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RELIGION / JOHN DART : Hoedown in the House of Worship : Porter Ranch: Friday night services at the Shepherd of the Hills Church break new ground by incorporating country-Western music.

October 09, 1993|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tall, trim minister stood before the pews in boots, black jeans and a blue, patterned shirt. His wife, the congregation's musical director, wore a similar Western outfit complete with black vest.

After a lively song from eight country-ish singers accompanied by a small band, someone let loose with a "Whoop!"

"Feel free to go 'Whoop!' in the middle of a song or even a prayer," urged the Rev. Patrick Moody, executive pastor of the Shepherd of the Hills Church. "I want you folks to know that we're on the cutting edge here," Moody told a gathering of 75 folks, nearly all of them dressed casually, some in boots and Levis.

"We want to do something for Jesus Christ through the medium of country music."

Okay, the church, regardless of its proximity to new housing developments, is in Porter Ranch . And its white-fenced grounds and architecture do suggest a California horse ranch.

But Shepherd of the Hills may be plowing new ground by incorporating the national popularity of country music into a regular weekend worship service.

The Sunday-morning services for the 7,100-member church remain unchanged. But added to the weekend schedule every Friday night since Sept. 17 has been a new country gospel service, dubbed "L.A. City Limits" in a wordplay on its location in the hills of the northwest San Fernando Valley and the popular TV country music show, "Austin City Limits."

Catholic parishes introduced Saturday Masses more than a decade ago and some large evangelical churches have added Saturday evening services lately--all designed to accommodata churchgoers who work or have recreational plans on Sunday.

Yet, Senior Pastor Jess Moody decided that Friday was a better time than Saturday for an alternate worship service.

"I think we're Sabbath Eve people here," joked the elder Moody at the second service, referring to the Jewish roots of Christianity. The more than 150 people who showed up that night heard a Christian music trio, the Stone Brothers.

As an additional lure, the church offers child care until 10 p.m. for worshipers who want to attend the 80-minute service, then go out to dinner without the kids.

And the singles group is offering country dance lessons at the church on Thursday nights.

True to his calling, the senior Moody said the innovative services "are worship services, not Friday night concerts. We study the word of God in this church."

Indeed, the service includes a short sermon, an offering, congregational singing (with the words shown on a giant screen) and a concluding prayer time when congregants may make "a decision" on a white piece of paper, checking off anything from "accepting Christ as my Savior" to talking to a pastor.

Despite the evangelical flavor, Hal Rapp of Granada Hills said he likes the "non-judgmental" approach of the new service. "Anyone can come here and hear truth without an indictment from the pulpit," Rapp said.

Many of those who attend, like Wilda Braith of Encino, are church members who are simply adding the Friday night service to their church life rather than substituting it for Sunday worship.

Although Shepherd of the Hills gives no denominational identification in its name or bulletin, the church is affiliated with the Southern Baptists. Jess Moody, who recently celebrated 50 years in the ministry, lost a bid for president of the large Southern Baptist Convention last year.

Shepherd of the Hills, which was the Van Nuys First Baptist Church before its relocation to Porter Ranch in 1991, has had a number of musicians, actors and other entertainment professionals involved in its activities. Singer Gail Bonine composed the service's namesake song, "L.A. City Limits."

Patrick Moody said that he and his wife, Amy, who frequently sings in the services, are still conducting auditions and working on the country gospel sound they want.

"We are getting a lot of pop singers trying out," he said. "We don't want Conway Twitty, but the more contemporary Western sounds of Garth Brooks or the Judds."

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