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'Mega Churches' Bring in Huge Congregations - 2002-06-22

The United States is a big country, and Americans seem to reflect that in the way they approach their lives. Whether it's a cinema complex that houses a dozen different movie theaters, or a sport utility vehicle that seats eight and still has room for the family dog, Americans are comfortable with things that are big. And for some people, that includes their churches. The term "mega church" was first coined by sociologists in the 1980s, to describe what was, back then, a fairly unusual phenomenon. The Willow Creek Community Church, a Protestant church outside Chicago, Illinois, was attracting as many as 17,000 people to its Sunday services each week. The church had become a virtual city, and it continues to this day to attract thousands. But Willow Creek's size no longer makes it unusual. There are now more than 14,000 Protestant churches in the United States with congregations of anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 people.

"The mega church essentially exists because malls exist, because megaplex theaters exist, because, you know, giant universities and regional hospitals exist. The same cultural and social dynamic that created those also has paved the way and nurtured people into feeling comfortable in these large institutional churches, as well," said Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religion in Connecticut who recently completed an extensive study of mega churches.

He said the ministers at most mega churches never intended for their congregations to get so large. But, he said, in many respects, the ministers shouldn't be surprised by the size of their congregations, because their sermons are designed to appeal to a wide variety of people.

"They have cast their morning services for people who are nominal Christians, seekers, folks who want an experience, but had been turned off by kind of traditional models and forms. So the sermons are often 'light' in some sense. Not necessarily theologically light, but not heavy on scripture, not a lot of trappings of traditional church, such as, you know, you have to know these complex hymns in order to participate," Dr. Thumma said.

The message, Dr. Thumma said, is simple: God loves you and will protect you. Because mega churches aren't heavy on scripture or doctrine, as many as 40 percent of them are non-denominational meaning they aren't affiliated with any of the standard denominations in Christianity, such as the Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian Churches. But Scott Thumma said the mega church phenomenon is an exclusively Protestant one. He said there are Catholic churches with congregations of 2,000 and 3,000 people, but in a Catholic mass, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, rather than the priest, is the primary focus.

"One of the key components that also contributes to this matrix of factors that make a mega church, not just size, is the charisma and centrality of the senior minister, or the central pastor of the church. That pastor has to be in some ways a charismatic leader, thought of in different terms and respected in a way that most pastors aren't, but also that most priests aren't," he said.

Charisma is definitely an important part of the presentation at the Jericho City of Praise, in Landover, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. More than 7,000 people turn out for the two different services presented at Jericho every Sunday.

Worship services are a three hour-long affair at the Jericho City of Praise. For the first hour and 20 minutes, a chorus of more than 200 people sings a series of modern hymns, while about 60 girls in white dresses dance, and about 20 musicians play. And then the church's senior pastor, Betty Peebles, addresses the congregation. The topic of this week's sermon is something Ms. Peebles calls the "tyranny of terrorism."

"Tyranny, this is God speaking, this ain't me will be far from you! And you will have. What was that? You will have, you will have. Look at somebody and say 'No Thing' to fear. And then the word of God said, 'If you don't understand that, let me break it down further. It will not come.' Shout Hallelujah!" Ms. Peebles said to the congregation.

The Jericho City of Praise wasn't always so big. It started out as a small Baptist church in Washington, D.C., back in 1963. Betty Peebles' husband, John, who has since died, was the pastor at the time. By the early 1980s, the congregation had grown to more than 800 people, and the church was moved to a bigger facility outside the city. The congregation now meets in an ampitheater that seats 5,000 people. In 1984, the Peebles broke with the Baptist Church, because Betty wanted to become a pastor, and Baptist women aren't allowed to preach. Betty Peebles said the massive size of the Jericho City of Praise isn't just an American thing it's a Christian thing.

"In order to touch the masses, you must be one of the masses. And that did not just come from me. That comes from the Lord Jesus Christ," she said. "He said to the disciples one day, and he could only minister to the 12, he said 'I can only minister to you, but it's expedient that I go away. You will not be limited like I am to just you.' He said, 'But you will be able to minister to masses.' So, coming back to Jericho, I believe even the greater the numbers, the more people we'll be able to touch."

The Jericho City of Praise and other mega churches touch people through more than just their Sunday sermons. Many churches have athletic facilities and restaurants on their complexes, so that people don't have to leave the church to exercise and eat. The Jericho City of Praise has a fully accredited, two-year college on its complex, so people don't have to leave to earn a degree. And soon, some church members won't even have to leave to live. Jericho is building a retirement home next to the main ampitheater, where elderly members who don't want to be by themselves will be able to live in a dormitory-style environment. Betty Peebles said this is all part of the church's obligation to minister to the masses.