If success is measured by growth, Crossroads Church is a huge hit, bigger than ticket sales for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Adele’s latest album or Bill Gates’ bank balance.
Those comparisons might trouble church leaders from denominations that think it’s denigrating to compare their carefully crafted and time-honored doctrines to something as fleeting as pop-culture appeal or the fortune amassed by the Microsoft co-founder. It probably wouldn’t alarm any one at Crossroads, though.
The so-called “megachurch” has grown explosively in the last 20 years into what is said to be Greater Cincinnati’s largest church by delivering its Christian message in a way that’s colloquial, contemporary, commercial and, in many ways, far less reverent than traditional churches.
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Crossroads, headquartered in Oakley, is the fastest growing church of its kind in the country, according to a new report published by Outreach magazine, based in Colorado Springs, and LifeWay Research, a Nashville firm that specializes in marketing and research for churches.
That “fastest growing” status was based on the fact that Crossroads reported it had increased its average attendance by 5,674 people this year compared to 2014 and that its growth rate for 2015 was 33 percent, according to James P. Long, editor of Outreach, a magazine devoted to helping churches fill the pews.
Outreach said Crossroads, founded 20 years ago by marketing pros from Procter & Gamble, reported that its average attendance was 22,738 per week, nearly five times the average attendance of similar churches in the Midwest. That figure ranked the church ninth in the country, according to the data collected by Outreach and LifeWay.
By comparison, North Point Ministries in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta ranked No. 1 in the U.S. with an average attendance of 34,558, Outreach reported.
About 84,000 people attended services in 107 Catholic parishes in Hamilton, Butler and Clermont counties in October of 2014, according to Dan Andriacco, communications director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The Catholic church in Cincinnati does an attendance count every October, and the 2014 number is the most recent figure available, he said.
Crossroads offers services in Oakley, Mason, Cleves, Florence and, on a temporary basis, at the Bogart’s music venue in Corryville, where it is trying to establish a following near the University of Cincinnati.
The preamble to the annual Outreach report, published in September, stressed that the magazine made an effort to gather data from some 27,000 places of worship that it describes as “evangelical Protestant” churches and that efforts were made to determine the accuracy of the numbers that were reported.
Outreach and LifeWay emphasized that church pastors, officers or staffers were responsible for supplying the information on which the rankings are based.
During the Christmas season in Greater Cincinnati, Crossroads gets even more attention.
The church estimates that upwards of 80,000 people will attend at least one of the 30 performances of “Awaited,” the Crossroads Christmas extravaganza, between now and Dec. 23, when the final performance is scheduled. About 100,000 free tickets were distributed for “Awaited” last year, according to several media reports.
Jenn Sperry, who handles media inquiries for Crossroads, declined to answer 16 questions about the church that were emailed to her.
One focused on the roles former or current Procter & Gamble employees play with Crossroads. Sperry said some reporters seem to be “obsessed” with P&G people who have been active with the church, which employs sophisticated marketing techniques.
Vivienne Lee Bechtold, a former global brand manager at the consumer-products giant, her husband, Jim, a former P&G marketer, and Brian Wells, who worked in marketing for P&G and wrote speeches for company executives, are members of the group that founded the church.
“There is, indeed, a methodology that is used by megachurches,” said Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College in Flushing, N.Y., who talked about the strategies megachurches often use. Megachurches are defined as churches where weekly attendance exceeds 2,000.
“This is a method that has been skillfully promoted by Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California,” said Einstein, author of “Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age,” which was published in 2008.
“What he did (which is a basic marketing method, though one not widely used by churches in the 1970s) was to go door-to-door and ask people why they didn't go to church,” Einstein said in an email. “Using what he learned, he developed his church to suit the needs of prospective congregants — not of the clergy, which had been the case. Services became shorter, more entertaining and more relevant to people's lives.
“Remember, too, that churches now compete with religion online, so there has to be something that will be interesting enough or entertaining enough for people to leave their homes.
“Megachurches deal with a lot of churn — people come in the front and out the back,” Einstein said. “This means they have to constantly be marketing themselves.
“There is one important, key way that megachurches deal with retention: offer a lot of small group activities so that people develop relationships with others in the church. Then, if someone thinks about leaving, they aren't leaving a building, they are leaving their friends. This is the same thing that brand marketers do in social-media spaces,” Einstein said.
“Marketing is only the packaging that creates the buzz.... The church really needs to have spiritual substance in order to grow and be sustained,” said Scott Thumma, professor of the Sociology of Religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn.
“The most important element is a clear vision and mission. Obviously if the church is savvy at marketing it is able to present this vision in an appealing and relevant contemporary manner,” he wrote in an email.
Megachurches like Crossroads grow for reasons that include “… contemporary music, passionate and exciting worship that is relevant to the lives people live, a senior pastor who is a good communicator and comes across as authentic and preaches about everyday living,…” said Thumma, co-author of a megachurch report released earlier this year.
The churches often provide “… a system of small groups and programs where new people can connect with each other and serve a cause greater than themselves, a place that helps them develop their spiritual lives,” Thumma said.
“Often these churches have a low threshold to come into the community.... They require no nice clothes — come as you are — no special knowledge, like what the rituals are, no special abilities — their songs are easy to sing and follow along on the big screens — no special abilities or education.… They are “user-friendly,” Thumma said.
Since it “went public” for the first time in March of 1996 in a rented room in what is now Clark Montessori in Hyde Park, Crossroads has raised and spent millions of dollars buying and renovating big buildings that can handle thousands of worshipers each week.
The church’s annual report for last year shows that it received nearly $28.5 million in donations and spent about $41.5 million.
The deficit of about $13 million was covered by cash on hand and mortgage debt, the annual report said.
The first Crossroads-owned building in Oakley had been a Home Quarters Warehouse at 3500 Madison Road, where Crossroads leaders invested $14 million to acquire and rehabilitate the building. It opened late in 2001.
In the last few years, Crossroads’ footprint has grown nearly as quickly as its head count.
The church opened its second location in Florence in August 2012 in a big-box building that had been built as Builders Square, a home improvement retailer that lost out in competition with Lowe’s and Home Depot. The Crossroads annual report for 2012, which reported income of $25.2 million, said the church invested $15.3 million in the building at 828 Heights Blvd., between Costco and Pep Boys Auto Parts & Service.
Crossroads West Side opened in March 2014 in what had been the Three River Middle School at 8575 Bridgetown Road in Cleves. In January of this year, Crossroads moved out of its temporary location at the Mason Middle School and into what had been the International Paper plant at 990 Reading Road in Mason.
Those four locations are in buildings that weren’t built as churches.
That’s not the case with the church’s most recent project, the massive restoration of fire-damaged St. George Church at 42 Calhoun St. on the southeast fringe of the University of Cincinnati campus. Crossroads says it plans to spend $11 million on that building, which dates to 1873, for a simple reason:
“There's a new community to reach — students and professors, doctors and artists, neighbors and business owners,” Crossroads says on its website. “99 percent of students at UC aren't part of a church on campus. And we know that half of all graduates stay and take jobs in Cincinnati. These are Cincinnati's influencers and future leaders. These are the people whose hearts and minds we want to introduce to Jesus' love and power.”
During a brief conversation, Sperry, the Crossroads spokeswoman, said the answers to many questions about the church can be found in “Crossroads Context,” which is available at church locations. The 34-page pamphlet is equal parts nuts and bolts — a brief history and a summary of programs for children, for example — and far more ethereal content about what Crossroads stands for and its guiding principles.
The Seven Hills We Die On are spelled out as “applications of biblical truth” that are central to the Crossroads theology.
That same pamphlet also includes a fair share of tongue-in-cheek footnotes like one that answers a question about whether Crossroads is part of an established denomination:
“Crossroads is interdenominational. Our beliefs are shared by many different denominations, and we welcome everyone. Plus, we were looking for a category with a lot of syllables. We think we picked a pretty good one with eight syllables,” the pamphlet says.
Cindy Cecil of Fort Thomas said she, her husband, Tom, and their four children had been attending an Episcopal church when they began in 2008 to sample services at other churches. “At the time our children were in college or high school, and they were in an age group that didn’t respond to church as much as we wanted them to,” Cecil said.
“They (Crossroads) have really great outreach programs, and they’re doing things in the community and all over the world,” said Cecil, whose family started attending services in Oakley about seven years ago. She mentioned food-collection drives, a program to support needy children elsewhere in the world, an effort to combat sex slavery in India and another program that provides Christmas gifts for children of prison inmates.
Willette “Willie” Meschendorf, who knows the Cecils and was brought up as a Catholic, also said she has been impressed with both the message and its presentation at Crossroads in Oakley.
She recalled a few years back when she decided to take her mother, Helen, who was then 93, to a service at Crossroads.
Meschendorf said her mother, a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, paid Crossroads senior pastor Brian Tome a high compliment when she compared him to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the Catholic clergyman whose TV show, “Life Is Worth Living,” was popular during the 1950s.
Meschendorf said the post-service analysis by her mother, who has since passed away, was interesting. “She said they’re not teaching anything new, but they’re sure putting a new twist on how they’re teaching it,” Meschendorf said.