Megachurches in America: Where Bigger Is Better

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm Steve Ember.  Big, and growing bigger.  That describes our subject this week: megachurches in America.


In nineteen sixty-one, five families near Washington, D.C., formed a Protestant church in McLean, Virginia.  Over time, the church grew, especially after nineteen eighty.  That was when a clergyman named Lon Solomon became the new minister.

As he brought in more and more families, the church needed more and more space.  Today, as many as twelve thousand people attend services each week.  The McLean Bible Church is not just big.  It is a megachurch.

Scott Thumma works in the Institute for Religion Research at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.  He has started a new project on megachurches with Dave Travis and Warren Bird of the Leadership Network.  The researchers define a megachurch as a church where more than two thousand people attend services each week.

The men already have found at least one thousand two hundred megachurches in the United States, higher than earlier estimates.  They say up to twelve million people could be members of these churches.

The research has identified huge Protestant churches in forty-five of the fifty states.  Most are in Texas, California and Georgia.  The Texas cities of Dallas and Houston together have fifty-six megachurches.

Western Christianity is divided mainly between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Megachurches in America are usually Protestant.  Many of these are connected with the Southern Baptists.  But many others are independent or nondenominational.

Scott Thumma says the United States has about three hundred twenty thousand Protestant churches.  Most are far smaller than the less than one-half of one percent identified as megachurches.

Research a few years ago found that less than ten percent of American churches averaged one thousand people at their services.  Only fifty or one hundred adults are active in some churches.

Even the smallest church can serve its people well.  Yet some lack enough members to provide money for programs.

Many small churches are mainline churches.  "Mainline" suggests moderate.  But many people are no longer satisfied with the established ways.  In the last forty years, most mainline churches have failed to grow or have lost members.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said its membership last year was less than five million.  The church said this was the first time in more than twenty years that membership was that low.

The government does not count people by religion, so there are no official numbers.  But estimates show that just over one-half of Americans are Protestant.  About one-fourth are Roman Catholic.

Catholics, however, are the largest single religious group in America.  That is because Protestants are divided into many denominations.

A two thousand two estimate found that two percent of Americans were Mormon, one percent Jewish and one percent Muslim.  Ten percent were members of other religions, and another ten percent belonged to no religion.

Researchers have found that the largest percentage of megachurches identify their congregations as evangelical.  Evangelicals say they are guided by the life and teachings of Jesus and his followers, especially as contained in the Gospels.  The Gospels are four books of the New Testament in the Christian Bible.

Greg Laurie is an evangelical minister based in California.  He travels around and holds huge prayer gatherings called Harvest Crusades.  These events try to get more people to become Christians.

Politically, some evangelicals identify themselves as liberal or progressive.

But many other evangelicals share the beliefs of what people call the Christian right -- right of the political center.  This movement is strongly conservative on social values and other issues.

Religious conservatives helped elect President Bush in two thousand and again last year.  They support his positions against same-sex marriage and the freedom to end unwanted pregnancies.  His position against stem-cell research when it destroys embryos is also popular among evangelicals.

And so is the president's nomination of Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court.  Rod Parsley leads a megachurch in Ohio.  Reverend Parsley also leads an organization called the Center for Moral Clarity.  Its Web site says Judge Roberts will judge laws, not make them.  It urges people to sign an electronic petition to support him in his Senate confirmation hearings next month.


In two thousand one, researchers announced findings of a study called the Faith Communities Today Project, or FACT.  The study took place in nineteen ninety-nine.  It showed that attendance at megachurches had increased by an average of ninety percent over twenty years.

The researchers received information from one hundred fifty-three of six hundred places identified as megachurches.

The study found that most megachurches are in communities around large cities.  People of different races join megachurches.  The majority are neither rich nor poor.  Many did not belong to any other church before they joined.

Services in megachurches generally use less of the religious language traditionally found in mainline churches.  Lon Solomon at the McLean Bible Church in Virginia buys time on local radio.  He calls his one-minute messages "Not a Sermon, Just a Thought."


Now, we look inside one of America's largest churches.  Lakewood Church in Texas holds services where the Houston Rockets used to play basketball.  The church spent ninety-five million dollars to redesign a sports center.  It can hold sixteen thousand people.  Around the building are Internet computer stations and places to play religious video games.

The Lakewood Church started in an empty feed store in nineteen fifty-nine.  When the man who started it died, he left the leadership of the church to his son.

Joel Osteen is not schooled in religious studies.  In fact, Reverend Osteen left college after one year.  People sometimes say he avoids major questions like why good people suffer and what is God like.  But he clearly appeals to thousands.  People call him a rock star.

Members of some megachurches do not even have to all sit in the same building.  Satellite television and the Internet let them watch and pray from other gathering places, from their home or from wherever they are.

Like in any big organization, individuals in a megachurch could feel lost in a crowd.  So the churches do what they can.  The Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, is a good example.  It has two thousand six hundred small groups for people who share common interests.  These groups offer a chance to make new friends.  There are also chances to help the needy in the community.

Rick Warren leads the Saddleback Church.  He also writes books.  He has sold millions of copies of "The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?"

This book became even better known earlier this year after a series of events in Atlanta, Georgia.  This is what officials say happened: A prisoner armed with a gun fled a courthouse.  He killed a judge and three other people.  Later, he seized a young woman named Ashley Smith and held her hostage in her home.

She had read "The Purpose-Driven Life."  She shared thoughts from the book with the man.  He let her leave, unharmed.  Ashley Smith called the police and the suspect surrendered.

We talked to a clergyman in Maryland who is concerned about the lack of growth in his mainline church.  This is what he told us: "Our people do not want the church to be extremely large.  But megachurches offer people a warm welcome and a feeling of belonging.  Mainline churches could borrow some of their methods."

Other countries also have megachurches.  And they are not a new idea in America.  Some existed here more than sixty years ago.  Megachurches are not for everyone.  Some say they are too big, too political and too untraditional. But, for others, the appeal today is clearly growing.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm Steve Ember.  Our programs are on the Web at  To send us e-mail, write to  Please join us next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.