The Christian Science Monitor 12/30/03[Excerpts from “The rise of the American megachurch” by Kris Axtman]: 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.”
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 four 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.”
“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.”
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.