While numerous religious Americans shuffle modestly into their local place of worship every Sunday, hand-in-hand with close family, friends and neighbours, across the United States tens of thousands are lining up in rock concert fashion amidst hoards of strangers waiting to fill worship facilities the size of Yankee Stadium.
These aren’t your mom-and-pop community churches: Their pews look more like arena seats; their pastors are charismatic self-help orators with multi-million dollar book deals; they conduct intense market research and take opinion polls; they orchestrate sleek, targeted adverts while hawking Christian music CDs and fanzines, and preaching open, flexible personal morality with a loosely religious basis; and in case you can’t abide the lineups, many of them dish out upwards of $15 million a year to air their sermons live on national cable.
Shiny multimedia web pages, high-profile promotions and huge income streams make US megachurches ostensibly indistinguishable from any other big business. There's one important difference, though: Churches, mega or not, pay zippo in taxes (that includes property tax) and disclose next to nothing about their revenues. As most megachurches are non-denominational in the religious sense, many have criticized that a Jesus here, a Corinthians there is all it takes for that tax-free religious label — and all the perks — to stick. Certain worrying facts have emerged that don't help the public image of these megachurches much: One of these churches made illegal contributions to Republican campaigns in 2011, and another apparently dabbled in embezzlement in the same year.
Over 3,000 large churches in the US currently draw crowds of more than 2,000 people to a service, making intimate community worship a thing of the past for millions of Americans. But we're interested in the largest of the large; the so-called “big box churches” regularly attended by over 10,000 people. Raking in multi-million dollar profits annually and giving new meaning to the phrase “go big or go home”, these megachurches are the new face of worship for the modern age of America.
10 Fellowship of the Woodlands, The Woodlands, Texas: 17,142 weekly attendances
Numerous local community churches in the US have been well established for over a century, but this Christian non-denominational megachurch since 1993 is already the 4th fastest growing in the country. Its pastor Kerry Shook made it onto the bestseller list with his 2008 book One Month to Live: 30 Days to a No-Regrets Life, and more recently with Love at Last Sight (abstract: take the 30-day challenge to learn the secrets of healthy, lasting relationships). Today the pastor’s broadcasts reach all 50 US states and over 200 countries worldwide.
9 Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky: 17,261 weekly attendances
Bringing you the best in evangelical Christian wisdom since 1962, Southeast Christian Church has expanded into four separate satellite campuses since 2007 and boast their own TV website complete with podcasts and live sermon streams. If you have any Christian relative birthdays coming up, consider checking out their online bookstore “The Living Word” where you can pick up an Easter Experience movie for $14.99, or The Story Transcript Package for $199.99 on sale...
8 West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Los Angeles, California: 20,000 weekly attendances
In the heart of L.A.’s glamorous Historic West Adams district is the main wing of the Church of God in Christ. Its star-studded members includes basketball hero Magic Johnson, A-list actor Denzel Washington and soul legend Stevie Wonder. According to Ebony magazine, current pastor Charles E. Blake - something of a celebrity himself - is one of the most influential black men in America. His leadership since 1969 has seen the church expand from 40 to over 22,000 members.
7 Saddleback Valley Community Church, Lake Forest, California: 22,418 weekly attendances
Pastor Rick Warren’s 2002 The Purpose Driven Life has become the bestselling non-fiction hardcover in history (over 30 million copies as of 2007) and the second most-translated book in the world after the Bible. He made so much from book sales alone that he returned 25 years of his church salary in 2005, and has since forged a partnership with Readers Digest and received the International Medal of Peace from former president George W. Bush.
Founded in the 80s, Warren Saddleback Valley Community Church employs the typical “seeker-sensitive” megachurch growth methods designed to recruit “spiritual seekers” rather than the strictly religious. Saddleback operates 9 regional campuses in addition to the main site at Lake Forest, which hosted the 2008 Civil Forum on the Presidency with candidates John McCain and Barack Obama live on national TV.
6 Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas: 22,723 weekly attendances
By some accounts the largest Baptist church in the country, the Second Baptist Church has a current membership of over 63,000 and one of the largest pipe organs in the world. Pastor Ed Young once described it as “a town within a city”; its West Campus alone manages a 4,500-seat worship center, a 200,000 square-foot classroom facility and a 600-seat black box theatre. It has five campuses including fitness centers, bookstores, information desks, a K-12 school and a café. And the annual budget for this tax-exempt church? $55 million a year.
5 North Point Community Church, Alpharetta, Georgia: 23,377 weekly attendances
This non-denominational evangelical megachurch attracts over one million visitors to their online sermons and leadership messages a month. Operated under a parent organization called North Point Ministries, its mission statement is to establish a network of churches for the “unchurched” through strategic partnerships around the globe - an international operation from Michigan to Mexico to Macedonia. Five Georgia-based churches currently draw around 24,000 weekly, thanks to senior pastor Andy Stanley’s enterprising efforts and charismatic live performances. The laser show (as seen above) probably helps, too.
4 Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois: 23,400 weekly attendances
One of the largest theaters in the United States, with a capacity of 7,000, can be found in Willow Creek’s newest “Worship Center” built in 2004. By all accounts a prototypical non-denominational megachurch, President Obama himself took the stage in 2010 to access pastor Bill Hybels’ thriving base of followers. Hybel also founded the “Global Leadership Summit”—a yearly training event aiming to transform church and ministry frontrunners around the world into sharper, more inspirational leaders.
3 Fellowship Church, Grapevine, Texas: 24,000 weekly attendances
Although officially affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, Fellowship Church is another megachurch of the “seeker-sensitive” movement which avoids the strict dogmatic ideals of major organized religions. Lead pastor Ed Young, the son of the Second Baptist Church’s lead pastor (also Ed Young), has released 14 books to date. His latest Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse— which might sound familiar (see entry ten) — became a New York Times Best Seller in 2011. But at 24,000 weekly attendees, it seems he's at least following his own advice from his 2007 book In the Zone: How to Live in the Sweet Spot of God’s Success.
2 LifeChurch.tv, Edmond, Oklahoma: 26,776 weekly attendances
LifeChurch.tv founder Craig Groeschel — basically the Mark Zuckerberg of Christianity —holds a Bachelor’s degree in marketing and a Master of Divinity (yes that’s a thing). While over 26,000 attend its main campus in Edmond, the full scale of LifeChurch’s operations can’t be “visited” per se; its heavy emphasis on web 2.0 would put most businesses to shame.
Apart from broadcasting interactive prayer services live every week like any competitive megachurch would, LifeChurch.tv also manages its own “internet campus” on the immensely popular online virtual world Second Life. LifeChurch have developed the most popular Bible app in the world for smart phones, YouVersion, with over 100 million downloads since 2008. If virtual worship isn’t quite your thing, put on some jeans and head down to one of LifeChurch.tv’s 18 campuses for the full concert experience. A splendid time is guaranteed with refreshments, religious pop-rock and high-profile praise-worship.
1 Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas: 43,500 weekly attendances
Community meeting: If anyone has any information about the $600,000 theft ($200,000 in cash) from the Lakewood Church safe two weeks ago, Pastor Joel Osteen says he's offering a $25,000 reward. We suppose that’s pretty generous even for a four-time New York Times Bestseller who preaches to 20 million television viewers in 100 countries monthly, and 43,500 in person weekly from the former Compaq Center arena—home of the Houston Rockets, the Houston Aeros and the Houston Comets.
Unlike the other 9 biggest megachurches in America, Lakewood operates out of this single massive non-denominational megachurch in the heart of the Bible Belt, Houston, Texas. Its four worship leaders preach a brand of theology-lite designed for the everyday believer; it's a gig so successful that it emerged completely unscathed by the 2009 financial crisis. The church spends over $30 million yearly on broadcasting its arena spectacle which has been criticized for the absence of any crosses, altars, or traditional evangelical Christian symbols. If a trip to Houston doesn’t fit your budget, you can always wait for Pastor Joel Osteen’s next international tour. But get your tickets fast—the last one sold out Yankee Stadium.