Living in the South, I see a lot of churches. They’re fucking everywhere. And they keep growing. There’s so much money coming in, it’s almost like they don’t know what to do with it. Some have grown so much over the last decade it’s like they’re alive, part of the sky.
The Church of the Apostles sits off to the side of I-75, the major highway running through downtown Atlanta. Every time I see it it’s gotten taller or wider, looming ever closer to the highway and knocking more trees down. I keep thinking one day it will encroach onto the road, making it impossible to pass.
I’ve never seen any lights on in any of the rooms. There don’t seem to be any people coming or going, no one there in any of the countless windows that dot the expanding flat stone face. It’s like the building is splitting and expanding by itself while no one’s watching. At night it seems to knit into the land, impossible to tell where it begins and ends.
I often wonder what a church does with all those rooms. What do they keep in there? How many floors can god walk up? How many of the rooms are locked? How many of them have no doors? Are any of the rooms ever full? I get a low weird cold feeling thinking of all the people dressed up and praying the same words all at the same time in a building large enough to bury a small army.
Behind the main building is a parking garage almost as big as the church itself. And right next door there’s a little strip mall, so after service you can shop. Pizza and dry cleaning and god, all in one convenient location.
I won’t be surprised if one morning I wake up and this building has become all of the air. I’m kind of expecting it. Every inch of the world tan and artificially lighted and empty. Nobody else.
I went to Mt. Bethel for a while as a preteen. At some point during the last few months I attended the preacher started wearing a wireless microphone so he could move around and lift his arms up. He had dark hair and a doughy face. I can’t help but imagine him still there now, every time I go by. Thinking of his face I imagine the scalp implanted with some little transistors feeding his sermon into the electronic devices so he doesn’t actually have to speak. I remember all the future frat boys I went to high school with went to this church. I remember eating hot dogs in a gym that had carpet on the basketball court and no one taking to me. The church itself seems to extend beyond time, like if I went back in there all those people would still be sitting in the pews in their chinos.
Since then, the surface area of the church has at least sextupled, but the original entrance to what was the main worship hall is still there. It’s like if a person you knew gained 500 pounds but their face still looked exactly the same. It looks less like a church now than a compound. It’s a little city. There are so many different buildings all attached together, it’s like certain rooms were built to block out the heart of the building from what lays beyond its increasingly wide perimeter. In each little area, the architecture confines your view to make it feel like the church is as small as it used to be, but around every corner it exposes more of itself. At any point you can only see a small fraction of the body of the organism.
The grounds beyond the central building feature all sorts of devices to lure children. There is a playground, a ball court, a baseball diamond, a fitness complex… There is a sign in one of the many mini-parking lots cobbled together to accommodate increasing traffic that reads, “Hallelujah Highway.” Today I saw a ring of minivans encircle a whole long side of one building, the adults behind their wheels just sitting there, idling. Outside the line a mob of kids wandered dumbly or played on the many terrains arranged for their pleasure. The whole landscape is so large you need a map, and so there are signs reminiscent of Disneyworld that let you know where you are and where you can go.
This church has a room called the Bridal Parlor. It has a Drama Ministry. It has God’s Garden. According to the map, one of the areas is actually sponsored by Planet Hollywood, which makes me keep expecting to see Arnold Schwarzenegger come sauntering out of one of the countless doors. While walking around I realize I have to piss, though no matter how many hallways I walk down, each with more doors leading into unlabeled and seemingly empty rooms, I can’t find a bathroom.
The more deserted rooms I see, the more I get the sense I’m being watched. Maybe that’s the purpose: to give one the sense that all these walls are some kind of massive eye. Like you are being watched but no one’s watching.
The eye is tan.
If memory serves, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church was always just one massive building. Unlike the others, it seems more like an insane gymnasium than a church, a super-warehouse made for building religious athletes out of mere humans. Rather than growing, exactly, it seems like the ground around the church is moving toward it, like it’s eating the ground surrounding its body. There used to be a Chuck E. Cheese on one side and a day care on the other, but now there’s just more and more parking lot. The silent black surface extends on much farther than could ever be necessary, even if, like, the original Guns N' Roses lineup reunited to play live in the house of the lord.
I get a really eerie feeling walking around the building looking for a restroom. Though I have never been inside this church, I remember driving past it one time well past midnight and seeing the lights in all the windows turning off and on in succession one by one, as if something insanely fast were moving from room to room flipping the switches, causing a strobe. I remember stopping in the road in my car and kind of staring at it, mesmerized, and then immediately wanting to be far away. Even in broad daylight now the building seems to have no center, like all the rooms are just designed to keep you apart from something buried in the middle of it.
I go in through a few different entrances and end up in humongous rooms that seem pulled from the hotel in The Shining. Standing in long open spaces, I can hear people talking in the distance, out of sight, though for some reason none of the words they say make sense. I keep getting the feeling someone is going to come up and ask me why I’m here and make me leave, though I could more likely just walk around forever. It seems like nothing could ever happen here. I find one room filled with tables all arranged with dinnerware as if a feast is about to take place, the sound of someone vacuuming filling the air. I imagine someone is getting married soon, but maybe it’s another sort of celebration.
I don’t know what these churches do with all these rooms. There’s enough space to offer homes to thousands, though in no hall or window do I get the feeling that anything is there but more partitioned air, long lattices of locations meant to disorient an intruder, or like a soundstage waiting to be put to work. As huge as these locations are, and growing huger, it feels more like Costco than a place of worship. Though maybe that’s how god enjoys it. Maybe he’s somewhere, laughing, “Look at all my empty rooms!”
Tomorrow, I know, they’ll be even bigger.