Mega churches growing in Central Illinois

By Denise Jackson

February 7, 2013 Updated Feb 8, 2013 at 11:05 AM CDT

CENTRAL ILLINOIS -- On any given Sunday morning, you could see an officer directing traffic around main roads into huge parking lots where mega churches have sprawled out here in Central Illinois.

The traditional church, as many people have known it over the years, may not look the same in some areas.

Mega churches, a concept that had long been associated with major metropolitan areas, are increasingly popping up in Central Illinois.

For some, like Northwoods Community Church in Peoria, Sunday service might resemble a rock concert.

"We're different that what we were 10 years ago. The values we uphold today are leading different sets of people to connect with us," said Northwoods' Pastor Cal Rychener.

Elizabeth Hand heard about the church several years ago.

"I wanted to be involved in a church that taught the bible in a way that was not intimidating but fun," she said.

Eric and Jennifer Hawkins and their family have been Northwoods' members for about five years.

"I worship everyday, every morning before I go to work. I'm sort of the type of person I want to get in and get into the message, get something out of it take some notes then I'm done," said Eric Hawkins.

"I've been to big, bigger churches than this and I got lost I was distracted by all the production," said Jennifer Hawkins.

Production plays a big role in services at Northwoods. With three services, including one on Saturday, the staff records sermons from a broadcast studio at the church, which are transported to a sister church in Galesburg. A third church will open in Chillicothe this Easter and a goal is to stream live sermons to those sites as they are underway.

According to Pastor Rychener, attendance at both campuses each week could reach close to 4,000 people.

"We've just been more aggressive in going after more of the power of God to heal people. We're more excited about worship," he added.

Bethany Baptist is now in its fourth building. It's a huge sprawling complex in Edwards complete with a gym, classrooms and a children's wing. It has a membership of about 1,300 on a Sunday but also has sister churches.

Pastor Ritch Boerckel says, as the church has grown, so have the demands.

"We do believe that the Lord will provide for the work that he ordains and if at any time we are over our budget, then we realize that the Lord has not ordained for that to happen yet. One of the challenges is to still maintain a relational, loving connection with the individual people in the churches," he said.

Both Northwoods and Bethany have established group sessions where members can build friendships.

"If we release pastors in the church who have the gift of nurturing, taking care of people," Rychener said.

"That allows for people to connect in smaller groups," Boerckel added.

Bethany member Nicole Lee says getting involved in programs and ministries makes a big difference.

"I think getting involved in different things they offer definitely helps as well," she said.

Children's programs and ministries can also connect families like the Hawkins with more people.

"A lot of my friends were volunteering down there and they said it was a lot of fun. So I just wanted to try it cause I really like kids and I just like playing with them and interacting with them," said 12-year-old Taylor Hawkins.

Neither church is showing any sign of slowing down. Northwoods recently completed its student center and a $12 million expansion is underway.

The pastors say along with the mega church growth comes a certain amount of pressure to maintain expenses. Tithes and offerings of members support ministries. Rev. Boerckel says while staying within budget is necessary, the work of God is that of faith.

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