In 2008 Robbie Goh published an article in Material Religion called, ‘Hillsong and “megachurch” practice: semiotics, spatial logic and the embodiment of contemporary evangelical Protestantism’. His research relied upon his observations of Hillsong, a megachurch in Sydney, Australia that draws about 30,000 people to its services on a weekend (according to its own website).
Goh draws out what he perceives to be the differences between traditional Christian space, such as the architecture of a Roman Catholic cathedral, a large orthodox church with it’s many icons, or a Protestant church with stained glass windows and large crosses and the megachurch space. He believes that traditional Christian spaces are designed to create an experience of the transcendent God for the worshiper, and he seems very interested in how this sense of God’s presence is facilitated in a megachurch, which, in the case of Hillsong, is in a large auditorium with lights like a theatre, has a large stage and huge media screen. He believes that the images on the screens, the music, the lighting and even the colour scheme of the auditorium are all packaged together to create an atmosphere for encountering God in the worship services. As he says, the aim is that the ‘invisible God can be invoked.’ He refers to the music, images and everything within the service as coming together into the ‘performative “materialization” of the invisible God’ (p. 294).
He compares the soaring architecture in a cathedral and icons in an Orthodox church to the megachurch sanctuary and argues that instead of pointing the worshiper upwards, instead the attention is drawn ‘human ward’. Since the screens are wider than they are tall, he argues that they emphasize the human, horizontal aspect of the service, instead of the vertical found in a cathedral that draws the mind upward. The images on the screens are of people – close ups of the worship leaders (song words at the bottom of screen), band members and the speaker.
For Goh, this amplifies ‘in iconic terms the largeness and substantiality of the message – the word made flesh, become as it were “material” in the speakers magnified performance.’ For Goh, God is thus embodied in the people on the stage, God is present via the people on the big screen. ‘This is the closest that the megachurch liturgy can come to providing a “direct, even tactile experience of religion” for its thousands of worshipers, without the closer social and physical intimacy of a smaller church, or the heavily iconographic qualities of orthodoxy.’
Goh concludes that megachurches are constantly striving to embody the infinitude of the experience of God. But of course don’t all Pentecostal/charismatic churches want to do this, whether they are ‘mega’ or not? Or has he just observed some clever staging designed to make the viewer feel like it is more of an intimate setting than it is – some compensation for the sheer size of the church? I wonder if what he observed was actually the management of the difficulty the megachurch faces to incarnate the gospel, to be present to people when church is done on such a large scale?