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Land and money needs have led two very different churches to form . . . : A Holy Alliance

February 18, 1988|IRA RIFKIN | Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

On a recent Sunday morning, about 2,000 worshipers streamed out of the main sanctuary of First Foursquare Church of Van Nuys. Their pastor, the Rev. Jack Hayford, lingered behind to chat with members of the congregation.

About three blocks west on Sherman Way, a slightly smaller crowd gathered in the main sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Van Nuys. Bible in hand, the Rev. Jess Moody, a big-boned Texan who dreams of creating a church for "The Third Millennium," welcomed worshipers and asked them to pray for ill members of the congregation.

First Foursquare and First Baptist are churches with widely varying philosophies reflecting theological differences as well as the individual personalities of their pastors. But, these days, the churches have a great deal in common. Land and money have closely linked the congregations, which through circumstances have become dependent upon each other to ensure the orderly growth of both.

After nine years of talking, an on-again off-again land deal between the two churches has been revived. Earlier this month, First Foursquare paid the first $2-million installment on the $11-million deal by which it will acquire First Baptist's 10-acre Van Nuys site.

New Chatsworth Church

By the end of 1989, First Baptist is scheduled to be in a new home in Chatsworth. Hayford will shuttle back and forth between services at First Foursquare's existing location and the sanctuary where Moody now preaches. By then the site will be part of First Foursquare's satellite campus, housing a school and day-care center, a graduate school of theology affiliated with Oral Roberts University, a Bible-study institute and a television production facility.

Practical considerations dictate that the two churches work together. First Baptist needs to sell its Van Nuys land to help pay for the expensive move to the West San Fernando Valley, an undertaking that is scheduled to cost about $20 million for land and construction.

Meanwhile, First Foursquare, the 6,800-member congregation that has been growing by more than 10% each of the last few years, is locked into a community offering little available land and needs First Baptist's acreage to keep from being limited by a shortage of parking, sanctuary seating and other facilities.

This time, pastors from both churches say there's little likelihood that the agreement will fall apart, as it did last year over the unexpected cost of having to remove asbestos from First Baptist's existing buildings. That cost, expected to be about $1 million, will now be covered by First Baptist.

'Our Sense of Mission'

"Buying that land simply relates to our sense of mission," Hayford said during an interview in his church's parsonage, a sprawling home overlooking Knollwood Country Club in Granada Hills.

"We're entering the second era of our church and it doesn't require any strain of the imagination to see our church have 15,000 to 20,000 members by the year 2000."

Ironically, Hayford's home sits just a few miles from the 25 acres or so of undeveloped land straddling the Simi Valley Freeway in Chatsworth on which First Baptist has put its hopes for the future. "I might go over there some nights," Hayford quipped.

Moving to the West Valley, where more than half of First Baptist's membership now lives, has long been Moody's mission for his church.

"You have 700,000 people west of the 405 Freeway and no large church there, while the East Valley has three large churches," he said. (Grace Community Church of the Valley in Sun Valley is the third).

"I don't want to get in trouble with the smaller churches, but they just can't provide the services that a large one can, the kind of services that we'll offer.

"When we're finished with the new church, it will be a community service," he said, "a cultural center as well as a spiritual center."

Emotional and Informal

First Foursquare, also known as Church on the Way, is a Pentecostal congregation aligned with the denomination founded by flamboyant evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. That denomination was called the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. First Foursquare's worship style is emotional and informal, with members frequently speaking in tongues or showing other manifestations of what they believe to be the Holy Spirit.

"The openness of worship at Church on the Way is what attracted me," said actor Dean Jones, a 14-year member of the church and until recently a member of its Council of Elders.

"It was so warm and inviting it didn't take much to get used to that, even for an ex-atheist like myself."

Tall and rapidly balding at age 53, Hayford has been at First Foursquare since 1969. The congregation had just 18 members when he arrived for what he thought would be a brief stewardship designed to get the church back on its feet.

"The idea of staying there scared the spit out of me. I thought it would ruin my career and my life," he recalled.

Pivotal Experience

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