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Casting Nets

In leading Mariners South Coast Church toward the 21st century, the Rev. Kenton Beshore has worked to hook a younger audience. That's meant replacing the organ with drums and adding lots of specialty programs. His evangelical mega-church has grown to 4,600 members.


The Rev. Kenton Beshore will be a few minutes late for his next service. It's Sunday morning--11:46, to be exact--and he's literally between churches--one in Irvine and one in Newport Beach.

The senior pastor at the two-campus Mariners South Coast Church doesn't have the luxury of waiting for his next service with a cup of coffee on the church patio, rocking on his heels, surrounded by doting parishioners.

He's on the highway.

After the 8:30 a.m. Newport service, Beshore, often chauffeured by his oldest son, Beau, drives two miles to the first Irvine service at 9:40. Then it's back to Newport for the 10:30, then back to Irvine at 11:40 for his fourth and final sermon of the day.

"Be nice to people out there," he tells his congregations at the close of each sermon.

Since April, Mariners South Coast, one of a handful of nondenominational, evangelical "mega-churches" in Orange County, has operated out of the two locations. It is Beshore's Sunday job, as senior pastor of the 4,600-member church, to deliver two sets of homilies and benedictions at each location.

Through it all, Beshore, 42, remains well-coiffed and unrattled. He thinks fast, talks fast and, when necessary, drives fast.

In Beshore's 12th year as senior pastor, his goal is to make Mariners "a church for the 21st century," one that stresses community, one that grows and can adapt and, in Mariners' case, one that remains viable on two chunks of real estate, two miles apart.

In the process, Beshore has found himself an unofficial spokesman on the role of U.S. evangelical mega-churches. CNN and the BBC have brought their cameras to film services at Mariners;Beshore shared his thoughts on the church's mission in a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story titled "Welcome to the Next Church."

The Mariners congregation, drawn from two affluent, predominately white communities, has a generous sprinkling of the financially successful and socially prominent. Nearly half the parishioners are single, Beshore says. "They come because they want to be around families, to be part of the community. We work hard at that. We target people 28 to 34."

Among the attendees are many who searched elsewhere for spiritual answers, Beshore says.

"Many of these people work in the business world. They're pragmatic; either something works or it doesn't. They're aggressive, not passive, searchers. So they find out real quick if we're real."

The congregation includes local political leaders, such as Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), who on a recent Sunday was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the foyer, where the service appears on TV monitors. He'd arrived too late to sit with his fiancee inside.

Baugh has been in the public eye a lot lately--last week he was reelected to his seat in the Legislature, and he faces allegations of campaign fraud in connection with his 1995 election.

A two-year church member, Baugh is among the many parishioners who admire Beshore's style.

"Kenton does a couple things that make this a neat place," Baugh says. "One is his thorough understanding and explanation of doctrine. The other is his understanding of human nature, human shortcomings, and how that truth blends with the message of Christ's forgiveness."


Mega-churches--those defined as having more than 2,000 attendees--such as Mariners have become well-established in Orange County. To share ideas, Beshore meets occasionally with other area mega-church pastors--including Rick Warren of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, Denny Bellesi of Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo and Chuck Smith Jr. of Calvary Chapel Capo Beach.

By design, these churches have an extremely casual worship style, the better to attract worshipers who may have left traditional churches feeling unequal to centuries-old ritual.

Where the altar stands at traditional churches, a five-piece band plays at Mariners. Offerings are taken not in collection plates but at pyramidal kiosks in the rear. The church's benignly modern architecture, together with an absence of crucifixes, vestments and other trappings, have generated comparisons to a shopping mall.

And, indeed, tables set up on the church patio do offer a smorgasbord of classes, sports leagues, lectures, seniors groups, women's groups, teen groups, four singles groups (one has more than 400 members), recovery programs, voter registration and more. The goal is to provide a sense of community that Beshore says is often lacking in the outside world.

Among the outreach programs at the church is support of overseas missions.

Beshore recently returned from a two-week trip to the Middle East, where he interviewed representatives of 17 Christian missionary groups. Of those groups, he says, five have been picked to be funded by Mariners.

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