SIMI VALLEY — In a religion that reveres humble beginnings, it's only fitting that Sonrise Christian Fellowship started small.
The church's first services occurred in a musty middle school auditorium. As membership swelled, the evangelical fellowship pitched a tent in a Simi Valley strip mall, tucked near a Chuck E. Cheese's and a K mart. The congregation's latest digs are a converted warehouse across from a Bugle Boy factory outlet.
Even so, the spartan thousand-seat sanctuary--which next month will begin hosting four weekend services over two days-- has been a bit cramped lately. So Sonrise is hunting for 25 or 30 acres to call its own in the hopes of building a sanctuary and starting a religious elementary school and preschool.
Remarkably, Sonrise Christian Fellowship has evolved over seven years from a mom-and-pop church with a congregation of 65 to one of Ventura County's few mega-churches, ministering to 4,000 members. Attended by local officials, the fast-growing church carries considerable political clout in conservative circles.
The secret to the Foursquare church's mass appeal originates from a distinctive blend of scripture, self-help and pop culture. Services feature hip-swaying music, an emphasis on practical teachings over profuse Bible-quoting and "video melodramas" that emphasize sermon teachings.
Senior Pastor Ken Craft believes his fellowship offers the antidote to traditional church doldrums. It's a "seeker-friendly" church, attracting lapsed Christians along with skeptical baby boomers and their children.
"I wanted to start a church that people would feel comfortable bringing their non-Christian friends to," said Craft, a boyish-looking 34-year-old. "It's very user-friendly. I want them to feel God's presence, but the structure needed to be modified to meet the needs of people today."
Witness a recent Sunday service.
Everyone who steps into Sonrise's cavernous sanctuary is heartily greeted and offered a program. The church resembles an auditorium, with its stage, lack of windows and pink-upholstered chairs. There is not a pew, organ or hymnal in sight. Two massive video screens on each side of a stage flash upcoming church events and song lyrics.
Most congregants are younger than 40, families with children. They also reflect an ethnic diversity rarely seen in this suburban city. Church garb runs the gamut from baggy corduroy shorts, spiky blond hair and a discreet facial piercing to an elegant lavender silk sheath plus pearls. No matter. Children and teens socialize next to recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes.
The chatter stops when the music pastor, one of Sonrise's 11 full-time ministers, starts to strum an infectious, Doobie Brothers-esque hook on his electric guitar. In kick the drums, synthesizer, other guitars and backup singers performing catchy, contemporary songs of praise.
After a video melodrama about a lonely teen who commits suicide, Craft segues into a pragmatic sermon about loneliness. Although he refers to a few biblical passages, Craft also cites pop culture: from the song "All By Myself" to the death of Marilyn Monroe to the Unabomber attacks attributed to hermit Theodore Kaczynski. In the audience, people follow along by filling out a loneliness quiz.
With humor and feeling, Craft tells his pupils that rejection, insecurity, a loss of perspective, selfishness and a depersonalized world cause loneliness.
The cure, he says, is Christ.
"Now aren't you glad Jesus Christ is your personal savior, not a personal computer?" he asks. "Aren't you glad Jesus calls you by name, not by a number?"
Rousing applause answers him.
Sitting shyly in the back row of the church for her first Sonrise Sunday service is Kellie Marquez. A Catholic, Marquez is a preschool teacher going through a tough divorce. She started attending a women's support group at Sonrise a few months back and is now giving the church a closer look.
The sermon on loneliness could have been dedicated to her, Marquez said. She is more than a little impressed.
"What's different here is that they talk about issues you deal with in real life instead of all those prayers that aren't relevant," said Marquez, 28. "It's very helpful to hear that other people have the same problems as you. . . . This is almost therapeutic for me."
In short, the 90-minute Sonrise service is engaging. By design.
"I made it my goal from the outset: You will not be bored," Craft said. "We have this theme called '52 great weekends'--not a big Christmas, not a big Easter, but just an excellent service every weekend."
To accomplish that goal, Craft borrowed a technique more commonly associated with advertisers than preachers: market research.
His target audience was "Joe Simi Valley"--young and well-educated; fond of his job and where he lives; into contemporary music, health and fitness; and a bit skeptical of organized religion.