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Megachurches: Going against the tide

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
July 2, 2010 at 2:02 a.m.

Rodrigo Ybarra raises his arms in praise as the Faith Family Church band performs a prayer song. Megachurches similar to Faith Family Church have been attracting younger congregations recently.

THE MAKINGS OF A MEGACHURCH

The average age of megachurchgoers is 40 years old, similar to the U.S. 2000 Census average. Yet, the average church goer is 53 years old.

Nearly a third of megachurch attendees are single, unmarried people. In a typical church, however, singles account for just 10 percent of the congregation.

About 82 percent of megachurch goers come at the invitation of a friend, family member or co-worker.

Source: "Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America's Megachurches." Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

They're most known by their 2,000 attendees on a weekend, slew of pastors and non-churchy atmosphere.

Megachurches in America, fueled by multi-million dollar offerings and congregations that are typically younger, more educated and report being more spiritually fulfilled could be a turning point for the Christian faith.

In Victoria, there's only one church that bears the label - Faith Family Church.

Faith Family Church grew from a small congregation of 80 families in the 1980s to the 3,000-member church body housed in a $2.5 million complex complete with auditorium-style seating.

It's got the markings of the megachurch: a $3 million yearly budget, 30 staff members and passionate communicators as its leaders.

"My vision was to really build a church that I wanted to attend as a kid when I lived in a smaller town," said the Rev. Jim Graff, pastor of Faith Family Church.

Graff, who grew up Catholic in a small town in Pennsylvania, had wanted to build a church that hosted events and was fun.

Graff's wife, Tamara, daughter of the late Rev. John Osteen and sister to the Lakewood Church leader the Rev. Joel Osteen, remembers church being like family while growing up.

"Church was like my second home," she said. "It felt like family. People that I saw every week and believed the same."

The two describe their relationship as close to the Osteen family, often calling when in need of advice. Jim Graff's most powerful influence was what John Osteen taught him about people.

"What I tell people is my parents taught me to believe in myself," he said. "The early believers that really discipled me taught me to believe in God. Her dad taught me to believe in people."

Like most megachurches, the church offers broad sermon series on family, marriage and life advice.

It's the exact approach that keeps them growing, said Gerald Nissley, a psychology of religion researcher.

"A lot of megachurches, they look at a problem so widely where it's something that almost anybody can identify with," he said. "...By going with the broadest topics you can you tend to pull people more easily."

Megachurches often adopt what's called a Lifeboat Model to reach people, he said.

The idea being that churches will do anything and everything they can to get people into their doors to become Christians.

Overall dissatisfaction with religion shows up in national trend polls.

Last year a Gallup poll showed people who reported 77 percent of those surveyed said they were Christian, down from 91 percent in 1948 when the agency first began collecting data.

The country also continues to become more religiously diverse with more Americans mixing religions, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"The problem is no matter what church structure you talk about, people have become dissatisfied with it," Nissley said.

But what's happening at megachurches seems to go against the tide of people's overall views of religion.

An average megachurch goer is about 13 years younger than a typical church goer, according to a study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Congregations are more educated. More than half of those who responded in the study were college graduates and say they are more spiritually fulfilled.

A stroll through any Faith Family worship service is like a mini-concert, which might explain that. Its theater-style seating, camera crew and worship band create an "emotional environment" typical of megachurches.

"If we're not making it look like the old style (people) rejected then they should want the new style because they're spiritually hungry," Nissley said.

But to keep people from becoming lost in the crowds what most churches do is supplement their Sunday services with smaller groups targeting a specific lifestyles.

"You can have your cake and eat it too," Nissley said.

The idea is to have the resources of a megachurch with the intimacy of a smaller setting.

"It's never really felt like a megachurch," said Josh Joines, pastor of student and young adult ministries at the church. "It's almost like a megachurch with a micro-vision."

But is the megachurch the structure that will turn the tide for Christianity?

Nissley believes that's something church advocates hope.

For Jim Graff, who says he would just as readily pastor a small church, the message is more important than the method.

"I think the message is what's going to save. I think that people have tried so many things," he said. " .I think the message is going to save the country."

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