CHICAGO (AP) _ 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 two of the 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.''

Adds Raymond Laseter, an Apostolic member: ``People are catching hell outside the church. They're looking for something.''

In African-American history, black megachurches are not new; they flourished from the end of the 19th century through the 1930s. But experts say the current boom, which started in the 80s and took off in the 90s, is unique.

``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 flocking to megachurches, have extended the concept of comparison shopping to the spiritual world. After shopping around, both groups are drawn to the lively services, inspirational pastors and the ``message of action and empowerment'' in the megachurches, 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.

When people like Sampson and Holly find the right mix of qualities, ``they don't ask if they're at grandma's Baptist church,'' says Robert Franklin Jr., president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

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.

``Many saw their old churches as highly moralistic places that had a guilt-inducing quality,'' Franklin says. ``They were insular and didn't talk much about transforming the world or serving the poor.''

In their place, several megachurch styles have evolved. Some are Afrocentric. Others offer ``theological nationalism,'' which Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago Divinity School describes as ``something positive about black folks coming together in their own style.'' A few, like Brazier's, take a more traditional approach toward Christianity.

Most share several fundamentals. They tend to emphasize spirituality above all else and preach a conservative theology, though the majority take more liberal views on social and political issues, Thumma says.

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.

On a typical Tuesday night at Apostolic, about 100 cars are parked in the lots. Inside, past signs advertising a health fair and a ``marriage night out,'' sounds of a choir practice fill the 120,000-square-foot building.

Upstairs is the men's ministry. In an austere classroom, about 25 men in their 20s and 30s, give their all to God. Equipped with dog-eared Bibles and T-shirts that read, ``Apostolic Man, Saved and Kept by God's Power,'' the group spends two hours reading Scripture.

``They need a 40-ouncer (malt liquor) and Jesus Christ,'' leader Ronald Smith cries out.

``They need some crack cocaine and Jesus Christ,'' he follows.

``But just give me Jesus Christ.''

With a roar, the men belt out a final call: ``Amen!''