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Big Churches Drawing Big Crowds in US


Mainstream religious denominations in the United States have been losing members in recent years as many Christians have flooded into new, non-denominational churches where theatrical production values sometimes vie with sermons and scripture. A number of these so-called "megachurches" have appeared across the country, with the biggest, according to church research groups, being the Lakewood church in Houston.

There is plenty of spirit in the spirituality at the Lakewood church. Services here sometimes resemble a rock concert or theatrical event. The music is provided by a 10-piece orchestra and an onstage choir, with church-goers joining in, reading the lyrics from overhead television screens.

Close up images of pastor Joel Osteen and others are provided by cameras on cranes and platforms placed in and around the congregation.

At the age of 41, Joel Osteen is a religious superstar, reaching not only the more than 40,000 registered members of his church in Houston, but millions of people around the world through his televised ministry and his best-selling book, Your Best Life Now -Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The book has sold over two million copies and been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

The Lakewood church is growing so fast that its present building is no longer adequate, so in July, the congregation will move to the former Compaq Center sports arena, near downtown Houston. Joel Osteen, who is overseeing the remodeling of the huge building says this will help draw even more people to his weekly services.

"It will hold 16,000 people, where our church we are in now holds eight, plus it is on the major freeway here in town, and we are more centrally located," he says. "It is just a dream come true to come out from where we are to this place, so we are excited about it."

Critics of the Osteen approach to Christianity note that the millions of dollars being invested in the new venue could have been directed to charity. There are also some more traditional Christian leaders who object to the whole megachurch trend, describing it as "watered-down Christianity."

But Rice University sociologist and religion expert William Martin says there is no question that the high-energy entertainment of the big churches is growing in popularity.

"Often these large buildings look more like civic auditoriums than they do like sanctuaries, typical sanctuaries. Some people are put off by that, others are very much attracted by it," he said. "I think you would have to say the balance is on the attracting side since these are the churches that are growing and attracting thousands and even tens of thousands of people."

Professor Martin also notes that part of Lakewood's success has to do with its openness to people from all races, ethnic groups and walks of life.

"One of the remarkable things and attractive things about the Lakewood church, I think, is its diversity. You have 25,000 people [who attend services each week] and it is approximately a third, a third, a third - black, Hispanic and white - with some Asians in there as well, a growing number."

Joel Osteen says he believes people from all different backgrounds are drawn to his message. "I think when you have a message to help people and you are sincere, it does not matter what color or what social status you are," he said.

He says his spirited sermons on self-improvement through religious faith are a departure from what he believes was a far too dark approach by preachers in the past.

"A lot of it in the old days was kind of condemning people, beating them over the head, let them know what they were doing wrong and you would leave the church feeling, 'Oh man, I am really terrible.' I just don't think that is the approach that God has put on our heart. The Scripture says it is the goodness of God that leads people to repentance," he said.

That approach to religious celebration has drawn people from all over the United States and all over the world to this church.

"It is non-denominational, number one, number two you have a lot of people from all over the world, which is very nice and number three, there is no limit, in terms of dress code, or how you appear, or what job you do and so forth. So, just in general, it is very nice," said one woman, who now lives in Houston, but was born in Britain.

Through his global television broadcasts, Joel Osteen's ministry reaches 150 million people worldwide each week. He also tours frequently, filling auditoriums all over the country.

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