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Pastors Going After the Strays : Churches Using Modern-Day Concerns to Lure Faithful Throngs to the Fold

December 24, 1987|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

In his 1986 book, "Your Church Has a Fantastic Future," Robert H. Schuller describes his Crystal Cathedral as a "20-acre shopping center for Jesus Christ."

And because his fledgling church congregation first met at a drive-in theater 30 years ago and has grown to 10,000 members, Schuller, now 61, has influenced a generation of younger pastors who subscribe to his belief that "the church is in the business of retailing religion."

Schuller's tenets were reflected in interviews with younger Orange County pastors. Schuller's charge to "find a need and fill it" reverberates in the conversation of other pastors who explain their church's expansive social programs.

"I just keep seeing needs," said Tim Timmons, 42, as he discussed the multimillion-dollar expansion he's planning for his South Coast Community Church in Irvine. "What drives us more than anything is, where are the needs and how can we do something about it?"

In many cases, those needs are those of young families or young singles. A pastor of a county church that now has about 1,000 members said he learned he had just 20 members older than 65. Timmons said, for example, that the biggest need in Irvine is for day care.

The large numbers of young and baby-boom adults in communities such as Irvine and Costa Mesa has made parts of the county fertile territory for new churches. And generally speaking, church observers said, these families represent the fallout from the mid-1960s when, for the first time, church attendance in America started declining.

The baby-boom generation doesn't have a strong history of church attendance. National church consultant Lyle Schaller said that accounts for why many churches in the county, including many of the biggest, don't have a denominational name on their marquee.

In some cases, that translates into Sunday services that might be called Church Lite.

"We don't want to create the feeling that we're going verse by verse or the feeling that this is 'God talk,' " Timmons said, seated in the 1,800-seat "auditorium" (not sanctuary) at South Coast. "We want the feeling it's real talk. And that includes God, and that God is vital to our lives and not just a compartment."

The transition from the more rigid structure of the past, Timmons said, was accepted by people because the establishment church "was not related to real life, and it continues to back off from real life. The reformers were into something. They were into saying, 'Hey, God wants to relate to you in the marketplace. He's not interested in having us all come and hold holy hands together.'

"I think we're getting back to some basics. We have people who are vitally related to God and who are--I guess you might even say, although we don't use the term here-- deeply religious , but not in a bad sense. They really walk with God, and God has changed their lives.

"I have no need to relate them to a church that's 16th Century. You know you can't talk in seeeths and doeths all day long. You just don't. You walk out of a 16th-Century church service and into the 20th Century and say, 'Gosh, where does God fit here?' What they decided was, he doesn't. And therefore, we really get screwed up in our morals and everything else."

Timmons said, however, that every program at the church is infused with a dose of religion.

Deep down, people are looking for spirituality, he said. "Maybe they don't know that's what they're looking for, but I think that's what it is. They're looking for a dynamic that makes life work. They're looking for something that gives life some meaning. We believe it's a personal relationship with Christ, but I go back-door a lot. I say, 'You've got marriage problems? We've got a group over here for you. Say, by the way, you know what makes that sing? It's a relationship with God.' "

For those who didn't go along with the program, Timmons adopted a love-it-or-leave-it stance. "Everybody is rowing the same way, or they don't row here, baby," he said, jocularly. "The boat is going thataway, and if you want to change it, go find another church."

If that offends purists, so be it, Timmons said.

"You've got to remember who I'm after. I'm after the nonchurched who have already kissed church off. And there are a lot of them out there."

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