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Megachurches' way of worship is on the rise

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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.

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