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:

"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."

Music, groove, and videotape

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.

Organs have been replaced by electric guitars, hymns with rock-and-roll tunes. Nowhere is there a cross or a candle, and the language is contemporary, with not a "thee" or a "thou" to be heard.

"They have removed every obstacle that keeps people from coming into the Christian church," says Eddie Gibbs, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary. "Plus, they give people a feeling of anonymity. And that's particularly important to those who have been hurt or burnt out in smaller churches."

In addition, megachurches are good at reaching young people raised in an entertainment-saturated culture. Some have created separate services for youth. Many have more of a rock-concert feel to them and use plenty of multimedia.

Take the DeSelles, for instance. They have been coming to Lakewood for 16 years but, at one point, grew tired of the 70-mile round-trip drive each Sunday.

"We tried other churches closer to home," says Angela DeSelle, waiting in line to buy Lakewood T-shirts at a former Compaq concession stand. "But we kept coming back. Our teenagers love it here."

Back in his seat amid the sea of people, Joshua, their 14-year-old son, mutters in typical teen fashion: "It's different. It feels a lot more comfortable here."

On the stage below, the band cranks up as the Jumbotrons display a barrage of MTV-quality music videos, produced in-house. The lights flash and the crowd rises to its feet, those in the upper balconies feeling "just a little closer to the rapture."

One result of all this popularity is money. Lakewood is spending $75 million to renovate the Compaq Center and $12.3 million to rent it from the city for the next 30 years. After the initial groundbreaking services earlier this month, the church returned to its previous location until the refurbishing is complete in 2005.

Victors, not victims, fill the 'pews'

To Pastor Osteen, the appeal of his nondenominational church lies in its message of uplift. "I think it's because our services have a celebratory feel to them," he says, sitting on a coffee table in his makeshift office near the locker rooms. "People feel lifted up by our message of hope, of life and victory. They don't feel like they are constantly being beaten down."

Still, not everyone is a convert to the idea of megachurches. While some admit they are a way to get people back into the pews, others believe they are diluting religious doctrine, offering more flash than substance.

Some even doubt they are meeting people's deepest spiritual needs. They see them as little more than a fad. "It's highly unlikely that significant life transformation is going on at these megachurches," says Professor Gibbs. "That usually happens in smaller group settings."

Don't tell that to Carolyn Anyiam. She says she was healed of alcoholism about a decade ago when she started coming to Lakewood. "I feel the presence of God here," she says, clutching her handbag and watching the millions of blue-and-white paper doves wafting from the rafters. "I would have been dead without this church."

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