Essay, Profile

The Megachurch: Where Jerry Falwell’s Influence All Began

By | May 10, 2012

(AP Photo/Don Petersen)

The Rev. Jerry Falwell’s name will always be linked with the Moral Majority, the organization he formed to galvanize conservative evangelicals into political action. Certainly, bringing evangelicals out of the cultural wilderness and marching them into politics changed both the political and the religious landscape in important and enduring ways. One needs only to look at this primary season to glimpse that legacy. This year evangelicals came out to vote in record numbers. The recent rhetoric surrounding the Obama administration’s contraception mandate—is it about women’s health or religious freedom?—recalls Falwell’s old culture war messaging. Moreover, it was Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist, who welcomed other faith groups, Mormons and Roman Catholics included, to work alongside him in politics. (He used to boast that nearly a third of the Moral Majority was Catholic.) Without such a strategy, it is hard to imagine a GOP nominating contest that would come down to two Catholics and a Mormon.

But for all his political influence, Falwell should also be remembered for his role in shaping another major development in the life of American evangelical religion: the megachurch. Before he created a political dynasty, before he founded a university, before he molded the Republicans’ base of social conservatives, Falwell built a church. Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was his base, one that now boasts 20,000 members. It was from there that Falwell’s influential political and educational dynasty would grow. And it was from there that he learned the models of fundamentalist insularity and evangelical outreach that would mark his later endeavors.

Evangelicals have long liked crowds, and Falwell was not the first evangelical preacher to lead a church that held thousands. The Cane Ridge revival in 1801, which ignited the Second Great Awakening, reportedly attracted more than 20,000 people, but that was for a revival, not for establishing a permanent church. In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, seating 5,300 people, filled three times a day with members of her Foursquare Gospel Church. But she did not host a variety of ministries attached to her worship services. In 1956, when Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist with only 35 members, he would, over the next fifteen years, build it into what would become one of the first modern-day megachurches in the country.

A megachurch is not simply a large church. If it were, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome might qualify. Rather, megachurches are large Protestant enclaves—averaging 2,000 or more on a Sunday—and are usually located in the suburbs or exurbs of cities, where they cater to congregants through a host of ministries and services, schools, and day care centers. True to this mold, over the years Thomas Road Baptist had to build four different sanctuaries to accommodate its growth. More importantly, Falwell continually added new ministries to his church, creating a sub-culture for his parishioners.

Falwell’s first congregation met in a rented old soda bottling plant. Congregants scrubbed the soda syrup off the floor, bought some old theater seats, and started to pray. Within a few years, Falwell opened a ministry to alcoholics and purchased an old YMCA camp on an island in the James River to host summer school and church picnics. In the early 1960s, as his own children reached school age, Falwell started the Lynchburg Christian Academy, an elementary school that soon expanded into a high school as well. Church groups formed to conduct specialized ministries for the academy, including driving buses of students to the school from all over Lynchburg, as well as recruiting the children’s parents into full membership at the church. 

There is some controversy as to whether Falwell’s academy was founded as a segregated academy, but the 1960s offered evangelicals a variety of reasons to start their own schools. In addition to the desegregation of the public schools, evangelicals were shocked when the Supreme Court banned Bible reading and school prayer from the public schools. Then in the late 1960s, starting in Anaheim, California, and Charleston, West Virginia, parental objections to graphic sex education programs spread nationwide, which further pushed evangelicals to the fringe of public life.

The idea of withdrawing from the public schools was hardly earth-shattering to evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who differed from more mainstream evangelicals in the intensity of their hostility to modern innovations from Darwin to biblical scholarship. Ever since the Scopes trial in 1925, fundamentalists had flown below the radar screen of the ambient culture. Indeed, they developed important ideas about the spirituality of the Church and not being yoked with non-believers to justify their self-imposed cultural exile. In part, Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church reinforced this cultural isolation, creating the equivalent of a cultural ghetto that resembled nothing so much as an early 20th century Roman Catholic urban parish, which also hosted a variety of social services for members.

A ghetto is a statement of separation, whether chosen or enforced, but it also often hosts an incredibly vibrant subculture. Thomas Road Baptist Church catered to people who disdained mainstream culture, and it offered them an alternative where parents could feel their children were protected from hostile influences, and where congregants of every age could find like-minded souls with whom to socialize as well as pray. Today’s megachurches display a variety of doctrinal positions, but they still create a self-enclosed subculture where people of faith can find a place to belong. The fact that many of them are located in exurban areas is not simply a function of the real estate market. The exurbs can be affordable but lonely places. Christians who live in America’s exurbs may not face the derision fundamentalists faced after the Scopes trial, nor the explicit bigotry of the late nineteenth century that Catholics faced. Their ambient culture may be less hostile but it is also more indifferent, more individualistic and isolated, indeed not much of a culture at all. The modern megachurch fills a need, a very real human need. Falwell was one of the first fundamentalist pastors to recognize that need and fill it.

A ghetto offers protection from the outside but a Christian ghetto must wrestle with the biblical mandate to evangelize. In the Catholic urban ghettoes of the past, that evangelization was often conducted by priests and religious sisters and brothers, who would leave the ghetto to seek out the unchurched both at home and abroad. The United States, which was considered mission territory by the Vatican until the twentieth century, became a net exporter of missionaries as groups like Maryknoll and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps brought the Gospel and good works to peoples in Africa, India, and Latin America.

Falwell turned to a different Catholic example for his model of evangelization: higher education. Baptists, after all, don’t have religious orders of nuns and brothers. Instead, in 1971, Falwell founded Lynchburg Baptist College, which subsequently became Liberty University. He would say of his higher education ambitions that he wanted his school to be a “Notre Dame for evangelicals.” The college began its life within the strict moral codes that governed Thomas Road Baptist. There was no smoking or drinking. Inter-racial dating was forbidden unless both sets of parents gave written permission. Falwell kept a close watch on the doctrinal orthodoxy of the school’s professors and students and professors alike were expected to attend the thrice-weekly chapel services. Over time, some of the rules and regulations were relaxed, in part to maintain accreditation and in part because the school began to attract non-Baptists.

Today Liberty University is the largest evangelical university in the country, with more than 12,500 residential students and 61,000 in its on-line programs. Falwell would frequently say that he saw his school not as a ghetto, but as a tool for evangelizing the culture. He wanted the graduates of his journalism school to march into the media and “correct” what he saw as a secular liberal bias. He formed a law school to train Christian lawyers capable of doing battle in the courts with the secularists from Harvard. Falwell even wanted his biology teachers to bring creationism into the public schools. (He was forced to back down on that when the Commonwealth of Virginia threatened to withdraw Liberty’s accreditation.) Liberty University, then, is both part of the megachurch mindset, removed from secular influences, and an instrument for breaking out of the subculture, widening its influence into worldly cultural spheres.

Liberty University has remained active in promoting Falwell’s activist political agenda. In 2010, it was one of the first litigants to sue the federal government over the Affordable Care Act. Liberty Counsel, a legal advocacy organization affiliated with the Liberty Law School, frequently contributes amicus briefs in church-state court cases. Prominent alumni, such as Tony Perkins of Focus on the Family and Shannon Bream of Fox News, carry the conservative Christian torch in their respective fields. Even Mitt Romney has turned to Liberty for expertise. After a couple of subpar debate performances, the candidate enlisted a seasoned speech coach, who directed Liberty’s award-winning debate program for 18 years. Afterwards, Romney’s performance noticeably improved and his poll numbers spiked. This weekend, Liberty University will welcome Romney both as its commencement speaker and as the GOP’s presumptive nominee, a significant invitation which may help him continue to win over evangelicals.

Falwell’s legacy, then, is not only the way he recast the face of Christianity in the public square. He also built one of the first megachurches in America, Thomas Road Baptist Church and, by building Liberty University, he constructed a megachurch on evangelical steroids. By the time Falwell formed the political lobbying group Moral Majority in 1979, solidifying a strong Republican base, he had already laid the groundwork back in Lynchburg. In the years since, his way of “doing church” has left thousands of replicas around the country, and his university has recruited and mentored tens of thousands of Christian conservatives.

But how long can Falwell’s followers remain set apart from the wider culture, all while they seek to change it with their influence? Falwell’s methods, at once insular but also far-reaching, may portend their own demise. After all, the ghetto of the urban, ethnic Catholic parish did not survive its intermingling with mainstream culture. It remains to be seen whether the future of fundamentalism lies with the inward-looking ghetto of the megachurch or the outward-looking vision of Falwell’s university.  

Michael Sean Winters is a regular contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and The Tablet (London). His latest book is God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the Religious Right. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Religion & Politics.

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