More Americans Flock to Mega-Churches

ByABC News
June 12, 2001, 6:11 PM

June 13 -- 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.

Even churches.

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.