Mega-church in Davidsonville Congregation's plan for 'full-service' complex worries neighbors.

August 14, 1996

ONE OF THE more noticeable religious trends nationwide has just landed in Davidsonville and some residents don't like it. Like a growing number of Protestant congregations that are building giant religious-activity centers, Riverside Baptist Church is proposing to erect a huge worship complex on 41 acres in the middle of farm fields.

The Riverside congregation is currently based in Upper Marlboro in neighboring Prince George's County. The "mega-church" it plans to build at U.S. 50 and Davidsonville Road would include a 110,000-square-foot worship center with capacity for 1,500 people; a family-life center with racquetball and basketball courts; an elevated jogging track; children's play areas and a parking lot for 700 cars. Davidsonville isn't the only community coming to terms with plans for a so-called "full-service" church; This trend made the cover of the current issue of The Atlantic.

Prospective neighbors worry about traffic congestion and complain the center will cause "a disruption to the character of Davidsonville," which is still largely rural. They have little chance to stop the project, however, because the parcel meets zoning requirements.

The plans of Riverside Baptist Church underscore a profound transformation of American churches. While a congregation rooted in a given neighborhood and supported by nearby residents was once the prototype, an increasing number of churches are casting a broader net to draw worshipers from a wide geographic area. Riverside seeks a location that is convenient for members arriving from Prince George's and other counties.

Another visible change is the evolution of such churches into operations that go far beyond conventional forms of worship. Mere sermons are being replaced by a variety of religious dramas. In addition to providing old-style family counseling, churches may give financial counseling, help on "divorce dynamics" or sponsor a baseball league. They are becoming seven-day-a-week centers of activity.

If houses of worship keep growing in this vein, with health clubs and the like, the time will come when they undergo far stricter zoning scrutiny. Already, some communities are demanding that mega-churches make payments in lieu of taxes.

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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