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August 21, 1999
Column #938

WHY INDEPENDENT EVANGELICAL CHURCHES ARE GROWING

     SAN ANTONIO - Last May I visited Harvest Fellowship Community Church, where my son, Adam, worships. I immediately saw why independent evangelical churches like his are booming across America, while many traditional liturgical churches are slowly eroding down to a loyal band of the white-haired, bald and stooped.

     First, the atmosphere is open and inviting, Somewhat startling to this easterner, no man had a tie on but me. People were dressed not in their Sunday best, but Saturday casual shorts, T-shirts. The message: Come as you are. Except for one hymn, ''Amazing Grace,'' all the rest were praise songs with snappy rhythms, backed up by guitars and drums, not an organ.

     The words flashed on a screen so we had no need of hymnals, ''user friendly.'' People stood and sang for an astonishing 25 minutes.

     Mothers were told there was a room in the rear if they were nursing or had wiggly kids, and a children's ministry for infants, and Sunday School for all in a new building next door, which doubles during the week as a Christian school for 350 K- 4th grade kids.

     The place simply doesn't look like a church. There is no cross, no pews, no stained glass windows, in fact no windows at all. It resembled a dinner theater, which, in fact, it once was.

     There was no liturgy, no standard prayers repeated every week. Often, at the beginning, there is a 5-7 minute skit, a modern parable, on the theme of the sermon that engages the 90's mind. A bunch of songs followed by a sermon, the height of informality.

     When a visitor attends Harvest Fellowship, a church member drops by their home with a loaf of bread on a board, as a gift. Why? ''We have become a society of disconnected people,'' observes Pastor Peter Spencer, 45. ''This is a way of greeting people, of being gracious in a genuine way. If they ask us to come in, we say, `No, we are not Jehovah's Witnesses. Enjoy the bread.'''

     Unlike Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches, which follow a ''lectionary'' in which the same Gospel and Epistle readings are repeated over and over, which can become numbing over the years, evangelical sermons draw from a much wider range of Scripture, which makes them inherently more interesting.

     Harvest Fellowship goes a step further to preach practical messages of hope on the toughest issues. Christian dating, marriage and divorce are not avoided, as at most churches. The sermon I heard was on John 10:10: ''I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.''

     ''If that is God's desire, why is it that most people are not having an abundant life?''asked associate pastor, John  Cannon. Good question.

     His answers: Many are waiting for life's conditions to change, rather than realizing that they have to change first. Many find their feelings about God change with circumstances, rather than realizing that God gave us a spirit of wisdom and revelation (Eph 1:1-17) that will enable us to be obedient, with unwavering faith. God will sustain us through changing circumstances. Therefore we have to accept God's love and provision (John 3:16; 13:4-5), and accept his forgiveness and cleansing (Isaiah 1:16; Hebrews 10:17; I John 3:17-18).

     And then we have to be not only convicted, but altered, as Paul says in Romans 12:2: ''Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.'' In an evangelical church, worshipers are constantly looking up Scriptures and underlining their Bibles. Therefore, they are learning. In the liturgical churches, no one even brings a Bible.

     What was most striking, however, was the deep faith and transparent spirit of those who spoke. These are people for whom faith had made a difference in their life. They radiate both a joy and conviction. Exhibit A is Pastor Peter, who had his own ad agency and from 1976-1981 he was the lead singer in such musicals as ''Fiddler on the Roof'' at the Fiesta Dinner Playhouse in San Antonio. Apparently on top of the world, he and his Brazilian wife quit and became missionaries in Sao Paulo, working with orphans. They returned in 1985.

     The Fiesta was bankrupt.. Peter walked through a kicked-down door, went on the stage where he had sung hundreds of times. A vision came that one day he would preach the Gospel there. He was leading a small church of 100 people in 1992 when the opportunity came to buy the building for $1.5 million. He offered $300,000 and got it for $315,000. At the first service 500 people showed up. Today, 2,100 attend weekly.

     ''The purpose of church is not to show up,'' he says. ''but to grow up, be impacted and change.''

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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