The rise of the American megachurch
After a rousing live performance of "Jesus is better than life," broadcast over three Jumbotrons in the Compaq Center, Victoria Osteen steps to the podium in front of 16,000 cheering Sunday worshipers and proclaims:Skip to next paragraph
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"We're going to rock today. This place has been rocked a lot of times, but it's never been rocked for Jesus."
Indeed, the sports arena first opened with The Who in 1975 and closed with ZZ Top just weeks ago. It has been home to two Houston Rockets championships and plenty of other memorable games and events.
But earlier this month, the Compaq Center took on a new role as city leaders officially turned the keys over to Lakewood Church - the largest congregation in the United States, with more than 25,000 attendants each weekend, according to Church Growth Today.
In an era when small and medium-sized churches of almost every faith are losing members, megachurches continue to grow - last year by 4 percent. Their success is due in part to the ushering in of a new business-savvy approach to religion. But more important, experts say, these churches are thriving because of what's being ushered out.
Gone are traditional religious dogma, rituals, and symbols, replaced by uplifting songs and sermons. Congregants are taught that - through God - they are victors, not victims. The messages are encouraging and easy to swallow, and no one is called a sinner. It's "Jesus meets the power of positive thinking."
"There's none of that old-time religion; none of that hell-and-damnation, fire-and-brimstone preaching," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "The message tends to be more upbeat, one of empowerment. And it seems to be working. These churches are packed."
At Lakewood's recent groundbreaking services, Pastor Joel Osteen's sermon - given like a motivation speech - included phrases like: "Keep a good attitude. Don't get negative or bitter. Be determined. Shake it off and step up."
Worked into a frenzy by the 10-piece band and 300-member choir, dozens of slick music videos and, yes, the wave, congregants were enraptured. "We love it. We don't miss a Sunday," says Annette Ramirez, sitting in the arena's front row with her husband, Joe. "The message is always very positive and the music is great."
While Texas has three of the largest megachurches in the US, the institutions have spread across the country, largely in the suburbs of big cities. And while they represent a small percentage of churches in the US, the numbers are growing.
In 1970, there were 10 megachurches nationwide (defined as non-Catholic churches with at least 2,000 weekly attendants). Today there are 740, according to Church Growth Today, a Bolivar, Mo., organization.
They appeal to people of all ethnicities: Lakewood attracts virtually equal numbers of blacks, whites, and Hispanics. The idea is to be inclusive and inoffensive. There's no talk of controversial subjects, such as abortion or homosexuality.