November 22, 2005

‘Megachurches’ draw big U.S. crowds

By Joyce Kelly and Michael Conlon

CHICAGO (Reuters) - On a recent Sunday at Willow Creek
Community Church, a Christian rock band joined by dancing
children powered up in the cavernous main hall, their images
ablaze on several gigantic screens.

Thousands of worshipers from the main floor to the balcony
and mezzanine levels were on their feet rocking to a powerful
sound system. Outside cars filled a parking lot fit for a
shopping mall. Inside some people drifted into small Bible
study groups or a bookstore and Internet cafe for lattes,
cappuccinos and seats by a fireplace.

This church near Chicago and others like it number their
congregations in the thousands on any given Sunday in
stadium-size sanctuaries; but in the end a major appeal of
America's megachurches may be the chance to get small.

Institutions like California's Saddleback Church, Willow
Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois and
Houston's Lakewood Church, each drawing 20,000 or more on a
weekend, offer not just a vast, shared attraction but a path
that tries to link individuals on a faith-sustaining one-to-one
level beyond the crowd, observers and worshipers said.

Rick Warren, founder of California's Saddleback Church and
author of the best-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," told
a seminar held earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion
and Public Life that about 20 churches in America have more
than 10,000 in weekend attendance.

"These churches can do a ton of things that smaller
churches can't," said Nancy Ammerman, professor of the
sociology of religion at the Boston University School of

"They have the resources to produce a professional-quality
production every weekend, with music (often specially composed
for the occasion and backed by a professional ensemble) and
video and lighting and computer graphics and a preacher who
knows how to work a crowd," she said.

But they also support "dozens or even hundreds of
specialized opportunities for people to get involved in doing
things with a small group of others. If you want someone to
talk to who really understands what it is like to parent an
autistic child, you may find a whole support group in a
megachurch," she added.


"Or if you really love stock car racing, but hate being
surrounded by drunken rowdies, you can go with a busload of
your church friends. I wouldn't say that there are fewer rules
in most of these churches. Most of them really expect people to
get involved in ways that can have a profound impact on their
lives. It's just that there are so many paths into involvement
that a smaller church just can't match," Ammerman said.

That's part of what Richard and Nancy Sauser of Schaumburg,
Ill., said they found at Willow Creek where they have been
members for more than 10 years. They attend regularly with
their daughters, ages 5 and 7. The 30-year-old church draws
20,000 weekend worshipers.

"Anything they put their minds to, they can pretty much
do," he said, marveling at the power inherent in size. But he
added, "Willow Creek has the resources to effectively execute
on multiple facets of church life," through more than 100
different ministries.

Sauser said he does not attend Willow Creek for its size
but for the teaching and the ministry.

When the thousands at Willow Creek break into smaller
groups for Bible study, the men's ministry, the special needs
ministry and the adult ministry, a lot of life change occurs.
"In the small groups, that is where it really gets good,"
Sauser said.

When the crowds head for Willow Creek's parking lot,
attendants in orange vests direct processions of cars into
smoothly paved parking lots ahead of the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.
services. Inside, the throng moves through the hallways and up
and down escalators and stairs, welcomed by smiling greeters.

Some drop off children at Sunday school.

On the first floor Danielle Jackola of Hoffman Estates,
Illinois, a mother of two who recently moved to the area from
California, has come in search of a church. After listening to
dynamic lead pastor Gene Appel speak on family and passing the
baton of faith from one generation to the next, she liked the
message -- and the entertainment.

"I had never been to something like that. I think that is
one of the ways of getting your numbers up ... to get the
message across but to keep it fun and upbeat. And more
contemporary to get more young families involved," she said a
few days later -- after deciding to join the church.


Scott Thuma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary
in Connecticut, said his research indicates there are at least
1,200 U.S. Protestant churches which claim more than 2,000
weekly attendees.

Megachurches are addressing the needs of Americans who are
disinterested in "traditional church" yet want to deepen a
sense of meaning in their lives. Classes and volunteer ministry
opportunities lead to a deeper commitment, he said.

"They have opened worship to the seeker and the unsaved
rather than reserving Sunday worship for the saved and
sanctified," Thuma added.

The three largest churches are Saddleback, Willow Creek and
Houston's Lakewood. But Warren said the world has far larger
churches, pointing to mammoth Christian congregations in
Nigeria, South Korea and elsewhere.

Warren said U.S. Protestants have returned to the 19th
century roots of the evangelical movement, emphasizing social
issues such as caring for the sick, the poor and the powerless,
and not just concentrating on personal salvation.

"The small group structure is the structure of renewal in
every facet of Christianity, including Catholicism," Warren
told the Pew forum. He said his church has 9,200 lay ministers
leading more than 200 different ministries all over southern
California with 2,600 small groups in 83 cities.