The crisis of Christianity has been proclaimed so insistently and so convincingly in recent years that it makes the worship service in a converted tech factory in Parsippany at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning this past spring that much more astonishing. Welcome to Liquid Church, where the faith is not only alive—it rocks.
From a state-of-the-art stage, an electric band fronted by sneaker-wearing singers pump out high-octane hymns that sound like Taylor Swift anthems, while strobe lights coordinated by the tech team at the front of the house strafe the packed auditorium. The pounding thrum of contemporary praise music goes on for 20 minutes, piped around the warehouse-like facility on speakers and enormous video monitors too numerous to count. You don’t want to miss anything, and you can’t.
The band revs up the growing crowd until Cuyler Black, one of about 100 people who work at the Parsippany site and six other campuses around New Jersey, comes onstage.
“Good morning, church fam!” Black shouts at the throng gathered in the club-like darkness of the cavernous hall. “This is a good-looking group out there!” he says to cheers.
Black is doing warm-up today, running through announcements with such verve that you barely notice the popcorn buckets passed around for the collection. Next up is Pastor Zach Taylor, a youthful, fit guy in jeans and a hoodie, groomed like the archetypal megachurch male: an undercut fade on top and a carefully curated shadow beard below. Zach is part of the Liquid ministry team, and he describes himself as “a natural entrepreneur” who, with his wife, manages a dozen Airbnbs in California and Florida when he is not preaching.
‘CHURCH IS FUN!’
On this Sunday morning, Pastor Zach is the main speaker for both the nine and eleven o’clock services, and in his homily, he channels Marie Kondo as he confesses to his sin of keeping too much stuff—especially digital junk like apps and text messages (275,000 of them!). “I’m a hoarder, but don’t leave me up here as if I’m the only one who does that,” he says to laughs. Then he pivots to his main point: that God wants that kind of intense relationship with you, only more so, and not just digitally.
“Pray without ceasing,” Pastor Zach says, reading from the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. “Have faith in the Lord come what may.” To reinforce his point, he brings his wife onstage and, after some playful banter for the audience, wraps a blindfold around her head. He then dumps hundreds of Lego pieces on the floor, instructs her to take off her shoes, and asks her to trust him to lead her through the maze of sharp plastic bits safely—just as she must trust that Jesus will do in life if you believe in Him.
“Church is fun,” as one of Liquid’s core values has it, and the crowd is loving this performance.
From start to finish, the vibe is cool. It connects. And it works when some say little else in organized religion does. “Look around in any direction, and wherever you look, you’re going to find a different answer for why people come,” says Keon Carpenter, head of the Morris County pastoral team. Consider that the number of megachurches—Protestant congregations defined as having a regular attendance of more than 2,000—have tripled from about 600 in 2000 to about 1,800 today.
New Jersey isn’t exactly part of the Bible Belt, but the Garden State appears to be especially fertile ground in this fast-moving transformation of American Christianity.
There are about two dozen megachurches in New Jersey today, more than double the number just a decade ago, according to Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, one of the nation’s top experts on megachurches and congregational dynamics. Congregations like Emergence Church in Totowa Change Church in Ewing, Rutgers Community Christian Church in Somerset, and Bethany Baptist Church in Lindenwold have all supersized in the last few years.
A SHIFT IN DYNAMICS
“It’s basically the Walmarting of churches,” says Bob Smietana, a longtime religion journalist and author of Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters. “While most churches are small, most people go to big churches.”
Some are new churches, while others are congregations that already existed and just got bigger. Thumma says that the megachurch trend works in New Jersey, in part, because the demographics are shifting from the old-fashioned town-based landscape to a more exurban lifestyle. That’s why you shop at a mall and worship at a megachurch.
“As a state gets suburbanized, megachurches are more likely to crop up,” Thumma says. “That’s why you saw them early on spread so much in the Sunbelt and the suburban South. It’s taken industrial areas, and certainly the Northeast longer to really start to grow in the number of megachurches.”
Todd Downing has lived that trend from coast to coast. Nearly 10 years ago, when Downing was on the coaching staff of the Oakland Raiders, he and his wife helped start a contemporary worship church they called Eastown, which grew into a thriving megachurch. When he was hired last February to be the passing-game coordinator for the New York Jets, Downing did some Googling and hit upon Liquid Church, close to his new home in Madison.
“It’s a come-as-you-are environment, and I think that’s comfortable for people from all faith backgrounds and church backgrounds,” says Downing, 43. “I think this more comfortable environment of church is helping to break some of the strongholds of traditions where you feel like you have to be rigid and worshipping a certain way—that ‘God is a one-size-fits-all’ mentality.”
The very trends that are killing old-time religion are boosting megachurches and like-minded modern congregations. Megachurches are generally conservative in their teaching and preaching, but they shun culture-war issues and focus on warmth and welcome over doctrine and dogma. “At Liquid Church, we like to say that faith is a journey, not a guilt trip,” lead pastor Tim Lucas says in an introductory video so friendly you want to give him a hug. “What that means is we are not here to judge anybody or tear anybody down. Liquid Church exists to build people up with the word of God.” To do that, churches like Liquid avoid strong denominational ties, so each church is freer to adapt to the needs of their audience, and they aren’t yoked to centralized, old-line traditions that are dying.
That’s a real plus in New Jersey, where evangelical Protestants in 2020 edged out mainline Protestantism in overall numbers. And while Catholics still dominate, with just over 30 percent of Garden State residents identifying as Catholic, dozens of interviews at megachurches around the state found that many megachurch attendees are former Catholics who left the church out of boredom as much as doctrine.
“Being non-denominational is more welcoming to everybody,” says Greg Collora between services as he nurses a coffee at Liquid Church’s Clean Water Café, a Starbucks-looking coffee shop that Liquid created; it is staffed by developmentally disabled congregants and 2 percent of sales go to provide clean water to places in need in Africa.
Collora was raised Roman Catholic but moved away from the church and fell into drugs. When he entered recovery, he also found Liquid Church, where many people seem to be recovering from bad religious experiences as much as from bad life choices. “The messages I heard were very relatable,” says Collora. “It wasn’t as archaic in thinking, wasn’t as rigid. Coming back to church, this was a very soft welcoming. It felt welcoming as soon as you walked through the door.”
THE NEW ‘FLEXI-DOXY’ CHURCHES
Megachurches also tend to avoid direct political involvement and messages in an effort to be as inclusive as possible and to maintain peace in the congregation. Like the country as a whole, churches are often polarized into conservative and liberal ones, and staying above that fray is smart marketing if you’re looking to grow.
“We are not here to worship a donkey or an elephant,” Pastor John Wagner of EPIC Church International in Sayreville told worshippers at a recent Sunday morning service. “Amen!” returned the assembly.
This “flexi-doxy” is manifested to such a degree in megachurches that many attendees feel comfortable occasionally attending the Pentecostal, Catholic or Mainline church they grew up in.
Whatever you might think of the megachurch approach, it’s hard to argue with their track record, given the wider context of a virtual collapse of Christian practice. Consider that a record number of Americans today say they don’t identify with any religion, an epochal shift in a country that G.K. Chesterton famously described as “a nation with the soul of a church.” The ranks of what Pew Research calls the “nones,” or those who don’t identify with any religion, have nearly doubled in the last 15 years, to about 30 percent of all Americans. That’s bigger than any other Christian denomination, be it Baptist or Catholic. At the same time, self-identified Christians overall made up just 63 percent of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75 percent a decade ago. Fewer congregants mean fewer churches.
That decline has an outsized impact in New Jersey, where small-town churches once formed the backbone of community life. No longer. The vast majority of American congregations are dramatically shrinking in size, with a median attendance of under 65 worshippers weekly and falling, according to the latest national survey from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The median megachurch, on the other hand, on average drew about 4,200 attendees to its worship services in 2020, up from about 3,800 in 2015. The average megachurch budget is $5.3 million annually, an astonishing figure to pastors in the vast majority of churches that are struggling to survive week to week. And some 70 percent of megachurches have multiple campuses, up from 23 percent two decades ago. “Nothing creates new Christians like new campuses,” reads a slogan painted in huge letters across a wall in the second-floor offices at Liquid Church. About 4,000 adults and hundreds of children attend Liquid’s main church or one of its satellites on any given Sunday. That’s down from 6,000 or so pre-pandemic, but like other megachurches, Liquid’s in-person attendance is bouncing back, and its online presence is bigger than ever, about 2,500 viewers per week in 2023.
DIVERSITY AND YOUTH
Megachurches are also more racially diverse than other churches, which tend to be divided along racial and ethnic lines. While some 72 percent of attendees at the average megachurch are white, that’s less than most churches, and more than three-quarters of megachurches say they are trying to diversify. That dynamic is a boon to New Jersey megachurches, given the state’s diversity. Some traditionally Black churches in cities like Newark and New Brunswick continue to represent urban communities even as they grow in size, but the farther into the suburbs you go, the broader the megachurch audience profile becomes. The racial and ethnic diversity in New Jersey’s megachurches is eye-opening.
“The diversity is so important for me,” says Shumuel Ofosu, 25, who was at a Sunday morning service at EPIC Church. (Drive down the Parkway and you can’t miss EPIC; you’ll see the huge building and sign right as you cross the Driscoll Bridge.)
As notable as their diversity is the relative youth of megachurch attendees. “One of the things that really attracted me is the worship—it really targets our age group,” says Lidia Vickery, a 21-year-old from Tampa who was visiting Liquid with friends in May. “It just makes it easier to connect and have a relaxed atmosphere and not have so much pressure of the tradition of the church.”
Maura O’Hare, 19, was at Liquid for her second visit, this time with her sisters, 21-year-old twins Madison and Marina. They are all from Sparta and grew up Catholic, but churches like Liquid give them an experience that they just don’t get at Mass. “I was looking for a different vibe, where people were talking to you more,” says Maura. She likes the intensity, the enthusiasm, the emotion. “There’s so much more love, and places like this show you can come as you are to Jesus,” she adds. Her sister Madison goes to a Catholic college and Catholic Mass, but “I occasionally go to a nondenominational church because, honestly, I really enjoy contemporary music. It’s just a lot more fun.” Marina echoed that. “I go to Mass with my family, but I’m looking for a church I can make my own.”
Style, for megachurches, is as important as size. EPIC Church, for example, was founded in 1980, growing out of a bible study that Pastor David Demola held in his home in Staten Island. It quickly grew under the name Faith Fellowship Ministries and moved to Iselin, then to a larger facility in Edison, and—after one too many conflicts with their neighbors—in 2000, to the current auditorium and office complex on a 14-acre site in Sayreville that used to be a PSE&G training center.
Despite the size of Faith Fellowship Ministries and the renown of Demola, the church’s approach was dated, and everything was declining. After Demola died in February 2018, the church decided to go for a makeover. John and Ilena Wagner were hired as co-pastors and quickly saw that change was needed, and fast.
“It was in trouble financially. Attendance had declined to about 2,000 people a week,” Pastor John says during a half-hour break between services on a recent Sunday morning.
John Wagner had been a drug addict whose life was “a train wreck” when he found Jesus at Demola’s church in 1984. Three years later, he became the church’s youth pastor, then left in 1991 to lead other churches whose flagging fortunes he revived.
Returning to Sayreville in 2018, John and Ilena quickly tackled the administrative problems, but they also invested $300,000 in a new sound system, ripped out the threadbare pews, and spent half a million dollars on state-of-the-art stadium seating.
They repainted everything and replaced all the old floral carpeting. “We used to kid around and say to people that the ’80s are calling and they want their church back.”
The upgrade worked.
PASTORS WITH STAR POWER
On New Year’s Day 2019, the Wagners rebaptized the facility as EPIC Church International. The music pulsates and the production values are top-of-the-line. Attendance has doubled, to nearly 4,000 weekly with some 20,000 regular online viewers. “EPIC” stands for Every Person in Christ, says Maryanne Percy, a longtime member and current EPIC staffer. “It’s a name we felt reflected who God is.”
If New Jersey is on the leading edge of the megachurch wave today, the state is really playing catch-up to a trend that church experts say began in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Church leaders across denominations are in a panic at what they see as the coming collapse of Christianity, so pastors are looking to whatever works. And the answer is megachurches,” says Katelyn Beaty, author of Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church.
This also means that the success of the megachurch goes beyond their impressive growth and attendance numbers; the megachurch style has taken over American Christianity as smaller and midsize churches adopt megachurch praise music and production values, though usually without the mega-budget to make them work as well.
What has also changed, however, and what is also difficult for smaller churches to replicate, is the expectation of what a successful pastor should be. When megachurches first started, the environment they wanted to recreate in the sanctuary was closer to a shareholder meeting, with the preacher as CEO. That’s what suburban folks knew and liked.
Now, the tastes of the client base have changed—they want the reassuring embrace of an appointment at the Apple store, the thrill of a Peloton session, the convenience of a Starbucks, and the ease of a Costco shopping trip. And they want pastors (for all the innovations, men dominate megachurch leadership) who are social media stars, men who you want to look like as much as Christians you want to act like.
The priority is “to be cool,” and to evoke a nightclub party vibe, which Beaty says was explicitly the approach that leaders in the Hillsong international megachurch movement were aiming for.
That approach generated enormous success, media attention and—in the case of Carl Lentz, the New York-based Hillsong pastor who spent a lot of time at Montclair’s Hillsong campus—friendships with celebrities like Justin Bieber. Given that lifestyle, it was also perhaps inevitable that a tattooed “hypepriest” like Lentz would crash in scandal.
Following accusations of inappropriate relations, bullying, sexual abuse and financial misconduct, Lentz was fired in 2020, and the entire Hillsong empire has been under a cloud of scandal. They aren’t the only ones. Places like Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Echo Church in California, Hope Church in Texas, and Journey Church in Florida have all been brought low by allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse by pastors who got too high and mighty. The problems have at times replaced the successes, to the point that there is a new megachurch mockumentary podcast called The Rise & Fall of Twin Hills.
“The common thread in these stories is that of a central charismatic leader who is allowed to evade accountability,” Beaty says. “Pastors are celebrities among their supporters. So how do you go toe to toe when you idolize them?” The problem, she notes, is that a key to the megachurch appeal is the narrative of growth, and popular pastors are seen as the cornerstone to that success. Sacrifice them, and you can end up destroying what makes the church work.
So pastors live glam lifestyles and wear $5,000 sneakers and nobody says anything. It’s the road to ruin, says EPIC’s John Wagner. “We’re here to make one person famous and his name is Jesus, nobody else.”
TOO BIG TO FAIL
With that kind of focus, megachurches in New Jersey and elsewhere are likely to survive and thrive. At this point, they are almost too big to fail. “It takes a serious scandal to stop the momentum of a church with a couple thousand regular attenders,” says Thumma, of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Besides, he says, megachurches have the resources and the savvy to be endlessly adaptive. The best ones have laser-focused leadership teams that examine every service and song to see what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved. “There’s a real intentionality,” Thumma says. “The worship service comes off like this is just kind of happenstance. And, you know, we finish one song, and somebody comes out and does a little informal talk. But all of that is scripted.”
At Liquid Church, in fact, Pastor Zach’s anti-hoarding homily was so engaging and effective in part because it seemed so impromptu—until you turned around and realized that the entire text, including pauses, was projected against the back wall so he could read every word from the stage.
Some things work for some people, other things work better for others, which is why megachurches offer a range of choices, and why New Jerseyans will always have a range of options. They can go to a place like Hillsong or they can check out EPIC, where Pastor Wagner and his wife, Ilena, deliver services that are a blend of old and new—contemporary music and top-shelf production values combined with a traditional sermon based in Scripture and sprinkled with life-coaching aphorisms (“You are a human being, not a human doing”). “The word of God doesn’t just change your fonts; it changes your default settings,” as Wagner likes to tell the congregation. “Okay, we’re kinda like neo-traditionalists,” he says with a laugh during our conversation. “I think there’s a balance between reverence and relevance. But if we come to a crossroad where we have to choose between relevance and reverence, we’re gonna go with reverence.”
It’s a balance that megachurches seem to get right. Mo Coutinho of West Caldwell was raised Catholic, but she came to Liquid Church earlier this year and liked it much more than the Mass she was raised on. “Way more,” she said as she sat at the church’s Clean Water Café. Coutinho was sitting with a friend she had brought along for his first visit, Sebastian Madrigal, 29. “It’s nice, with a lot of bells and whistles. But that’s not why we come to church. At a certain point, I don’t care who you are, life’s going to bring you to your knees.” That’s when the bedrock faith bails you out.
Coutinho agreed, sort of. “I know we don’t need all of this,” she said, looking around at the church’s flash and pop. “But it helps.”
David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, is a longtime religion writer who worked at the Star-Ledger and the Record.