More Americans Flock to Mega-Churches

ByABC News

June 13, 2001 -- 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.

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.

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.

"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.