Joel Osteen draws the largest weekly church crowd in America - 30,000, at three services. Rick Warren counsels pastors and political leaders in many countries (and has the bestselling nonfiction book in US history). Bill Hybels's Willow Creek Association mentors more than 11,000 churches.
These high-profile pastors are helping shape a religious phenomenon that has taken off in the United States. The number of megachurches - Protestant congregations with regular weekly attendance of more than 2,000 - has doubled over the past five years, according to a national study released on Feb. 3.
Megachurches Today 2005, a survey conducted by researchers at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and Leadership Network in Dallas, has identified 1,210 American megachurches with an average weekly attendance of 3,612. Not surprisingly, the great majority are in the South, yet megachurches now can be found in all regions of the country.
While the phenomenon has developed over decades and represents only 0.5 percent of all US churches, the rising influence of megachurches reaches beyond their own congregations. They are changing the nature of worship and developing networks that help revitalize other churches and redefine church ties with other countries.
"Their influence can't be exaggerated," says Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. "They set an example for other congregations that stirs them to experiment."
The study debunks many myths about supersized congregations. The vast majority, it turns out, are not politically active. Nor are they homogenous: On average, 19 percent of the congregation is a nonmajority group; 56 percent of churches are making efforts to be racially inclusive.
They are not mostly independent churches; two-thirds are affiliated with denominations. And they are part of a broader trend found in other research: a growing concentration of worshipers in the largest churches.
"Something is happening that is leading more and more people to shift from smaller to bigger congregations within all denominations, liberal and conservative," says Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona. His research shows, for example, that 15 percent of Southern Baptists attend the largest 1 percent of their churches.
What's the appeal of large churches? Commentators' favorite explanation has long been a baby-boomer desire for anonymity. People close to the scene say that may have been true 25 years ago, but not today. They see a cultural shift in which people are comfortable in big institutions. Yet most compelling, they suggest, is the expectation of quality.
"Today people demand quality, even if it's subconscious," says David Travis of Leadership Network, a church consultant group. "They find quality almost everywhere else in their lives and expect it in all venues - music, visuals, preaching, written communications."
The cost of running churches has increased, and it's increasingly difficult for small churches to deliver that level of quality, Dr. Chaves says.
The founder in 1992 of a new church that is now home to 3,000 members (70 percent formerly "unchurched") sees it a bit differently: "Churches don't get large by accident - there is an outreach of spirit, a heart for reaching people outside the church," says the Rev. James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C.
The Hartford study confirms that, while most megachurches have a range of evangelism programs, what most contributes to their growth is word-of-mouth, enthusiastic members reaching out to neighbors.
Megachurches are successful because they attract and retain more people over time. They have hospitality programs, hold orientation classes, encourage participation in fellowship groups or volunteer community service. In short, they make people feel at home.
What newcomers are after, Dr. White says, "is a sense of spirituality; they want the transcendent in their lives. And they are hungry for relationships, to be interactive as they carry on their search for God."
While many are seeking community, worship remains the central focus of the church, the study shows. It's also a myth that megachurches grow by offering "theology lite." The churches generally hold strong beliefs; have a clear mission and purpose; and have high expectations for scriptural study, prayer, and tithing.
Yet there are many varieties of megachurches, in size and emphasis. The study finds that 54 percent have between 2,000 and 3,000 members. Only 4 percent have more than 10,000. Those founded since 1991 are more likely to be nondenominational and have a significantly younger membership and a higher median attendance. But not all megachurches are new: Nearly one-third of them were founded 60 or more years ago.
Edmund Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., identifies at least four megachurch types: those that focus strongly on teaching, as in the Baptist tradition; seeker-sensitive churches aimed at evangelizing the unchurched; those that preach the "prosperity gospel" - "promising health and wealth without challenging priorities"; and youth- oriented churches with leaders that relate to popular culture.
"People say younger people aren't looking for a large church ... but if you look where they go, they're attending them in droves," says Mr. Travis. "And young pastors are podcasting their sermons."
Worship remains the central activity, with respondents overwhelmingly describing that experience as "joyful, inspirational, spiritually vital, thought-provoking, filled with a sense of God's presence."
Most incorporate contemporary music styles (93 percent use electric guitars or bass and drums). Nearly all use visual projection equipment. Styles of worship continually evolve. The churches growing most quickly are those that welcome innovation and change, the study says.
What enables many to keep growing - some to astounding size? "There's an understanding of small groups and how to systematically structure and staff them," says Travis, who works closely with large churches. Then there's the application of communications and database technologies, and development of leadership and strategic planning teams. Yet there's no doubt the senior pastor is always a key component.
Some 27 percent of megachurches have satellite locations, and 37 percent have started a new congregation in the past five years.
So prominent have some successes been, that those churches have built networks to assist others of various denominations in promoting growth. Willow Creek in South Barrington, Ill., and Rick Warren's Saddleback Valley Church in Lake Forest, Calif., are most influential nationally and internationally. Yet church models don't always transfer to other situations, and some churches do flounder.
Megachurches have often been criticized for being too businesslike. Dr. Warren, perhaps the most successful of all with his "purpose-driven" books and conferences, disputes that. Church is a family built on relationships, he says, and what really makes churches grow is changed lives.