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The Storyteller : Preacher Jess C. Moody's Tales of a New Church and '80s Theology

December 29, 1988|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | Colvin is a Redondo Beach free - lance writer.

The first thing that strikes you about the Rev. Jess C. Moody is that he's a talker.

The senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys remembers parishioner Burt Reynolds' high school football rushing average (9.8 yards per carry), reminisces about meeting C.S. Lewis, gives his opinions on what's wrong with churches and explains without hesitation his view of the California work ethic--toil until you can afford a Mercedes, then quit.

He describes himself variously as an "over-insured Republican," a "prophet to the church," a "pragmatic mystic," "transparent as a window pane" and "hard to interpret."

And, in 1986, he announced that he would move his congregation to Chatsworth "to keep the West Valley from Satan's grip."

But what rolls off Moody's tongue, in his honeyed west Texas drawl, is not mere loquaciousness.

"I am a storyteller because that is what Jesus was," said Moody, the Southern Baptist minister who is the force behind a $17-million "church for the 21st Century" soon to be under construction at a site north of the Simi Valley Freeway and west of Tampa Avenue. "And I want to be what he was more than anything."

For this venture to succeed, Moody must retain most of First Baptist's 5,000 active members while attracting new ones. To do that, he believes that he needs a 1980s' theology communicated with 1980s' marketing tools, a tactic that could alienate some of the very people that he's trying to reach.

The Rev. John Myrick, a close friend who is pastor of the Restoration Church in La Crescenta, calls Moody "the Will Rogers of Christianity."

"That gets him in trouble," Myrick said, "because there are some people who think that unless you are real serious and sour-faced about your faith, you're not a real Christian."

Moody defends himself by saying, "You can't teach anybody anything unless they're entertained."

A TV evangelist with a bent for building big churches--the one in Chatsworth will be the third of his career--Moody has not attracted the followers, money or controversy of a Jimmy Swaggart or a Jim Bakker. His sexual activities have not been profiled in Penthouse magazine, and he is not among the television ministers being investigated by the IRS. In fact, Moody served on the government panel appointed to help settle the bankruptcy of Bakker's ministry, the PTL Club.

Before coming to Van Nuys in 1976, he had a 25-station television network based in Palm Beach, Fla. He said he gave up the network because it "had become a God." The program was also $400,000 in debt.

First Baptist's services are taped and shown at 1 p.m. Sundays on Channel 30, a Glendale UHF channel broadcast throughout Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and at 3 p.m. Sundays on Valley Cable's Channel 65, a religious access channel seen in the west San Fernando Valley. Both channels show taped repeats every weekday morning at 5:30.

Moody's income, $78,000, is relatively modest compared to that received by leaders of other large churches, and does not include the usual pastor's stipend for a house or car. He and Doris, his wife of 39 years, live in a Chatsworth home that they bought several years ago for $235,000. He says he gives 30% of his income to charity.

Moody's one concession to high living is his smoke-gray Sterling automobile, the British wanna-be Jaguar. But when he takes a visitor to lunch, it is to Furr's Cafeteria in Van Nuys, a regular hangout.

Nonetheless, he is ambitious: The new Chatsworth facility represents a financial risk--there will be $4 million in construction debt, even after the sale of the Van Nuys property.

Moody, of course, is no stranger to risk. Consider his theological beliefs.

Christians who believe that the Bible is literally true and who associate only with Christians who believe as they do trouble Moody because they see the secular and the sacred worlds as separate.

Moody does not. In fact, he says he strives to be sure that half of his friends at any time are non-Christian so that he does not get trapped in Christian rhetoric.

Moody's version of Christianity eschews pain and guilt and indoctrination. Rather, he says, he preaches "total life development and enrichment."

'Class Act'

That attitude has won Moody a wide range of admirers. One fan, movie producer Harvey Bernhard, said: "No matter what your religion . . . you've got to believe in Jess Moody. He's the class act of all preachers."

"He is a crusader against legalism and narrow fundamentalism" and that has "made him unpopular with people who don't think he is stern enough in the faith," said Myrick, who was recruited by Moody even though he was divorced, usually a taboo among Southern Baptist congregations.

Yet Moody doesn't consider himself a crusader. "I'm just a Southern boy attempting to adapt to California culture, to bring the Gospel to help these people lead a satisfactory life," he said.

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