Bigger is better in America — apparently even when it comes to God.
From super-sized drinks to SUVs to big-screen TVs, cineplexes and houses in the suburbs — even Americans themselves — just about everything in the United States has been getting steadily larger.
While Americans have been shying away from religion, and church attendance has been slipping, at least one brand of worship has been bucking the religious trend, getting bigger in every way.
Mega-churches, giant houses of worship that draw congregations of up to 20,000 to weekend services, are thriving, and super-sized houses of worship have become fixtures of America's religious landscape, in spite of criticism from some traditionalists that they are a sort of "religion lite."
"They're still growing very quickly, and there's a lot of them that are springing up," says Brad Smith, head of the Leadership Network, a private foundation that works with churches nationwide and oversees the Large Church Network.
Food Courts, Rock Climbing and Jesus
Mariners Church, located in the affluent suburbs south of Los Angeles, is embarking on a 10-year expansion project with a 4,000-seat worship center, an artificial lake, food court, coffee house, and recreational attractions including a rock-climbing wall and jumbo video screens.
Willow Creek Community Church, the Chicago-area congregation that has led the mega-church phenomenon over the past three decades, draws up to 20,000 worshippers every weekend to its mammoth facility.
It too features its own bookstore and coffee house, among other services. Its $70 million expansion plan includes a new 7,200-seat auditorium.
The Numbers Add Up
The overall percentage of Americans who get their religion in a big way is still small compared to those who get it in a more traditional setting. But small is only relative when congregations number in the thousands.
Of the 300,000 to 400,000 churches in America, between 5 percent and 10 percent average more than 1,000 members, according to numerous studies.
Not all of them fit the mega-church mold, leaving the number of Americans who regularly attend a mega-church between 2 million and 5 million, instead of the 6 million to 12 million that might be expected.
The growth comes as overall church attendance has slipped nearly 20 percent in the past 10 years, according to Barna research, a polling firm that focuses on religious issues. Barna says 40 percent of the nation goes to church on a typical Sunday, down from 49 percent in 1991.
Size Is an Attraction
At least part of the appeal of mega-churches is their sheer size.
"I think they really do resonate with who we are as a large, mass society," says Scott Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who has studied mega-churches extensively.
"As long as we idolize Britney Spears and go to major rock concerts, we're going to appreciate that sort of 'quality worship,'" he says.
Mega-churches also often have a virtually complete social environment, featuring sports and recreation facilities such as basketball courts, pools, or roller-skating rinks. Some have movie theaters and retirement homes built into their complexes.
Size Breeds Variety
Beyond their physical resources, mega-churches offer a broad spectrum of small groups, clubs, and programs for members and sometimes also the community at large.