Appealing alternative

Saturday, October 12, 2002

Evangelical churches find key to attract worshipers

By John Chadwick ~ The Record

WYCKOFF, N.J. -- One Sunday morning, Dennis MacPherson stands on stage, plays an electric guitar, and focuses his thoughts on Jesus.

As his band launches into "I'm Free," the congregation at Wyckoff Assembly of God responds with rapture.

Arms are raised high with palms wide open. Some close their eyes and lower their heads. One woman standing alone weeps.

MacPherson, once a scruffy rock-and-roller, has found his calling with the church band. "Now I truly know what it's like to worship God with my instrument," said the 52-year-old resident of Ringwood, N.J.

In the pews, Joni Macchia also believes she was destined for this church. "I feel this has been my true faith all along," said Macchia, who joined last year.

Macchia and MacPherson have embraced a charismatic brand of Christianity, a tradition rooted in the religious revival meetings of the early 20th century, when believers expressed their faith in near-mystical terms, and revered the Bible as the infallible word of God.

Now, a major study suggests a growing number of Americans are finding charismatic or evangelical churches an appealing alternative to the older, established traditions they grew up in.

Evangelical churches added thousands of newcomers in the nineties, while many of the more liberal Protestant denominations saw their numbers shrink, according to the study, "Religious Congregations & Membership 2000," released by the Nashville-based Glenmary Research Center.

Conducted every 10 years, the study tracked membership in 149 religious groups and denominations in the United States.

Assemblies of God grew 18 percent, bringing the total number who identify with this Missouri-based evangelical denomination to 2.5 million.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal church -- the venerable American version of the Church of England -- fell 5.3 percent, to 2.3 million.

"There's a slight shift going on with religion in America," said Rich Houseal, who helped compile the study. "Many of the mainline denominations have declined, and the evangelicals are gaining ground." Despite the changes, the religious geography of America remains remarkably stable -- Lutherans fill the Northern Plains; Southern Baptists cover the South; United Methodist churches still dot the Midwest; and Catholics dominate the Northeast and other immigrant centers.

Scholars say the numbers should come as no surprise. For decades, Assemblies of God has won new followers by combining its Bible-centered message with a media-savvy approach that favors contemporary music, casual dress, and strong autonomy for local churches.

"They have a mission that makes demands of people, but gives them direction in their lives," said Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "At the same time, their worship services are user-friendly. You don't have to dress up. They put the words on the screen. There's fewer pipe organs and more guitars and drums." Kevin Jonas, the pastor of the Wyckoff church, said 70 percent to 80 percent of his congregation grew up in other denominations or faiths. "People are out there looking for something in their lives," Jonas said. "Quite a few people are looking for an encounter with the living God."
Ken Gavlick, a church member, said he was lost before discovering evangelical Christianity. "I was a party animal living for no one but myself," said the 42-year-old resident of Haledon, N.J. "Most people who meet me now think I'm a nice goody-goody kind of guy. There is a wild streak in me, but now I just use it for good."

Assemblies of God's theology goes hand-in-hand with a conservative worldview. Indeed, one of its most famous members is Attorney General John Ashcroft.

On its official Web site, denomination leaders say homosexuality and abortion are sinful and shouldn't be protected as civil rights. But they also say there's room for different views on some issues, including capital punishment. And they say they support women who take leadership roles, both in the church and in the workplace.

At the Wyckoff church, Jonas says his congregation spends more time worshiping God than staking out political positions. "We emphasize God's grace and goodness, which we believe brings change," he said. "There are some churches who point condemning fingers and then wonder why people don't attend their church."

Meanwhile, some pastors from the older denominations say their churches are trying to reinvent themselves in the face of diminishing membership.

The Rev. Stephen Giordano of the Clinton Avenue Reformed Church in Bergenfield, N.J. says the shift away from some older Protestant groups is inevitable, given an influx of immigrants who were reared in Roman Catholic and evangelical traditions.

Giordano's denomination, The Reformed Church in America, is one of the oldest, dating back to the Dutch settlers of the 1600s.

"Once you are an established congregation, you develop a congregational culture that people become comfortable with," Giordano said. "But it becomes much harder for the newcomer to join that culture."

Still, Giordano said his church has grown modestly over the last decade, and he credits new programs focusing on the needs of the homeless and the hungry. His church participates in those programs with other mainline congregations.

"For us, this is the essence of the Gospel message," Giordano said. "Our involvement in the creation and maintenance of these programs has been a source of renewal."

At evangelical churches, the source of renewal is found exclusively in the Bible and in worshiping God.

In Assemblies of God churches some believers speak in tongues, or unknown languages, to express what they feel is direct communion with the Holy Spirit.

MacPherson and Macchia, both former Catholics, say their lives changed dramatically after reading scripture with other evangelical Christians.

For most of his life, MacPherson had little interest in religion. He played guitar and listened to the Rolling Stones. He said he enjoyed his life and faced no personal crisis. But when his brother-in-law became an evangelical Christian, MacPherson began reading the Bible to refute him.

"I thought he was out of his mind," he said. "He was very annoying." MacPherson said he began to change.

"Somewhere along the pathway, I came to realize something of the condition I was in," he said. "I was separated from God and Christ. But if you seek him earnestly, he just presents himself to you. It's hard to explain." Over time, he gave up cigarettes, marijuana, and rock music, and began centering his life around church.

Macchia said she and her husband joined the church during a rocky period in their marriage. "The Lord just took over and sent the Holy Spirit working in us," she said. "And, wonderful changes started happening."

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