CHICAGO -- Inside the sprawling brick church, Pastor Arthur Brazier approaches the pulpit. Some 3,500 parishioners pack the plush red pews in the regal amphitheater, swaying and singing.

Stragglers, late after scrambling for a spot in one of the church's four parking lots on a desolate commercial strip, squeeze into balcony seats."Here, we don't bring the Scripture down to our level," the 78-year-old pastor declares. "Here, we rise to it."

The congregation erupts with a chorus of amens and applause.

As Brazier scans the sea of faces, the reality is inescapable: The 100-member congregation he took over in 1960 is all grown up. The Apostolic Church of God now has more than 14,000 members and a multimillion-dollar budget.

In Chicago and around the country, the black megachurch has arrived.

Megachurches, defined as those that draw more than 2,000 visitors each Sunday, first attracted national attention in the mid-1990s. Predominantly white churches were noticed first. But in 1997, the last time attendance was compared, two black megachurches were the fastest-growing in the country, says John Vaughan of Church Growth Today, a research center in Missouri.

Nationwide, there are at least 60 black megachurches. The largest, in or near Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Atlanta, boast memberships between 8,000 and 24,000. With donations from their mostly middle-class members, many are building at record pace.

Typically, they hold two to three Sunday services, and the two largest have built sanctuaries that seat 8,000 and 10,000 people.

Why the explosive growth?

"African-Americans have moved into the middle class, and they're not finding Shangri-La," Brazier says. "They are beginning to realize that material gain doesn't give you everything you need. There is something missing for a lot of people."

Though the current boom began in the 1980s, large black churches flourished from the end of the 19th century through the 1930s.

"The megachurch is more than a church with a huge attendance," says Scott Thumma, a sociologist at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "Megachurches offer a unique way of being religious in modern society."

Blacks as well as whites are flocking to megachurches, extending the concept of comparison shopping to the spiritual world. Both groups are drawn to the lively services, inspirational pastors and the "message of action and empowerment,", Thumma says.

Blacks diverge, though, on the social end. Many middle-class churchgoers, increasingly distant from black urban life, are looking for ways to connect with other blacks.

Chuck Holly, a member of an Afrocentric megachurch in Chicago, sought out Trinity United Church of Christ after growing weary of living and working in places where he was one of the only black people.

Many blacks are also seeking out churches that work to rebuild the neighborhoods that some members left behind.

"Churches are the ones that are going to bring about the changes," says Brenda Sampson, 50, an Apostolic member.

This year, her congregation will spend over $500,000 to encourage community development and feed the hungry in its distressed South Side neighborhood. Outside the church, Brazier founded two groups that develop housing and commerce near the church.

The traditional black Methodist and Baptist church, Brazier says, was a turnoff for many.

"The music is classical, folks are quiet and there are few hallelujahs and amens," Brazier says. "They get bored."

Many blacks rejected those churches during the civil rights movement.

"Most black megachurch leaders also recognize that their members crave practical as well as spiritual guidance. The result is a seven-day-a-week church with programs covering everything from single parenting and Bible study to AIDS education.