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An Outreach to Ethnic Groups

May 15, 1987|RUSSELL CHANDLER | Times Religion Writer

The Assemblies of God in Southern California is known for its outreach to a wide diversity of ethnic groups.

One of the denomination's fastest-growing multinational churches is Harbor Christian Fellowship in Wilmington, where between 60% and 65% of the membership--now approaching 2,000--is Latino.

"There are a few who possibly aren't too legal," conceded Pastor Don Ezell, whose brother, Harold Ezell, is Western regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

25% Anglo Membership

Another 25% of the membership is Anglo, and the remainder is of African and Asian descent, Ezell said.

Ezell became senior minister of Harbor Christian Fellowship last fall when his father, the Rev. Herbert Ezell, died after leading the congregation for 38 years. The church, which seats 800, recently added a second Sunday morning service to accommodate the growing attendance.

Harbor Christian Fellowship is one of 415 churches in the Southern California District of the Assemblies of God, which stretches from King City and Fresno south to the Mexican border and includes an estimated 112,000 adherents, according to District Supt. Fred Cottriel.

The district offices in Costa Mesa adjoin 900-student Southern California College, an Assemblies-affiliated four-year liberal arts school.

One of 57 geographical subdivisions nationwide, Southern California has 1,600 registered clergy, 200 of whom are missionaries on assignment overseas. Cottriel said about 10% of the ordained clergy are women.

Although the average Assemblies of God congregation size is 130, several of the largest churches are in California. Nearly 5,000 adherents identify with Faith Chapel in La Mesa, near San Diego, Cottriel said. But Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, with a Sunday morning attendance of 5,500, is tied with First Assembly of Phoenix for No. 1 in the nation.

The Phoenix congregation, which has a Sunday school attendance of more than 8,000, is the fastest-growing church of any denomination in America, the Church Leadership Institute reported last year.

Assemblies of God government is a combination of congregational and presbyterian principles. Each church is sovereign in choice of pastor, owning and holding property, maintaining membership rolls, managing local church business and activities, and participating in denominational programs. But the district councils reserve the right to examine, ordain and dismiss ministers, subject to headquarters review.

"There is a wide range in theology and worship," said the Rev. Cecil M. Robeck Jr., an Assemblies minister who is assistant dean at the interdenominational Fuller School of Theology in Pasadena. "But when it comes to central control versus congregational autonomy, autonomy will win every time."

'Exuberant and Demonstrative'

Ezell believes services at Harbor Christian Fellowship are "more exuberant and demonstrative" than those at more traditional Assemblies churches. "But we do it in a controlled atmosphere," he said.

Ezell added that while some people have joined his congregation as a result of watching Assemblies television evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, "the largest drawing power has been word of mouth."

Although his church has "not made an issue" of the scandal involving recently defrocked Bakker and his troubled PTL network, Ezell said he had "used the sad situation to spotlight morality."

"I've been speaking of the moral issues and the need for character and to be accountable 24 hours a day," Ezell said.

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