The 23rd Psalm rolled off the Rev. Jason Strand's tongue with soothing familiarity, the way it had since he memorized it as a boy.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters ..."
But up on the 16-by-24-foot screens flanking Strand, the PowerPoint version displayed the updated words "quiet waters" instead of the "still waters" of Strand's memory.
Amy Anderson noticed the problem instantly. She began scribbling notes in her three-ring binder, then flipped to a new page to catch up with what Strand was doing next, watching every word.
There would be follow up: If Strand might slip again and say "still" in one of the remaining services that weekend, the word needed to be changed in the PowerPoint.
"We don't want anything, no matter how small, to knock the worshipers out of the mood of the service," explained Anderson, executive director of worship.
It's a recipe for worship that has worked very well for Eagle Brook, the largest congregation in the state, which holds 10 services each weekend. No longer just a "megachurch," Eagle Brook now qualifies as a "gigachurch," the term for congregations of more than 10,000 members. It serves an average of 11,000 worshipers a weekend -- and swells to 17,000 on Christmas and Easter.
Pulling off those massive services without a hitch, week after week, requires an elaborate infrastructure and precision execution. At Eagle Brook, the drill is plan, plan, plan, then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse -- with the ultimate goal of making it all look spontaneous.
There are a dozen megachurches in Minnesota and 1,200 nationwide, a phenomenon traceable to the 1960s. But it really took off about 15 years ago. Usually drawing members from second- and third-ring suburbs where residents may lack historic ties to more traditional local congregations, they remain the fastest-growing churches in the country, according to a 2005 survey by Leadership Network, nonprofit church consultants.
Eagle Brook has matured to three campuses -- in Lino Lakes, White Bear Lake and Spring Lake Park -- with four services at Lino Lakes and three at each of the others. There are 32 ministers on the staff, the equivalent of 140 employees and an army of 3,100 volunteers. Every weekend, about 650 of those volunteers report for duty.
Most first-timers show up at Lino Lakes, at the cavernous sanctuary that can seat 2,200. Services at the other two churches have their own music and pastors, but everyone gets the same sermon (they prefer to call it the "message") -- in person at Lino Lakes and via video at the other two venues.
The hub of all this is a computer-laden control room playfully dubbed "Houston."
"This way, when something goes wrong, we can call them and say, 'Houston, we have a problem,' " Anderson said.
At 11 a.m. Saturday, five hours before the first service, Sinéad Barry pulls into the shopping mall-sized parking lot around Eagle Brook's modern brick building.
Neither a pastor nor a choir director, Barry is nonetheless central to what will happen at the 10 services that will span Saturday and Sunday.
Her title is "producer." She's a former volunteer with an aptitude for running an electronic control board.
Also among the first arrivals is Steve Duede, who leads the Christian rock music crucial to the megachurch experience. His T-shirt and faded blue jeans are emblematic of Eagle Brook's laid-back approach. When frequent greeter Cindi Franer sizes up the crowd for first-timers, she often spots them because they're overdressed. "A coat and tie is a dead giveaway," she said.
Barry has spent the week developing video graphics to accompany the music. She and Duede will spend the next 90 minutes "working the plan" to achieve the desired effect.
"Our goal is that everything has a purpose," Anderson said. "We want the worship service to be vertical, not horizontal. Meaning we want people's eyes on the platform."
Strand is holed up in a small rehearsal room going over his message. He wrote it two weeks earlier. In the interim, it has been critiqued by the other pastors, refined and critiqued again. According to Barry's log book, it will run 28 minutes and 45 seconds, every word of it spoken from memory.
Strand spends his Saturday ensuring that his presentation comes off as conversational. That would pay off later, when worshipers laugh at something that seems ad-libbed.
"I'm always a little nervous for the first service," he said. It doesn't show. In a golf shirt and crisply pressed casual slacks, he looks like he's headed for the first tee at a country club.
By 1 p.m., the praise band -- guitars, drums, a violin, a vocalist -- is set up and ready to rehearse. A platoon of technical support people -- mostly volunteers -- deal with lighting, sound and TV camera shots for the video screen (the service is not televised).
Greg Montero looks like a cat burglar. A volunteer stage manager, he dresses in black to blend with the platform backdrop so no one will notice him creeping out to move things during the service.
Like most of the technical staff volunteers, he will be at the church for all of the weekend's services in Lino Lakes, staying until 7:30 or 8 p.m. Saturday and then back by 7 a.m. Sunday.
Defying some stereotypes
Eagle Brook started in a living room in 1948. There were 19 people at the inaugural service of what was titled the Bethany Baptist Mission.
As the group grew, it moved to a series of increasingly bigger buildings in White Bear Lake and was renamed the First Baptist Church.
In 1997, the group changed its name to Eagle Brook because it felt that having Baptist in the title kept away people from other denominations (although it remains part of the Baptist General Conference). Within two years, average weekly attendance went from 1,400 to 3,000.
Eagle Brook's attendance explosion over the past decade occurred under its senior pastor, the Rev. Bob Merritt, who is on sabbatical this summer writing a book.
At last count, Eagle Brook was the 58th largest church in the country. The list is dominated by a handful of immense churches -- Lakewood in Texas is No. 1 with more than 47,000 members.
There's nothing new about big churches. With 6,000 members, Mount Olivet's status in south Minneapolis as "the largest Lutheran congregation in the Western Hemisphere" dates to the 1940s.
But there are some traits that set megachurches apart from their big-church cousins, according to Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religious Study and author of the book "Beyond Megachurch Myths."
Megachurches are characterized by a rapid jump in attendance, most of it in the past decade. They are more common in the Sun Belt states. Most -- 54 percent -- are, like Eagle Brook, Evangelical. They lure younger worshipers with non-traditional services.
"The image these congregations want to portray is: 'This is your parents' religion, but bigger and better,' " Thumma said.
Megachurches often are associated with the religious right, an image linked to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the first megachurch founders to develop a large media following. He didn't shy from mixing polemics with his preaching.
But most megachurches keep politics at arm's length, worried about alienating one side or the other along the political divide, and wary of sparking controversy on church-state separation.
"Strong, biblical Christian faith doesn't always lead strong, Bible-believing Christians to the same political conclusions," says a statement in the church's Source magazine, published three times a year.
Another myth about megachurches, according to researcher Thumma, is that they spend a lot of time begging for money. In fact, most take a rather relaxed approach. That includes Eagle Brook, despite an annual budget nearing $10 million. Like a big-box mega-store that holds down prices with volume, Eagle Brook's continuous growth means they don't have to lean on members to dig deep; an ever-increasing number of hands slip cash into offering baskets.
There are signs that financial engine could be slowing. Attendance nationally is flattening a bit, but just why is in dispute. Some analysts say the movement has peaked. Others see it as a lull tied to the nation's economic malaise, and predict growth will resume if the suburban housing boom revives.
By 3 p.m., the church is a whirl of activity.
Youth ministry leaders are organizing their areas (average attendance is 600 to 700 kids a weekend). The aroma of brewing coffee wafts from the coffee shop (also offering smoothies, snacks and sandwiches). The bookstore, stocking everything from Bibles to the latest Christian best-sellers, is getting ready to open. Traffic volunteers -- eventually joined by three police officers, one stationed at an intersection two miles from the church -- are setting up orange cones to direct parking.
In the lobby, Alyssa Mack, a seemingly perpetual smile on her face, starts her rounds overseeing volunteers. The church puts a high priority on making a good first impression.
"We want to make people feel like they fit right in," she said. "That means smiling and putting them at ease. We want it all to feel natural. We don't want to jump out at people, but if they have questions, we want to make sure that they're answered."
The sanctuary has movie theater-style stadium seating, leading down to a platform (they avoid the word "stage"). A backdrop of concentric wooden rectangles hangs in front of a black curtain.
The band plays, there's a scripture reading, then church announcements. Worshipers are told to feel free to move around during the service, even to go get more coffee. Few do once the message starts.
Strand's speaking style is more chat than speech. He prowls the platform, pausing to perch on a stool. He discusses the fourth chapter of Hebrews, addressing the need for rest. But he quickly moves away from the text and talks about how hard it is to find time to rest in today's hectic society.
After the first service, Barry, Anderson and Strand debrief. In addition to Strand's use of a different word in the 23rd Psalm, there are two other glitches: A song introduction that Barry expected to be eight bars long lasted only four bars, and the hourlong service started a minute late.
As their meeting ends, the sanctuary has been cleaned from the first service, more coffee is brewing and parking lot volunteers have reconfigured the orange cones from the exiting pattern to the entering. People start drifting in for the 6 p.m. service.
One service down; nine more to go before the weekend is over and planning starts for next week.
"We do all this so we can get out of the way and let people focus on connecting with God," Anderson said.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392