April 20, 2019


Big Box Worship

Florida's biggest church is a $40-million-a-year, 550-employee enterprise — one of 80 megachurches in the state that are succeeding at mass-marketing faith.

Mike Vogel | 12/1/2005
CHARISMA: Under Calvary Chapel pastor Bob Coy, the church has grown from its original gathering of seven to about 18,000 who attend each weekend. Coy's sermons are projected on a big-screen television during services, broadcast on radio and television, and podcasted over the internet.
Everything at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale on Cypress Creek Road bespeaks a high-volume enterprise. Island-themed trams shuttle worshipers from the parking lot hinterlands of the 75-acre church campus to the sanctuary lobby door. The sanctuary itself seats 3,800; a gymnasium can hold another 600 of overflow. On an average weekend, 18,000 adults and children throng four services. It is the largest church crowd in Florida and one of the largest 10 in the nation. The church has a $40-million annual budget and employs 550 people.

After services, worshipers can pick from three on-site eateries: A cafeteria with $1.50 bagels, a teen hangout with $2.50 burgers and a new, 350-seat restaurant where the flock can discuss the day's Bible teaching over $13.95 seared Ahi tuna while watching Christian rock videos on plasma screen TVs. The church held its Easter service this year at Dolphins Stadium; 20,000 people did The Wave for Jesus.

"Megachurches" have been gaining market share for the past two decades. Nationally, there now are 1,200 such churches -- defined by sociologists as non-Catholic churches with at least 2,000 in average weekend attendance. (Including Catholic churches with 2,000-plus attendance would swell national megachurch numbers by about 1,900.)

In Florida, too, the Little Brown Church in the Vale has given way to the SuperSize Church in the 'Burbs, as churchgoers in a car-dominated society skip the neighborhood house of worship in favor of a larger church where they find the pastor, selection and convenience more to their liking. In 1980, the state had just two megachurches. Today, there are at least 80. While fewer than two in 100 Floridians attend a megachurch on any given weekend, the numbers add up: The state's megachurches collectively total 245,156 in average weekend attendance, according to John Vaughan of Church Growth Today in Bolivar, Mo. Texas and California lead the nation in big box worship, with Florida and Georgia rounding out the top four.

Usually conservative theologically, often non-denominational like Calvary Chapel, megachurches typically grow up under the pastoral equivalents of visionary, entrepreneurial CEOs -- senior pastors with leadership skill and charisma like preacher/best-selling author Joel "Your Best Life Now" Osteen, whose Texas church was once the Houston Rockets' arena, and Rick "The Purpose-Driven Life" Warren of California's Saddleback Church.

At Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, Bob Coy is the pastor who puts the people in the seats. Coy, 50, follows some familiar Christian and American archetypes: The saved sinner on a mission, the mainline Protestant turned evangelical, and the preacher short on university theological education but long on relating to his flock. Raised Lutheran outside Detroit, one of five kids of a furniture craftsman and stay-at-home mother, Coy says the ideal in his neighborhood was working 30 years in an auto plant and retiring to a bass boat.

After high school, he did record company promotions before moving to Las Vegas. His life there is now his testimony, including a failed quickie marriage and a stint as a casino floor-show manager during which he concocted a fantasy theme for a nude-girl show. Between the "cocaine use and the alcohol abuse and the womanizing," he says, "I was pretty serious about sin at the time."

His transformation came, Coy says, in 1980 after late-night partying made him late to spend Christmas with his brother Jim and Jim's wife, Theresa, both devout believers. At bedtime, Coy's brother tossed him a New Testament. Coy threw it back but later that night picked it up and opened to the Gospel of John. "Started in John Chapter 1 and made my way to 3:16 where it says 'For God so loved the world' and I just started weeping." His brother and sister-in-law came out from the bedroom. "(Jim) said, 'God just woke me up, and I'm supposed to pray for you.' I prayed and asked Christ to come into my heart that night, and I've never been the same."
CATERING TO THE FAITHFUL: Churchgoers have three dining choices on Calvary Chapel's grounds, including a new 350-seat restaurant that serves $14 seared Ahi tuna. The restaurants are for evangelizing, not profit, says pastor Bob Coy.
Coy became a "go-fer for God" at Calvary Chapel Las Vegas. It is one of some 1,100 loosely affiliated Calvary Chapels worldwide known for Bible instruction, contemporary worship music and a casual atmosphere. By 1985, Coy had remarried and was an associate pastor. A Las Vegas couple moving to Fort Lauderdale asked Coy to pray for a Calvary Chapel to start there. Coy heard the call. He set out for Florida with his wife, Diane, a U-Haul and a lay couple, Fidel and Theresa Gomez, and the Gomezes' three kids.

The first Sunday, Coy held services at the beach for the seven. Over the next 20 years, as Coy built a flock, the church moved from free space in a funeral home to ever-larger quarters. The expansion culminated in 1996 with the largest property deal in Broward that year, the church's $22-million purchase of Harris Computer's property on Cypress Creek Road, Fort Lauderdale's suburban office corridor. Calvary Chapel renovated the site and moved to it in February 1999. The factory floor became the sanctuary.

The church has no membership roll. Executive pastor Mark Davis says 50,000 names are in the church's database but that includes people from other churches who register at seminars and other events the church opens to outsiders. Some 30,000 names are in the database of recent donors.

Coy is quick to credit the Almighty with his church's success. "It must be God," Coy told the flock in October. "I'm not in charge. Yield your heart to Jesus Christ, and if you do, you'll be blown away by what he does." In an interview, Coy elaborates on other causes (which he also sees through his faith): A growing region; a willingness to experiment with how to "package" the church's unchanging "product"; and the same societal trends that have created multiplex theaters and superstores.

As with most megachurches, much of Calvary's growth is directly related to the senior pastor's energy and personal appeal. On that October morning, after 20 minutes of contemporary worship songs from singers accompanied by piano, sax, electric guitars and percussion, "pastor Bob," in a sport coat without necktie, makes his way inconspicuously to the pulpit from the wings. For the next hour and five minutes, seated for the most part on a stool to the pulpit's side, without notes and with just a few references to his open Bible, Coy conversationally mixes anecdotes with heartfelt messages. He is entertaining, animated, comedic, self-effacing, earnest -- and he never stumbles.

The thousands watch raptly, with Coy's image televised onto giant screens on either side of the sanctuary. He does it four times on weekends, and on Wednesdays conducts two teachings that usually draw a total of 5,300.

Beyond the church grounds, Coy employs a full range of media to get his message out. Church services are broadcast nationwide on radio and television. Coy has a weekly column in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and is an early adopter of technology such as podcasting.

AMENITIES: Calvary Chapel's church grounds in Fort Lauderdale include a circular fish tank, an indoor skate park and an auditorium with game consoles.Among those he's reached is Scott Spages, a 45-year-old Davie resident in medical sales who's now active in the church's singles ministry and a food outreach program. Raised as a twice-a-year Protestant (Christmas and Easter), Spages first visited Calvary Chapel five years ago at a friend's request and loved the Bible instruction. "The skeptic in me then takes a look at the pastor and says is this guy slick and putting on a sales job or does he know his stuff?" Spages says. He was impressed at Coy's leap of faith in coming to Florida to start from nothing. "In any institution, it doesn't matter what it is, leadership matters." And, he says, "I was there six to nine months before I ever heard them saying anything about money."

Like most of Calvary's churchgoers, Spages is white. But unlike many mainline denominations, the church is multi-ethnic, with about 10% of the typical Sunday morning crowd African-American and another 20% Hispanic. Spanish speakers line up before services for headsets for simultaneous translation.

Politically, the church is widely viewed as much less diverse. While Coy, like the other pastors of Florida's largest churches, doesn't let politicians use his pulpit, the church has held voter registration drives and distributed candidate position guides from the Christian Coalition of Florida. Both major political party chiefs in Broward view Calvary Chapel, like most megachurches, as Red State country. Coy says the GOP is better aligned with the church's view on abortion and defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

The church, at times, has tension with at least parts of the community. It sued on First Amendment grounds, successfully, in 2003 to put "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" and a cross on a portion of a county park holiday display it financially sponsored.

Mass appeal
Part of Calvary's appeal is simplicity. The service is straightforward, accessible and informal -- worship music and Bible instruction -- with no hymnal, only a dove symbol on the pulpit and a lighted cross on the wall behind. The flock dresses even more casually than its pastor. Extensive additional instruction beyond Sundays is encouraged but only required for those volunteering in certain ministries. The doctrine centers on the Apostles' Creed, inerrancy of Scripture and the Second Coming.

As with mass merchants, the challenge for megachurches is how to cater to individuals in the crowd. Calvary Chapel's facilities run from a 1,180-student K-12 school to banquet rooms. A youth ministry auditorium has game consoles and, as part of the decor, half a Volkswagen. The lower school hall's African plain murals and giant circular fish tank smack of a Rainforest Cafe. Instead of animatronic elephants, however, there are theme park-like decorations relating dinosaurs to Genesis verses and the Great Flood. A warehouse holds an indoor skate park.

An exhaustive ministry list targets a load of niches, including sports, scouts, single parents, seniors, addicts, wives of addicts, HIV/AIDS sufferers, quilters, crisis pregnancies and financial counseling. A focused approach to community-building shows in an emphasis on small groups. Large groups (the 150 in addiction help, for instance) break into smaller groups for part of their meetings. The church also matches people to meet at members' houses to pray and make friends. The church's website can be sorted by the day the small group meets, the city it's in and the marital and family status it draws. "In American society today, congregations have to serve their members," says Scott Thumma, who studies megachurches at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.

Even the eateries are for evangelizing, not profit, Coy says. The rationale: It's easier to persuade friends and neighbors to join you for a meal or coffee than a church service alone. Says Davis, "How do you make a big church small? Right here. People come early and stay late because there's food and fellowship." Plus, he adds, it smooths out traffic flow after services.

All the growth at Calvary Chapel brings challenges. Plenty in the church operation, such as the internet and worship band, is scalable. But much isn't. Growth, averaging 1,100 a year for the past five years, has been constrained by parking (hence the trams and also bus service to an off-site parking area) and the size of the sanctuary. Nursery and toddler space is bursting at the seams. It's a given in megachurch circles that growth slows when the sanctuary reaches 80% of capacity: People have trouble finding seats, locating their friends to sit with or getting seats together. But churches have to worry about the capital risk of building too far in front of growth.

Another issue is the increased need for administrative and financial talent, controls and technology. The church does cost-benefit analyses in considering improvements, Davis says. "We're looking for spiritual return on investment rather than a financial return. But it's got to make sense."

The church's size lets it do things smaller churches can't. The church has had guest speakers like Billy Graham and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also inspired the creation of 4KIDS of South Florida, an independent agency that operates the initial intake facility where child protective investigators bring all of Broward's abandoned, abused and neglected children for care until they can be placed in shelters or foster homes. In September alone, 263 children passed through the center. 4KIDS also has 10 foster care and teen pregnancy homes and its own licensed adoption agency. While it gets support from many churches, Calvary Chapel is its primary support.

Approximately $26 million of the church's $40-million budget comes from offerings. No collection is taken during services. The church pushes a Biblical model of financial stewardship -- saving, avoiding unnecessary debt, living on a budget, helping the needy and tithing 10% of gross income. A full tithe is the exception among Calvary goers. Only 65% of attendees donate and, of those, Davis says, about half give from $2,000 to $5,000 a year. The rest of the revenue comes from school tuition ($7 million, for an average of $5,932 per student), a thrift store, bookstores, the restaurants and banquet catering.
DIVERSITY: Unlike many mainline denominations, Calvary is multiethnic: Most of its churchgoers are white, but about 10% are African-American; another 20% are Hispanic. Politically, the church is seen as less diverse.
Radio and TV are a drain. Broadcasts reach an audience estimated at 1.2 million, but only a sixth of the $1.6-million buy-time cost is covered by donations from the 60,000 listeners or viewers who responded to e-mails or phone-in requests in the last six months, says Rod Pearcy, the church's media director.

Pearcy and Davis won't disclose salaries but say Coy makes below what pastors at comparable churches make. A survey by Capin Crouse, a CPA firm for non-profits that audits Calvary Chapel, found a salary range of $150,000 to $200,000 for pastors of megachurches. The church subscribes to financial practices put forth by an evangelical church accountability group. The Coys and their two children live in a middle class Coral Springs home appraised for tax purposes at $391,650.

The church carries $22 million in debt. And lender Bank of America recognizes Coy's importance to the enterprise: The bank insisted on a $5-million key man life insurance policy for Coy. Because growth depends so much on one individual, succession is a key issue. Churches handle it differently, depending on their governing structure. At some, the senior pastor has the major say. At others, the selection falls to a board, and at still others, the denomination plays a role.

Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, the California church that "parented" all the others, has no legal or financial oversight of the other Calvary Chapels. The Fort Lauderdale church is governed by a 12-member board that selects its own new members from 50 elders. The elders, in turn, are nominated by pastors and churchgoers, presented to "the body" for review and approved by Coy and the pastors.

Thinking ahead
Coy is opening a satellite church, a hot trend among megachurches, in Boca Raton, absorbing a community church. He hopes the satellite will pick up people reluctant to drive to Fort Lauderdale and make it convenient for them to volunteer and persuade friends to try Calvary Chapel. Churchgoers at the Boca satellite get their music from a team dispatched from Fort Lauderdale; their teaching comes via big-screen video of Coy. He anticipates three more satellite churches.

In Fort Lauderdale, meanwhile, a 165,000-sq.-ft. building to house the middle school, youth ministry and adult discipleship classes is under construction. Coy, in his talk that Sunday in October, laid the pastoral groundwork for a parking deck and a 6,500-seat sanctuary the church hopes to move into in 2009. Coy urged his flock to listen to "your pastor's heart."

"I'm not in a competition to have the biggest building," he told his flock. But after 20 years, he says he still has 30 years left. Without more seats, he says, "I will be turning away people for more years than I invited them."

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