Ask Americans what Sundays are for, and many are likely to give you one of two answers: watching sports or going to church.
These days, a growing number of “megachurches” may satisfy both camps, providing entertainment and an uplifting message to crowds so big they rival the attendance at sporting events.
There are currently 842 megachurches — non-Catholic churches with at least 2,000 weekly attendants — that host an excess of three million people on any given Sunday, according to the research group Church Growth Today.
These massive holy houses attract churchgoers by the thousands with celebratory services that tout contemporary music, television screens and sermons that aren’t “churchy,” according to the pastor of the nation’s largest church. But critics say the sin-free pep rallies don’t encourage personal transformation and reflection, keystones of religion.
Instead of a pulpit, pews and a group of familiar faces found at traditional community churches, megachurches can resemble a campus.
“They are so large you can select the activity that you like,” said Ken Woodward, Newsweek’s contributing editor who covers religion. “If you want to lose weight Jesus’ way, you can join the weight-loss program or join a basketball team … These churches have so many people they don’t just sponsor a team, they sponsor a league.
“Not everybody can afford to join a country club.”
At the biggest church in the country, Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, Pastor Joel Osteen preaches to some 25,000 people each week — and sin is not on the menu. Osteen said his goal is to “give people a boost for the week.”
“I think for years there’s been a lot of hellfire and damnation. You go to church to figure out what you’re doing wrong and you leave feeling bad like you’re not going to make it,” Osteen said. “We believe in focusing on the goodness of God.”
Critics say magachurches’ party-like atmosphere takes the spirituality out of Sunday services.
“It tends to be a guilt-free, sin-free environment,” said Woodward. “These places are a bit too bubbly. … It’s very chummy with God.”
Richard Wise, a 20-year member of the small, traditional Wesley United Methodist Church in Union City, Ind., said he finds this type of service perplexing.
“Sin is in life and sin is everywhere, we are all sinners,” he said. “If you just leave church feeling good you are missing the whole point. The point is you need a purpose in life.”
Wise’s church draws about 150 people for Sunday service and he said the size pays off with close-knit relationships and a feeling of community.
“We call on a lot of individuals from our church because we know them,” he said. “We visit them when they are sick or take communion or flowers to them.”
Osteen defends Lakewood’s ways, saying the lively and inclusive atmosphere is attracting a whole new generation of parishioners.
“I have parents tell me all the time that their kids will sit down and watch us on TV or that they want to come to the service because it’s simple and something they can understand,” he said.
Some Lakewood qualities that appeal to a younger set are “the best lighting and the best sound system,” a youth ministry program that attracts hundreds, and every service kicks off with 30 minutes of upbeat contemporary music — not hymns — played by a live band.
“It’s not a churchy feel,” Osteen, 40, said. “We don’t have crosses up there. We believe in all that, but I like to take the barriers down that have kept people from coming. A lot of people who come now are people that haven’t been to church in 20 to 30 years.”
However, those used to a personal touch in their religion aren’t convinced.
“[People] can go and enjoy the service but really don’t have to participate,” said Wise. “But it’s that participation that really makes for a good Christian.”
While the number of megachurches has doubled since 1998, they still only represent 1 percent of all churches in America, said John Vaughan, founder of Church Growth Today and author of “Megachurches & America’s Cities.” But he added that many people are discovering that bigger can be better for them, and the variety of service times and activities provides flexibility many modern families need.
“They have multiple staff able to specialize and mobilize people with a diversity of needs. The really large church has a myriad of small groups, which is really where the heart of the church is,” he said. “The reason these churches grow large is because they know how to care for their members.”
Lakewood’s attendance has grown so massive that the church recently bought the Compaq Center, a former sports arena, which is being remodeled to hold an even larger congregation.
“This will be the first church in the country to see 35,000 people,” Vaughan said.
The seriousness of traditional churches scared many parishioners away, Osteen said, but the warm hug delivered by megachurches like his is bringing them back.
“I think it’s a place of life and victory,” he said. “They want to be encouraged and uplifted.”
But Woodward said this approach to religion isn’t helping parishioners.
“If I’m already a pretty good guy, why do I have to go to church to hear that?” he asked. “Sin really has disappeared from the pulpit. lt’s too much of a downer, I’m afraid.”
Wise also doesn’t agree with the idea of cloaking religion in church in order to boost numbers. “I guess I kind of thought that was what church was about,” he said.
“I don’t see how you could put God first in your life if all you’re going to do is go to church and feel good about being there. I enjoy good music and a good sermon, but what did you really get out of the message?”