More Americans Flock to Mega-Churches

The list of activities can sound like the offerings at a Club Med or a small liberal arts college: poetry workshops, creative writing, singles groups, job fairs, vocational training, musical lessons, and even auto repair clinics.

"What people demand today is probably more than what a small church can offer," says Brian Norkaitis, a senior pastor at Mariners Church.

Mariners provides "a place basically where you can spend a day at church," he explains. "Spend time with friends and family. Go to a coffee house. Spend time with God with friends."

Logistics Are Large, Too

Being big can create logistical problems, however.

At Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., seven volunteers used to spend 30 hours a week filling communion cups for the 14,000 people that regularly attend weekend services.

A member of the congregation solved the weekly labor crunch by inventing a steel and plastic machine that can fill up thousands of cups a hour.

Some mega-church members admit they were apprehensive about getting lost in the crowd of a big congregation.

"I kind of resisted it, because it's nice to be cozy," says Beverly Smith, who joined Mariners Church in 1978 when it served just a handful of people. But she has come to appreciate the resources of a big church.

"I love the depth and breadth of the church because of the size," she says.

An Inviting, Informal Approach

Beyond their size and resources, mega-churches also differ in their attitudes to Christianity.

Willow Creek is "always thinking what would people who are unchurched think?" says David Staal, the church's communications director.

Mega-church leaders insist they are not trying to compete with small churches, but are reaching out to people who aren't frequent church-goers.

"Our heart would be that our church would touch the lives of many people," says Rick Donald, pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Ill., which draws 4,000 people a week.

To draw people, they use an inviting, informal approach, with well-produced dramatic shows, sermons relevant to their congregants' lives, and catchy jazz and pop music. When it was founded in the early 1970s, Willow Creek set out explicitly to research what people did and didn't like about going to church, and tailored their services accordingly.

The low-pressure atmosphere of Mariners Church helped convince Lorraine Hanson to join, she says.

"In some ways you can maintain a sense of anonymity if you want to," she says. "It's very non-threatening."

Hanson says she attended weekend services for a year before deciding to join.

Popular in Growth Areas

Mega-churches are typically strongest in areas of recent growth. Their regular attendants are more suburban, more predominantly white, and younger than smaller churches.

They are more likely than small congregations to say they are in good financial shape and that they have plenty of volunteers, according to a recent survey by the Hartford Seminary.

While they conjure up images of suburban, mostly white congregations, there are also urban mega-churches, and many whose membership is predominantly black. One of the largest is Potter's House, a 26,000-member church in Dallas, which features a facility the size of two football fields, and a computer-controlled 8,000 seat sanctuary.

Most mega-churches have a conservative theology, with a Bible-centered approach to Christianity that puts little emphasis on denomination.

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