemingly preposterous membership goals?
How remote it all seems in the year 2005, now that last century’s novas of growth have been eclipsed by a Southern California supernova, an empire builder who 23 years ago brought into existence a huge amorphous web of ecclesial polity, the logical consummation of superchurch thinking. He dubbed it the “ultra-church”:
First Ultra-Church of Southern California, to be precise. I am speaking, of course, of the Rev. Dr. Roy “Solomon in a leisure suit” Dude.
Forget Korea, Taiwan and Brazil; disregard Lynch-burg, Hammond and Garden Grove. First Ultra of Southern California makes the Crystal Cathedral look like a house church. It lays claim to 2.5 million souls. It adds about 10,000 new members to its roles every month, 333 per day, 13.9 per hour and one every five minutes. Dude has 166,279 cell groups, 172,346 deacons and 12,820 full-time staff (9,543 of which are ordained clergy) The numbers are beyond comprehension: average Sunday worship attendance is 552,364, a figure amassed in 11 services averaging over 50,000 each. Worship is enhanced by 431 choirs, 25 orchestral groups, 30 children’s choirs and 16 handbell choirs. Festival day processions look like the Rose Parade. Dude’s yearly “backdoor loss” is the size of a small denomination.
I — along with 29 of my fellows — sat reeling in this vertiginous onslaught of numbers, thrown at us courtesy of a videocassette detailing the history and goals of First Ultra. In fact, each of us had one in hand as part of the opulent “visitor recognition package” presented to each first-time visitor. (The climax of the proceedings comes at the end of each Sunday service when one tag is drawn from a hopper of visitor name tags and a new car is given to that visitor.)
We sat in the Love Room, clad in black slickers with three-inch high white letters spelling “LOVE” on the back and awaiting our guide for the 9:00 A.M. Love Tour.
Along with the grounds and facilities, it was the tour guide I wanted to see. Being an ex-usher myself, I took considerable interest in Head Usher Simon Glibface, the brains behind the revolutionary visitor recognition program at First Ultra. The man had grown to legendary stature in conservative Christianity. Indeed, when is the last time you’ve seen an usher featured on the cover of Christianity Today? (“The Sensation with the Carnation: The Ultimate Usher for the Ultimate Church,” March 16, 1998.) With his subsequent usher textbooks, autobiography (There Is life Beyond Name Tags, Dude Books, 2001) , magazine (Badge and Bulletin, the only ushering magazine including a centerfold portrait) and cultlike following, Glibface had almost singlehandedly brought ushering into the sunlight of ecclesiastical celebrity~To his fame are credited such innovative strategies as parhug valets; tour guides, computerized seating readouts- for latecomers, and Roy Dude University’s School of Usherology. The man had revolutionized the field. It was his brainstorm to coordinate the corps by color-coded tuxedos: sky blue for the parking valets, lime green for the greeters and bumblebee yellow for the transportation corps. To keep his finger on the pulse at First Ultra, Glibface traditionally gave the 9:00 A.M. Love Tour.
When he stepped through the door with the conclusion of the video at promptly 8:58A.M., a shiver swept the room, It is one of the sensations one recognizes immediately at megachurches, one of the permutations of the secular manifested onto the religious — a nimbus of celebrity that hangs above those in power. Were Dude himself to stride through the door, the hushing would be augmented exponentially. Dude has taken the role of superchurch preacher to its logical end. Nobody expects a man like Dude to be pastoral. Nobody expects him to counsel or remember names or recall faces. If Dude spent ten minutes with each of his parishioners, the task would consume his every minute — waking and sleeping — for more than 49 years. No, when church growth overwhelmed the evangelical market back in the ‘80s, the superchurch became the goal, the prize to be won. Seminary students no longer wanted to shepherd — they wanted to ranch. And men like Dude transcended even the status of rancher; they became kings.
We strolled onto the gangway, high above the 52,000-seat sanctuary. Through glass windows we could view, seven stories below, the foyer on our right, and on the left the sanctuary, filling rapidly to capacity. Upbeat, rhythmic music filled the sanctuary as two 4,000-member choirs, one clad in fire-engine red robes, the other in silver, swayed in chorus to words flashed on two of five 60-foot Jumbo-o-Tron screens. The song leader — a mere ant with waving arms from where we stood — loomed larger than life on three other screens. Everybody sang. High-speed ramps whisked latecomers to their seats. Dude would “appear” later, Glibface said. Dude preached 46 Sundays a year, or at least a three-dimensional 40-foot-by-20-foot laser image of Dude’s head did. Dude himself never showed.
First Ultra had subscribed to the multicongregational superchurch model, Glibface explained, offering distinctive worship experiences catering to differing tastes. Thus, six services were in the Reformed tradition — three informal, three traditional — four services were charismatic, and, as a sop to the creedal, confessional, liturgical, sacramental types — I was one of those — they offered “the 9:00 P.M. hour.”
“Communion must take days,” I marveled, envisioning 52,000 marching down for the common cup: “Not quite,” Glibface returned. “We found that communion cut into our attendance by as much as 40,000, and the services still ran well into the wee hours. Once we sang an entire hymnal, one verse of each, during the distribution. Of course, that was before Dr. Dude decided on the auxiliary stations.” Glibface swept his arm over the perimeter of the sanctuary. “Forty-foot doors open and complete chancels slide forward with ministers and everything all set up. There are 18 of those. Of course the speed ramps help. Nobody walks. A person can get from the back row to the altar in 23.7 seconds. But, now he bade us move on as 30 people clad in black “JOY” slickers entered the gangway.
“What about baptisms?” a woman asked as our faces were pulled back from the G-force exerted against them on the high-speed escalator that whooshed us to main level. “We do those in late spring,” Glibface said. “We used to simply haul everybody over to Playa del Ray or El Segundo and do it in the ocean, but the city fathers squawked about extra lifeguards and whatnot, plus 10,000 to 20,000 people in white robes invading the beach area freaked out the surfers, so we decided to keep to our 100-meter, fully landscaped reflecting pool behind the altar.” He looked specifically at me. “For the sacramental hour 12 fonts pop up hydraulically on the sides of the chancel.”
He led us into the “Cry Room.” Rows and rows of cribs stretched toward the horizon. “Three thousand crib capacity, with one-way windows and acoustically perfect sound,” Glibface was saying as we watched thousands of mothers seated beside their babies listening to the service through headsets. “We have on hand 16,000 rattles, 4,000 dolls, 2,000 washettes, and 4,000 crib mobiles. That facility there,” he pointed toward a monstrous bin, “has the capacity to process 50,000 diapers a day.”
Now the largest church in the world, a religious organization to dwarf even that of the mighty Cho — guru to millions in the Korean revival of the ‘80s and ‘90s — First Ultra-Church of Southern California is the quintessential church-growth success story.
Dispatched from seminary fresh-faced and spitting into his hands, a fighting-the-forces-of-smallness dynamo, Roy Dude arrived in 1982 with the charge of starting a mission in the beach community adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport. In a move that made his peers look like disciples of negativism, Dude immediately named his yet-to-be-established congregation the First Ultra-Church of Southern California. He billed himself as the greatest possibility thinker since Elijah; the greatest builder since Solomon. He conducted weekly television services from a rented recording studio. (Schuller at least had preached to people in cars.) Dude preached ‘to no one, yet his technological mastery was so facile that, via adept video splicing and sound effects, his broadcast presented an eerie verisimilitude of the real thing, an eeriness that carries over to this day.
Only after he had received the first 1,000 phone calls, then and only then, did he conduct an actual, live worship service before actual, live worshipers. No tedious pounding on doors and inviting people to church; no struggling through tough days in elementary school media centers; no hand-to-mouth existence. None of that for Roy Dude. He started big and kept getting bigger.
By 1991 Dude had constructed a 10,000-seat sanctuary and set his sights on outdrawing the Los Angeles Dodgers — a goal realized the next year, a year the Dodgers went to the Series. In 1995 he purchased the Los Angeles International Airport when LAX moved to its current home on landfill five miles off the coast (downwind from the 2,000-foot smog fans) One year later, faith projections were seeing reality in the present 52,000-seat sanctuary known colloquially as “the Dudedome.”
Glibface had opportunity to gloss the high points in the First ‘Ultra story as we exited the cry room and gathered about him in the middle of an enormous cavern that, once worship was over, would be instantly transformed into the coffee and fellowship area with — I had to ask — 8,000 coffee urns. We turned a corner in the enormous foyer and saw a huge sign that read, “To the trains,” with an arrow pointing to the right; another reading “To the sanctuary” pointed left. Interior directional signs. Amazing! Basic church-growth principles employed even at this level.
Once aboard, Glibface told the story of the trains, a tale he termed “one of the greatest triumphs over the forces of negativism in the history of the Christian church,” and it dealt with the single most inviolable principle in all of church growth: All is negotiable save one thing — parking. Once the lots are 80 percent full, it’s time for expansion.
“For five years we ringed the sanctuary with lots,” Glibface said. “And when those were filled, we paved lots behind them, and more behind them. Finally, in 2001, attendance plateaued at 1.8 million. And curiously, our lots were only at 71 percent capacity. It was a crisis time for First Ultra. Dr. Dude prayed and fasted for a week on Mt. Baldy and when he came down he imparted to us the Principle of Distance Strangulation: People will not willingly walk more than .75 miles from parking spot to sanctuary. At a ballgame, maybe. At church, no way. We had near-empty lots sitting a mile from church. Obviously, some type of surface mass transportation system was needed. Dr. Dude toyed with purchasing surplus Army helicopters — they seat 55. But finally he chose light rail. We experienced a little backdoor loss from that — 200,000 members. But we gained that number back in no time.”
The train had come to rest in front of a building. I could see the sign “Faith Tower.” I craned my neck for a look up. Faith Tower, one of four 40-story monoliths — the others were Hope, Charity and Hezekiah Towers — stood at the eastern terminus of the rail system; it was testimony to Dude’s emphasis on education and cell groups. He had 13,794 Sunday school classes spread throughout the four towers in classes ranging from five students to 6,000, with an average ratio of one teacher to 20 students.
We stepped through the sparkling unloading station — Christian Muzak urging us on — and into the lobby of Faith Tower, where phalanxes of red-clad adjutants lined the walls awaiting the opportunity to assist. Coffee urns ringed the foyer. Bibles were stacked — seemingly in unlimited supply — for those who failed to bring their own. A huge, four-sided electronic sign stood in the middle listing the myriad classes scheduled, their location, whether seating was available and where the vacant seats were located according to a digitized floor plan. We peeked into Room lA, a 6,000-seat auditorium on the first floor before filing out of the tower’s south entrance onto a lush grassy area the size of a football field, strewn with benches and tables, the ubiquitous fountains, waterfalls, ornamental lakes, statuary and reflecting pools. Rising prominently at the east end of this plain was some exemplary topiary — bushes fashioned into 30-foot figures of the apostles (a sort of shrubbery version of St. Peter’s in Rome) It was impressive, all right, but the evergreen sculpture between the next two buildings was the one I wanted to see.
We zipped in and out of Hope, and there it was. I stopped and gaped. Others reached for their 110’s. Some at the fringes of our group gasped and fell to their knees. Even Glibface, who had seen it thousands of times, allowed a mirific glint to pierce his otherwise unctuous visage. Spreading here before us was a wall of shrubbery, some 100 feet high, and into that wall had been carved four heads, three of which bore full facial characteristics, one of which stood blank. This was what I had heard so much about — Mount Growthmore.
“Doctors McGavran, Wagner and Am,” Glibface intoned in empyreal reverence. “Need I ask who the fourth head is reserved for?” I said playfully, a remark Glib-face tossed aside with a wan smile. “Cho?” I taunted. “Schaller?” But we were off.
“Taking attendance must be a chore,” I said, again thinking of logistics. Glibface plunged into the details. Two main-frames and 1,500 people working round-the-clock from early Monday through mid-Wednesday every week were necessary to take attendance — church, Bible class and cell group. Anyone missing three consecutive times receives a note in the mail. Miss a fourth and a deacon is at the door. It made perfect sense. When numbers are your raison d ‘être, you must pay the price to get those numbers. Knowing that you reach millions is hardly enough. Cold numbers are the key.
But we were running late. The 9:00 A .M. service would be dismissed in mere minutes. That was something I, in my logistical caprice, longed to see. Fifty-two thousand parishioners coming out of church and 52,000 different ones going in. I expected to witness something akin to the last five minutes of Pompeii. Lucky this was not the Midwest in winter, with 52,000 pairs of boots and rubbers thrown into the mix.
While speeding through a tunnel of luxuriant palms on our way back to Sanctuary Station, I decided to pop the million-dollar question: “What of community?” I asked. “Does anybody know anybody else?” Surely, this was the apotheosis of numbers for numbers’ sake — the fulfillment of prophetic voices from the mainline of the 1980s.
Glibface had heard the plaint many times over. His eyes sparked as he leveled me in his sights and proceeded to offer the well-worn 60-member argument. In any congregation of any size the maximum number in a friendship circle is 60, he said. There are 60 you know by name, 60 you visit, 60 who constitute your group. All others are strangers, or close to it. “In the multicongregational structure,” he explained, “the Bible class serves as the fellowship format. The people you know and love gather there.”
“But then First Ultra is not one church, but many little churches,” I said. “To claim the grandiose numbers is playing the ultimate numbers game.”
“Oh, we do have congregational events,” Glibface returned. “Last year’s church picnic was spectacular. We caravaned out to the high desert. One hundred thousand cars on Interstate 15. The entire fleet of Sunday school buses (1,582 54-seat school buses) We had Christian singers, Christian entertainment acts. The biggest church picnic ever. Four hundred seventy tons of potato salad on hand. Two hundred thousand gallons of grape soda, 67,000 father-son softball games, 55,000 co-ed volleyball games, 3 million water balloons .
I waved my arms in surrender, hoping to stanch this logorrheic flow, this tour de force of numerolatry. But, alas, to no avail.
” . . . and, for the first time in First Ultra history, we broke the 2 million mark in bratwursts. And, of course, the event had its spiritual side too. Our annual exercise in proclamation evangelism was an unrivaled success. Every person had a placard with one word of the bible on it, five feet by two feet. We proclaimed Scripture word for word all the way to Hosea 13. Almost stretched to Needles. Next year we’re shooting for the entire Old Testament.”
Glibface inhaled, a prolepsis of more numerological effluvium, but we had arrived at Sanctuary Station. The tour had ended. Streams of people sped past the windows of our halted car, in transit either to the sanctuary, the Sunday school complex, or the adjacent esplanade, a porticoed promenade lined with shops and stalls offering the latest in ecclesiastical amenities. One store sold Roy Dude teaching tapes, another Roy Dude preaching tapes, another Roy Dude books, another Dudedome snow globes. There was a library, a bookstore, a credit union, a barber shop, and, to accommodate the yen of the hungry First Ultra parishioner, 52 restaurants.
Glibface offered us a genial send-off. We handed our slickers to a janissary at the door (who subsequently rushed them to the Love Room for the 10:30 A.M. Love Tour) , stepped off the train, negotiated the phalanx of greeters that had mustered for us — we were each met by a personal escort at the end of the phalanx — and were thus shunted off in whatever direction we wanted.
I wanted breakfast. I hurried toward the esplanade and Roy Dude Restaurant Row. I would miss the service, yes, but — well, there’s a Sunday every week. Besides, where else can you get immediate seating at 10:00 A M on a Sunday?