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‘Megachurches’ Draw Crowds in US

In recent years, in the United States, millions of people have gravitated away from traditional Christian denominations and into new churches where theatrical production values sometimes vie with sermons and scripture. A number of these so-called "megachurches" have appeared across the country, with one of the biggest being the Lakewood church in Houston.

There is plenty of spirit at the Lakewood church. The setting resembles a rock concert more than a somber, traditional church setting.

Pastor Joel Osteen, sometimes called "the smiling preacher," is a large part of the draw.

At the age of 41, he is a true star, reaching not only the 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.

The Lakewood church was founded by Joel Osteen's father, John Osteen, in 1959. Joel took over after his father died six years ago. Now the ministry has outgrown its current facility and in a few months it will move to the former Compaq Center arena near downtown Houston.

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. It is just a dream come true to come out from where we are to this place, so we are excited about it," Mr. Osteen said.

But critics note that the cost of renovating the huge arena is diverting money from the church's charitable programs.

Some more traditional religious figures criticize Joel Osteen's self-help sermons and big production services as watered-down Christianity, but Rice University Sociologist William Martin says the concept is winning support.

"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. 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," he said.

Joel Osteen's show-biz style and his focus on self-improvement through faith have drawn people from all races and ethnic groups.

"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 says.

Many who come to Lakewood church also cite its open, welcoming spirit.

"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."

"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," he said.

Through extensive use of television and other mass media, Joel Osteen is spreading his style and his message to other parts of the world. The church also sponsors missions and charitable efforts in other countries, particularly in Asia.

"My dad had a big missions thrust over in India and in Asia. In those 17 years that I worked with him in the church, we would travel over there two or three times a year. What he would do is train the pastors over there. There were 5,000 or 10,000 pastors and so we would train them and invest in them. Today, we do most of it by the media," he says.

Joel Osteen's media outreach brings his positive, energized Christianity to households all over the United States and 150 countries every week.