Mega-Churches Offer Prayer, Play, Shopping

Americans are known for their love of "super-sizing" -- from French fries to cars to houses -- and on this Easter Sunday, many Americans are celebrating on a much larger scale, in huge congregations known as "mega-churches," where people can do much more than just worship.

These mega-churches are places where members can not only pray, but work out in a gym, eat at a food court or browse in a bookstore. And they are becoming more popular across the country.

All-in-One Churches

For the Ellis family of Plano, Texas, church is not some chore to attend to on Easter Sunday. It's not even just a Sunday outing. The Ellises spend as much time at Prestonwood Baptist Church as they do at their home.

"In our family we almost kid, because we spend so much time up here, just because we love it," said Johnson Ellis. "There's just a lot of fun things up here."

Prestonwood is not a simple church -- its sprawling campus covers 140 acres.

Dad works out at Prestonwood, and mom, Beth, teaches religion. The kids, Graham and Sheridan, hang out in the children's section, and their older sister, Landen, goes to school at Prestonwood and sings in the choir.

Prestonwood has sports fields, an arcade, small bible-study groups and a bookstore on what is called Main Street. There is even a food court where the Ellises frequently eat, complete with a Starbucks.

For the Ellis kids, church is actually fun.

"It's not like, 'Oh, gosh, I have to go to church and be bored and have them spit scripture in my face,' " said Landen. "It's like it's fun and they make it great to learn."

Worshipping With Thousands

Prestonwood's worship center seats 7,000, but even that isn't big enough to hold all of the members.

Every weekend, there are three services to accommodate Prestonwood's membership of 24,000 people.

"It's like a small town in a big city. And what a blessing to be able to come together with people with like values," said Beth Ellis.

The Rev. Jack Graham is astounded by the seemingly unending flood of people wanting to join the church.

"It truly is remarkable to me," the pastor said. "I give an invitation every week, invite people to come forward to accept Christ or to join the church. And they just keep coming forward."

Mega-Churches Are Big Business

Mega-churches are booming all over the country, not just in the South.

Scott Thumma, a theologian at Hartford Seminary, compares the phenomenon to shopping at a place like Wal-Mart.

"Just as if you go to a Wal-Mart, you can get all of your lists done in one place, it's sort of one-stop shopping for spirituality as well," Thumma said.

He estimates there are about 850 to 900 mega-churches in the United States now -- each one with more than 2,000 members. That's about 10 times as many as there were in the 1970s.

Mega-churches are also mega-businesses. Prestonwood's annual budget is $25 million, and members are expected to tithe at least 10 percent of their income.

Consumerism Run Amok?

Not everyone has bought into the idea that bigger is better when it comes to church.

Randall Balmer, a theology professor at Barnard College in New York says, "It is in many ways consumerism run amok."

Balmer worries these mega-congregations are too isolated and emphasize consumerism over public service.

"I worry about a congregation so enmeshed into say, for example, a suburban, white, middle-class mentality," he said. "I worry that the full gospel isn't being communicated to these people."

Prestonwood Looks to Get Even Bigger

But the Ellis family says community service is a huge part of what they do here. They agree the size of the place can be overwhelming at first, but for their family, they say, it works.

Beth Ellis says Prestonwood is just keeping up with the fast pace of American life.

"You know, the culture is giving our kids a lot of fast-paced media and all different things that are moving along," she said. "Why can't the church keep up and do the same thing for our kids and for us?"

Johnson Ellis says Prestonwood has been good for family stability.

"Beth and I have been married for about 19 years here in a couple of months," he said. "Really the church is part of the glue, I think, that holds our family together."

There are other practical concerns surrounding mega-churches, such as traffic and the fear that they are putting smaller churches "out of business."

Graham argues that getting more people interested in religious services can only be good for all churches. And Prestonwood is hoping to do just that and looking for ways to expand its 24,000-member base.

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