Whether the reason is a celebration of faith, a search for eternal answers or a quickening of the spirit sparked by spring, Easter Sunday worship services traditionally draw big crowds.

This year, some area churches are handling the increase in attendance in unusual ways.

McLean Bible Church is renting out George Mason University's Patriot Center so that its entire 5,500-member congregation can worship together, marking the first time the state-owned sports arena has been used for a religious service.

Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, a predominantly gay congregation, is celebrating its main Easter service in an exhibit hall at the Washington Convention Center because it expects a larger-than-usual crowd of worshipers.

First Baptist Church of Glenarden is holding its "Resurrection Service" in the Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro. Normally, according to its deacon, William Gentry, about 3,500 people attend the church's four Sunday services. But when the church first used the arena last year for Easter, the service drew about 6,000.

And Washington National Cathedral is giving out passes to its two morning services -- to prevent crowding that would violate fire and safety codes.

Such arrangements are not the norm, of course. Most area churches accommodate the faithful and the curious at busy times by increasing the number of services, getting out the folding chairs, setting up closed-circuit showings in their basements for overflow crowds, and allowing latecomers to stand in the side aisles and at the rear of sanctuaries.

Still, religious experts say, the packed pews at Easter Sunday services attest not only to the growing popularity of some churches but also to the enduring attraction, even among some non-Christians, to the central mystery of the Christian faith: Christ's Resurrection.

"My first thought is, Hallelujah!' " said Dean R. Hoge, sociology professor at Catholic University. "There are a thousand pastors who wish they had to rent space on Easter!"

There have always been fast-growing congregations that have "to do something special on Easter," Hoge said. Right now, most of them, including McLean Bible Church, "are on the conservative wing of Protestantism and are nondenominational."

But even churches without expanding membership see attendance shoot up on Easter. "To me, it's all tapping into what I see as a spiritual hunger in this country," the Rev. Ronald H. Haines, Episcopal bishop of the Washington Diocese, said of the crowds that flock to Washington National Cathedral.

"It's just a hungering that is from the inner soul of people," he said. "And the crowds keep getting bigger and bigger. And they listen. It's not a frivolous crowd. I see their faces."

Although Christmas also draws big crowds, Easter consistently attracts more worshipers, according to Thom Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

About 20 percent to 50 percent more worshipers attend church at Christmas than on a normal Sunday, he said. But Easter draws an average increase of 50 percent to 100 percent.

"Easter is seen as the primary Christian day," Rainer said. "As important as the birth of Christ is, the Christian faith, the Christian hope is totally based on the Resurrection of Christ."

Easter also attracts a significant number of non-Christians, he added, citing data that his center has gathered from 2,000 churches across the country. They come, he said, "because they are looking for something. And there is a tendency in the non-Christian world to think that maybe Easter Sunday is the day I can find some answers."

There are no figures showing how much attendance rises at Roman Catholic Masses on Easter, but the difference is obvious to most pastors. "I would say it more than doubles," said the Rev. Cary Hill, secretary for parish life and worship of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. Usually, 25 percent to 35 percent of the archdiocese's half-million Catholics attend Sunday Mass.

McLean Bible Church decided to rent the 10,000-seat Patriot Center this year "so everyone can be together at one time" and meet one another, said Ken Baugh, senior leader of the church's ministry for young adults. The sanctuary cannot hold the entire congregation at one time, and a new building is planned on a 43-acre site near Tysons Corner.

Lawrence Czarda, chief of staff for state-run George Mason University, said that renting the Patriot Center to the church "is no endorsement by the university of this event. We're just making the space available for community groups to use."

Metropolitan Community Church has rented space at the Washington Convention Center because its 300-seat sanctuary is too small.

"Last year, between two morning services, we had over 800 people," said the Rev. Candace R. Shultis, the pastor at Metropolitan. "We were seating them outside in the parking lot. So we decided to go someplace else for one large service."

At the vaulted Washington National Cathedral, which holds about 3,500, "we used to get 6,000 for Easter services and Christmas Eve," said cathedral spokesman Bob Becker. Concerns about fire and medical emergencies made it necessary to limit attendance, and the cathedral "had to go to a system of passes not unlike St. Patrick's and the Vatican," Becker said.

The cathedral advertises the free passes weeks ahead of time so that people can request them by mail. But it also sets aside a few hundred that people can get an hour before each service, making for long lines along Wisconsin Avenue.

Easter services are taking place in other unusual places tomorrow. For the third year, Metropolitan Baptist Church will hold its Easter worship in a tent on the Mall -- with the theme: "Resurrection '98: Proclaiming a Resurrection Faith for a Crucified City!" Last year, its service near the Washington Monument drew about 3,000. And promoters of the annual "Noche Latina" at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the D.C. Armory decided this year to hold an Easter Mass for families and circus employees. The Spanish-English Mass will be held tomorrow afternoon in the banquet hall of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, said Luis Vasquez-Ajmac, president of Maya Communications.

"We wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted to hear a Mass could hear a Mass," he said of the service, which is free and open to all. Afterward, the priest will go to the Armory to bless the circus elephants. CAPTION: The Rev. Candace R. Shultis, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, has rented space at the Washington Convention Center to handle Easter crowds.