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VENTURA COUNTY RELIGION | RELIGION

Young Spirit, Old Message at New Church

April 17, 1999|BRENDA LOREE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How do you start a church?

Very prayerfully, said Pastor Scott Wilson of the Gold Coast Christian Church.

But Wilson also employed a year's worth of R&D, along with a tailor-made marketing strategy and tens of thousands of dollars in seed money, to attract the 400 people who turned out to sit in folding chairs for his "grand opening" Easter Sunday sermon.

The solid numbers of the Easter debut were no accident, and neither are the church's name and location.

Wilson and his congregation planners chose Easter because "it's the most likely Sunday in the year people will attend some church or another." In the three weeks leading up to the holiday, they mailed out 240,000 eye-catching, witty postcards to county residents.

The strategy worked--to the tune of 400 souls.

"Then, we had 258 show up at last Sunday morning's second service during the rainstorm," the boyish-looking Wilson said. "They tell you that if half as many turn out on the second Sunday, it's a good sign."

The new church has Gold Coast in its name because Wilson envisioned a regional church from the get-go.

"And we had to be freeway close," Wilson said, which is why the Cowan Convention Center at Camarillo's airport, near the Ventura Freeway, is a good location if he is going to pull in churchgoers from throughout the county.

Although he has a new church, Wilson is not new to ministering in Ventura County. He has been pastor at the Christian Church of Thousand Oaks and affiliated with Camarillo Christian Church and--at age 22--the First Christian Church of El Rio.

"I learned the ropes of being a pastor and preaching at El Rio," he said. "There's no better way than just to be thrown in."

At age 32, he began a six-year stint at the Christian Church of Thousand Oaks. By then he had figured out what kind of ministering he wanted to do.

"Thousand Oaks was a more traditional church when I first started there," said Wilson, now 39. "But my vision was always to be more evangelical. And hip on Sunday mornings--cutting edge."

Further, he said, "Be a practical church. Go from organ music to a praise band and singers with horns, keyboard and percussion. People over 50 grew up on rock 'n' roll--Paul McCartney is 56--and no one I know dials in any kind of organ music on the radio by choice."

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Plus, "Use humor. Put life application into sermons. Remove any--all--barriers. And casual dress. People have always said what they like best in our churches is the welcome they feel."

One congregant who appreciated the changes was Pat DeRemer, at the time a songwriter and music producer for Disney Studios who lived in Newbury Park. A self-described "seeker," DeRemer took wholeheartedly to Wilson's message.

Today, DeRemer is the music director at Gold Coast Christian Church. He arranges contemporary Christian music and writes songs for the sermons.

"If you come to church here, expect the music to be energetic and loud," DeRemer said. "You'll definitely feel the impact."

DeRemer said he is always on the lookout for musicians "who have a heart for God--and keyboard, bass, guitar, percussion. I'd love to develop two or three bands. Call me."

Along with Wilson's wife, Sharon, DeRemer was someone Wilson had shared his musings with in 1997.

"I'd always wanted to plant a new church instead of go into an existing one and change things," Wilson said. "Founding, not trying to rework."

Later that year came the call that Wilson thinks God had a hand in: It was from the Southern California Evangelistic Assn., which is "the church-planting arm of our movement of churches."

The association had a question: Would Scott and Sharon think about starting a church in the Camarillo-Oxnard area? It would mean leaving the pastorship he had going in Thousand Oaks and plunging into the unknown.

They decided yes, and Wilson's last Thousand Oaks sermon was on New Year's Eve 1997.

Then came a battery of psychological evaluations and testing with the evangelistic association, followed by a week of church-planning training.

"They knew church planters are a different breed, so they have to be sure," Wilson explained.

Plus, the association would be providing the seed money for the undertaking.

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Some years ago, the Ventura Christian Church had closed its doors and sold off its church buildings and properties. Half of the money from that sale, now with the association, would be the start-up money for Wilson's new church, both for capital investments and operational expenses.

A chunk of those funds was handed over to Outreach Marketing, a religious marketing firm, which came up with the humorous mailers that thousands of people around the county have received.

One playfully lists the "Top Ten Reasons People Don't Go to Church," which include 8: "Would rather sleep in own bed than in pew"; 6: "Already served time as a child"; 4: "During organ music, start craving Dodger Dogs"; 3: "Can only remember three commandments"; and 7: "One word: hypocrites!"

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