Boasting large numbers and enormous cathedral style buildings, so-called mega churches are "the new thing" in worship.
Mega churches range in size from 2,000 to almost 20,000 members. The Harford Institute for Religious Research has identified more than 600 such congregations. Some are traditional churches that have large urban congregations; some minimize their denominational affiliation. Others offer huge, freewheeling worship services.
On any given Sunday, some 40% of churchgoers may be worshipping in a mega church. These are not likely to be blacks-only churches, but multiracial - and multilingual - congregations. They are socio-economically diverse and cross-generational. In many ways they represent the democratization of religion in America.
Some of the largest mega churches have cathedral style sanctuaries that can seat 6,000-8,000 members at one time while still maintaining satellite buildings for classrooms, gymnasiums, community centers, and charitable foundations. Many churches offer seven days of religious and vocational programming, community activities, childcare, education, and health care services each week. Some of these churches function as small towns within the cities they serve. While some work hard to impact the communities around them, many are like cocoons of faith that shelter their congregations. Using technology that rivals the most hi-tech media productions, these churches can provide videotapes of services and lectures, DVDs, Internet support and audio discs and tapes of choirs, sermons and seminars. By organizing the skills and talents of their membership into separate ministries, mega churches maintain the sense of community that the old neighborhoods used to have. Jazz bands, choirs that specialize in certain styles of music, rap groups, dance troupes, drama clubs and video production staffs have allowed them to reach people who may have otherwise been uninterested in church.
In this new vision of religion, the pastor is no longer a lone counsel to his flock, but the CEO of a major organization. Some ministers say it is a long way from the theology that first drew them into the ministry; they struggle with finding a balance between preaching the gospel and managing the corporation that these churches have become.
By forming Community Development Corporations and nonprofit corporations, churches like Abyssinian Baptist in New York City have had a transformative effect on the urban decay around them. On the other hand, others have been criticized for their insular approach to serving the faithful. They collect food baskets for the hungry, but will they organize to advocate for Food Stamps in Washington?
By expanding traditional notions of worship and appealing to the needs of contemporary African American Christians, the mega church is changing the way Christians of all races approach their faith. But at the same time, they face the challenge of uniting two groups of black Americans, the black underclass and the black upper class, who find themselves isolated in different ways.