Church finds artful ways to get its message across

Theater, video, music are part of pastor's modern approach

January 18, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When the Rev. David Anderson dreamed of starting a church more than seven years ago, he imagined a theater equipped with lights, props and a spinning stage; a band that played original music and skits performed every Sunday to make sermons come alive.

He envisioned a Filipino drummer jamming next to a white guitarist, a black woman praying arm in arm with a white man, a Jewish member who came almost every Sunday because he felt he had found a home.

Yesterday, when Anderson, the senior pastor of Bridgeway Community Church, gave his sixth annual "State of the Church" address, his dream seemed to have come true.

The church, which meets in the Howard Community College theater in Columbia, doubled in size last year to about 350 people. It has gotten so big it threatens to outgrow the theater and is going to start holding two services, beginning Sunday.

"Our heart is for reaching out to `unchurched' people," Anderson said. "It is about taking this age-old book called the Bible and making it relevant to people."

Equally exciting for Anderson is that the church is fully integrated: A little over half of the members are African-American, more than a third are white and most of the rest are Asian. There is even a handful of Jewish members who have become Christians.

What's the appeal? Most members will likely say the same thing: the energy, the sophisticated use of arts and technology, the sense of community. Every service starts with about 30 minutes of singing, clapping and drama before the sermon.

"We think that God gave us the arts, and we're going to use them to glorify him," said Ivana Miranda, 25, a former professional actress who discovered Bridgeway about 2 1/2 years ago and leads the group that writes and performs the church's weekly skits.

Bridgeway Community Church is one of many conservative nondenominational churches cropping up across the country. The largest and perhaps best-known of all such churches is Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, where Anderson served as a pastoral intern. There are more than 40 such churches in Maryland, including several in the Baltimore area. The biggest is Grace Fellowship in Timonium, which has more than 2,000 members, Anderson said.

Instead of using outdated hymnals, these churches project song lyrics onto screens. Instead of vestments, the pastors wear everyday clothes. Instead of a pulpit, there's a stage; instead of an organ, drums and electric guitars.

"There is so much competition in the arts now, which is why I think we need to be so professional," said Rich Becker, who coordinates the Sunday services.

"We demand excellence in the shows that we watch and the movies that we see, the games that we play, everything," he said. "I hate to use the word `compete,' but we are competing for people's attention and their time."

Unlikely leader

When Anderson, 32, was growing up in Prince George's County, he never dreamed he would become a pastor. The son of a Baptist preacher, he began to rebel against his father in his teens. He discovered drugs -- mostly marijuana -- and girls. After a while, he began to sell drugs to make money, he said.

For many years, he said he lived a double life: going to church on Sundays, enjoying the prayers and the hymns, then going to his girlfriend's house and getting high.

When Anderson was 18, all that changed. After a drug-using friend died in a car accident, he flushed his drugs down the toilet and vowed to devote himself to God.

"I said, `Lord, I'm still empty. I'm yours. I'm sorry. You can have me. From this point on, I won't fight against you anymore,' " he said. "I knew what God wanted me to do, and that was to share Christ with as many people as I could."

Anderson enrolled at the prestigious Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. While there, he served as assistant pastor at a Baptist church in a gang-ridden neighborhood of Chicago. He also interned at Willow Creek in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago.

Pastoring at both churches taught Anderson a lesson: All people have problems, and all need God, no matter what their race or economic status.

After he finished interning at Willow Creek, Anderson and his wife moved to Columbia to start Bridgeway. He recruited some of the most talented people he knew, including Becker, the programming director, who volunteers up to 40 hours a week at the church, in addition to his full-time job.

Before he found Willow Creek and Bridgeway, Becker said, he had trouble being a Christian: "I was a pastor's son, but I was disenchanted with the church. I felt like it was stuck in the '50s, irrelevant."

Making it relevant

Now Becker works hard to make Bridgeway relevant. Recently, the church held a four-part seminar called "What Would Jesus Say to Bill?" Participants talked about Bill Gates, Bill Graham, Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby. The church has also held programs such as "The 12 Steps of Highly Successful Christians," "How to Win the Rat Race without Becoming a Rat," "Making a Life, not just a Living" and "Mating, Dating and Waiting."

Members speak glowingly of the church.

"It's so contemporary and upbeat," said Shannon Wolters, 22, who testified about her faith yesterday before the congregation. Wolters said she used to work as a waitress on Sunday mornings but changed her schedule to accommodate church.

"I love the multicultural environment. It's just so friendly and warm," she said.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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