What Is a Megachurch?

In the last few decades, some small neighborhood houses of worship have given way to a larger spiritual trend. Dubbed the megachurch, these Christian communities can house thousands of people, like Lakewood Church in Houston.

There, the Rev. Joel Osteen presides over the country's largest congregation — a whopping 40,000 people worship with him weekly.

Some believe such large congregations may dilute the message and make congregants feel less like a family.

"I can't put it in words the difference," said Lakewood attendee Mark Martin. "You don't feel as much the one-on-one that you have in a smaller church you got everybody right there. The preacher is right there."

But Osteen says he enjoys having such a large congregation because of the diversity it brings.

"I love the fact to look out there and just see every race and not even just racially, but economically diverse," Osteen said. "I mean you may have a professional athlete sitting next to someone that took the bus to get there."

"I feel like that's what heaven's going be like," he added.

Lakewood is just one example of the country's growing number of megachurches. In fact, there are an estimated 1,250 megachurches, which are defined as churches with more than 2,000 in attendance weekly.

"Their appeal can be found on a number of different levels. For some they're appealing because people can wander into them anonymously," said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociology of religion professor, who has studied the phenomena for 25 years. "[People can] experiment with religious life without having to be singled out as a visitor or a guest. For other people, they're appealing because they offer kind of a one-stop shop for your spiritual needs."

For example, Lakewood's ministries cover the religious, the creative and even offer support group programming. And it's not just limited to Sunday. It offers these things daily.

"Lakewood is obviously a very large church. But they have done such a great job of making everyone feel welcome," said Lakewood member Tracy Jarvis.

The church has created several smaller groups throughout the city for worshippers. About 1,000 different groups meet on a weekly basis and each may have only five to 10 people, who meet in their homes, said Lakewood attendee Mark Jarvis.

"That has been a big part of keeping Lakewood small," he said.

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