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On Faith Alone

How Did Pastor Matthew Barnett Build the Decidedly Downscale 'Dream Center' Into One of the Fastest-Growing Churches in the U.S.?

July 21, 2002|BOB EMMERS

The truck and its cartons of free food--this morning a collection of oranges, grapes, raisins, bread, celery and green beans--arrived at this corner deep in Echo Park at 9:30 and people were already waiting. Now, an hour later, the line still stretches around the corner. There are Asian and Anglo faces in line, but most are Latino, mothers with a child or two in tow, a few old men. No one in line is saying much, the air unusually muggy.

In the back of the truck, where everyone is sweating profusely, the workers have an assembly line going: hands flying, bodies twisting as they put food into containers and hand them down to the waiting people. It was all moving smoothly until about a minute ago, when the worker whose job it is to pass out the food got involved in a convoluted conversation with a broad-faced, middle-aged woman in black.

He's a slight young man in sweats and running shoes, with wispy blond hair and the features of an earnest teenager. He's a head shorter than the woman, who is attempting to reply to his rudimentary Spanish with rudimentary English. It's clear neither has much idea what the other is saying, and they're both laughing about it. In the back of the truck, the workers are growing impatient. Finally the girl in charge of the grapes plucks one from the bunch she's holding, cocks her arm and beans the slight young man in the back of the head.

"You're holding up the works, pastor," she says.

The assault brings laughter and catcalls from the people in line, from the workers in the truck and from other church workers busy sweeping the sidewalks and cleaning up this poor and dilapidated neighborhood. Matthew Barnett grins, wipes grape juice from his hair and thrusts the food into the woman's arms. The 28-year-old is the pastor, founder and prime motivator of the Dream Center, which is impressing church-growth experts and is being hailed as a model for how to conduct a massive inner-city social ministry while also appealing to throngs of worshipers. The church has drawn accolades--including one from President Bush--and at the same time has raised red flags among some more tradition-minded religious authorities. None of which matters at the moment.

"How many people love Jesus today?" Barnett calls out to all around. They call back:

"I do!"

"I do!"

"I do!"

John Vaughan is the director of church growth today, a research center in Bolivar, Mo. As one of the country's foremost church-growth experts, he calls the Dream Center one of the fastest-growing churches in the U.S. Playing a numbers game is a little tricky, though. Barnett's church has no membership rolls, which more traditional churches use to gauge their size. What can be said is that the church regularly draws more than 5,000 people to its several worship services each week, a startling increase over the initial 30 congregants it had seven years ago. Even more striking is Vaughan's prediction that the church could become one of the largest in the country; Barnett hopes for 100,000 worshipers in the not so distant future.

Megachurches are not a new phenomenon. Southern California is home to several that arose during the past two decades, including Faithful Central Bible Church, which had a congregation of about 200 in 1982. It purchased the Forum in Inglewood in December 2000 and this year drew a crowd of 15,000 for an Easter Sunday worship service and reenactment of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem.

What distinguishes Barnett's church, though, is the staggering array of 200 ministries that operate from the former Queen of Angels Hospital, towering above the Hollywood Freeway near Alvarado Street, just a few miles from the new $200-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Some of the ministries conduct church services for different ethnic communities, but the vast majority are social-service programs targeted at gang members and other at-risk youth, prostitutes, AIDS patients, the homeless, the hungry, drug addicts--the list goes on. There's even a ministry for transsexuals.

Building a church by focusing on the immediate, temporal needs of potential worshipers--"customers," as Barnett sometimes calls them--isn't new. What some call the New Church Movement has been employing the technique for years, striving to build large congregations by creating a user-friendly atmosphere. But for the most part the resulting megachurches sprouted In affluent suburban communities and provided services designed for upscale congregations.

Barnett's church, however, has grown up in the heart of the city, in one of L.A.'s poorer neighborhoods, where the "customers" for whom its programs are targeted are those on the margins of society. Its ministries reach 500,000 people a month. This surprises no one more than Barnett, who nearly quit in frustration months after coming to L.A. to be a pastor.

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