White and yellow stage lights hit the rising smoke before the performance cools down for the opening prayer. The sermon stops for applause as the audience watches a video projected overhead of a Christian-gone-wild beach retreat, where the church baptized nearly 700 teenagers.
Spread across five campuses, Second Baptist has about 24,000 people attending one or another of its programs each week. The church has fitness centers, bookstores, information desks, a café, a K-12 school and free automotive repair service for single mothers. The annual budget: $53 million.
"We are a town within a city," says pastor Edwin Young, 73, whose sermon style ranges from conversational to yelling to Southerner-about-to-weep.
Churches across America -- like shopping malls, houses, corporations, hospitals, schools and just about everything else -- have erupted in size in the last few decades. The number of megachurches in the U.S. has leaped to more than 1,300 today -- from just 50 in 1970.
Featuring huge stages, rock bands, jumbotron screens, buckets of tears and oodles of money, as well as the enormity of the facilities, pastor personalities and income -- over $8.5 billion a year all told -- these churches are impressive forces flourishing at staggering rates.
On a megachurch database updated by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, Second Baptist in Houston is listed as the second-largest based on average weekly attendance. (No. 1 is Lakewood Church, five miles from Second Baptist. And rounding out the top 10 are North Point Community Church near Atlanta; Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago; LifeChurch.tv, of Edmond, Okla.; West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Los Angeles; Fellowship Church, of Grapevine, Texas; Saddleback Valley Community Church of Lake Forest, Calif.; Calvary Chapel of Ft. Lauderdale; and The Potter's House of Dallas).
Second Baptist's "21st Century Worship Center" is being refurbished since Hurricane Ike hit last year. Originally built in 1986 for $34 million, the church is spending $8 million for repairs and upgrades, not including what insurance covered. An electronic projection system will display scripture verses around the cavernous, octagonal, balconied room, which will seat about 6,500 people under a dome that reaches six stories high. There are towering columns and larger-than-life faceted glass windows depicting the Biblical stories of the beginning and ending of mankind.
"You won't find anything in here that is ostentatious. You'll find beauty," says Pastor Young. "God's house ought to be beautiful." Young, a self-described "redneck, blue collar, south Mississippi country boy" and son of a utility-pole-lineman, started his flock in 1978 with 300 attendees -- less than half the number of teenagers baptized at the beach recently.
"It's a phenomenon of this generation," he says of the sheer size and growth of congregations like his. "It's meeting some niche there."
Megachurches, considered Protestant, with more than 2,000 people attending each week, cut a wide swath across the country. In 2005, California led the nation with 178 of them, followed by 157 in Texas and 85 in Florida, according to the book Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America's Largest Churches.