More Americans Flock to Mega-Churches

"People don't like labels," says William H. Swatos Jr., who heads the Association for the Sociology of Religion. "And labels are hard to define anymore."

Most people involved with mega-churches admit some congregations swell their ranks with the entertaining Sunday show, feel-good sermons, and an appealing social environment, instead of focusing on the core religious message.

Experts, such as Thomas McElheny, whose company ChurchPlaza sells supplies and equipment to mega-churches around the country, insist that most do a good job of putting faith before entertainment.

Holy Steamrollers?

Others are not so sure.

Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Columbia University, compares some mega-churches with a giant chain store "that comes into a town and puts all the little stores out of business."

"We have lost members in our congregation to mega-churches in our town," says Randy Hammer, a pastor at the 100-member Grace Cumberland Presbyterian Church, in Franklin, Tenn.

With some — but not all — mega-churches, he thinks the medium takes precedence over the message.

"Their worship services are more productions than services."

He emphasizes there is an important role for mega-churches, but he also believes the strengths of small churches can be overshadowed by their larger neighbors.

There are some signs of a backlash against mega-churches — lawmakers outside Seattle are trying to impose restrictions on mega-church construction, for example — and some experts think that, eventually, mega-churches will be too big to keep up with the shifting tastes of American culture.

But for now, they are only getting bigger.

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