Of the 75% of Americans who identify as Christian, between 2 and 5 million regularly attend a megachurch — a super-sized house of Protestant worship that has a weekend attendance of 2,000 or more people; some draw up to 20,000. When California-based photographer Lisa Anne Auerbach began researching the growing megachurch movement, she was slightly baffled. “As an artist in Los Angeles, I’m out of touch with this huge demographic of Americans,” Auerbach tells Hyperallergic. “I wanted to know, what are these giant churches that have so much influence in American culture? What do they look like? Why don’t I know them?”
It turned out that Auerbach had, in fact, seen plenty of megachurches while driving around the country, but just hadn’t realized it. Most megachurches are located outside city centers, camouflaged into suburban sprawlscapes. Their architecture often mimics that of warehouses, shopping malls, or dome-shaped stadiums. Sometimes, the only thing distinguishing a megachurch from a defunct K-Mart is a spindly cross on its facade.
Influenced by the typology photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher — who took thousands of pictures of Germany’s disappearing industrial architecture in the 1960s — Auerbach set out to create a photographic catalogue of megachurches in the US. Using a database published by Hartford Seminary, a theological college in Connecticut, she photographed structures in her home state, as well as in Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The images explore how the architecture of worship influences the nature of worship; what the predominance of massive, cheaply built churches says about faith and religious communities in 21st-century America.
Instead of making large prints of her photographs, Auerbach compiled them into a jumbo “American Megazine,” a 60-inch booklet that includes statistics on purported congregation size and denomination, as well as Auerbach’s personal reflections on her experience at each site. This “American Megazine” is currently on view in Wasteland: New Art from Los Angeles, an exhibit at Mona Bismarck Gallery in Paris.
“The elaborate architecture of old cathedrals, like Notre Dame in Paris, for example, channels a sense of awe and the glory of a divine being,” Auerbach says. “Megachurches in America don’t have any of that. One church I photographed was a building that had previously housed a K-Mart.” With self-parodying names like Love International Ministries, Life Changers International, and Pilgrim Rest, the churches have far more in common aesthetically with big box chainstores than with traditional Christian church architecture. The predominant colors are gray, white, and beige.
Compositionally, these photographs channel the typologists’ focus on objective documentation over stylistic innovation — most are head-on shots of the churches framed by rectangles of sky and empty parking lots. This sense of remove and the buildings’ blandness lends the images their intriguing dissonance: There’s a visual irony in the fact that these uninviting, soulless structures are where millions of people go each weekend to nourish their souls. The name of a boxy, windowless gray megachurch in Bakersville, California — VBF Soul Factory — sums it up.
Wasteland: New Art from Los Angeles continues at Mona Bismarck Gallery (34 Avenue de New York, Paris) through July 16.