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.
"We believe it is only a matter of time until every state has a congregation of megachurch size," write authors Scott Thumma and Dave Travis. "Americans have not only grown accustomed to large organizations, but they have even had their character and tastes shaped by them."
Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary, has reported that the average megachurch income was $6.5 million in 2007, up from $4.7 million in 1999. About 50% of it was spent on salaries, the rest divided evenly between missions and buildings. Meanwhile, he says nine out of 10 megachurches more than doubled in size between 2002 and 2007.
Among the fears of Ed Young Jr., pastor of Fellowship Church in the Dallas area, No. 7 on the list of largest megachurches, and gaining on his father at Second Baptist, is the financial accounting of growth that comes with mergers and added campuses. And he wonders if megachurches are "just taking people from other churches because we have a cooler church."
Only 6% of megachurch attendees who participated in one of Thumma's surveys said they were at their first church. They appear to be being pulled from other congregations or brought back into practicing their faith after falling off the wagon. Two-thirds of megachurch attendees have been going for five years or less, he found.
A third of megachurch attendants are single compared with 10% at a typical church, and the average age is 40 compared with 53. Twenty-six percent of families at megachurches earn more than $100,000 a year, compared with 15% at typical churches, which tend to have slightly better regular attendance rates.
But questions over tax-exemption status and squabbling over high-profile pastors are growing concerns. In recent years, none more than Joel Osteen, 46, the best-selling author and pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, the largest megachurch in the country, has been questioned more about his riches.
"God has blessed me with more money than I could imagine from my books," says Osteen, who gave up his $200,000 salary about five years ago, when royalties started flowing from his Your Best Life Now. He adds of he and his wife, Victoria: "I don't think it has changed our lifestyle, it has just given us the opportunity to help more people."
Joel's father started Lakewood with a congregation that would fit aboard two buses and grew it to 6,000. Since he died in 1999, Joel has grown the flock more than seven fold. In 2008 Lakewood had a $70 million budget, up from $50 million in 2005. In addition to the 7 million watching on television in the U.S. (services are broadcast to more than 100 countries), about 43,500 people come to the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play, for any of the five weekly services.