Congregations create sacred space wherever they can find room

Many in Central Md. pray in storefronts, schools, warehouses

July 26, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Every Sunday morning, while Columbia stretches and blinks its eyes, a few members descend on the cafeteria at Running Brook Elementary School. By 8: 20 a.m., they are hard at work, unloading stereo equipment, laying down carpets, unfolding cribs and card tables. They move fast, not talking much, sweating in their Sunday best.

They work magic. Before long, religious music fills the room. There's a refreshment table with hot coffee, a literature table with pamphlets about Jesus Christ and a smiling woman at the door saying good morning. In less than an hour, the cafeteria -- with its shiny tile floors, fluorescent lights and kiddie decorations on the walls -- becomes a sacred space.

The church, Action Chapel International, is one of dozens of congregations that meet in Baltimore-area schools, storefronts, homes, theaters, senior centers, strip malls, warehouses, barns and offices. They range in size from one person (a woman who worships before 20 empty chairs every Sunday in a Columbia community center) to more than 3,000 (Grace Fellowship, which holds four Sunday services in an old warehouse in Timonium).

These buildings have no stained-glass windows, no wooden pews, no organ pipes shining in the nave. But these churches-without-walls, which account for one of eight congregations nationwide, tend to have something else: a religious vision that full-time houses of worship couldn't satisfy and a desire to spread it far and wide.

In one sense, they are a modern development, born of a combination of rising real estate prices and a scarcity of building sites. In another, they hark back to the roots of Christianity, when Paul and others wandered the globe preaching to the unconverted.

Action Chapel International, a nondenominational church, began nearly four years ago with a handful of parishioners at Swansfield Elementary School. Their founding pastor, Fiifi Pentsil, sold cars full time for several years until the congregation became big enough to support him.

Starting from scratch

"It was what God wanted me to do," says Pentsil, 35, who is from Ghana and never attended divinity school.

He says his congregation has about 50 members; about 20 showed up for church on a recent Sunday.

Thanks to experience in creating a small business, Pentsil did not find it an overwhelming task to start a church from scratch.

"You just do it," he says. "You're basically dealing with people, so to be a pastor, you have people, you have problems and you pray."

First impressions

Pentsil prays for the church to grow and one day to move into a building of its own. But he says it can be hard to attract members when you're meeting in a school cafeteria with only a small sign on a nearby curb to attract people.

"People don't look for a church in a school," he says.

Church member Carla Salley worries that the cafeteria setting might turn people away.

"For people who are coming from the outside, I think the first impression really counts. Your surroundings do matter," Salley says.

Schools and storefronts

Nationwide, many congregations struggle with the same issues.

About 13 percent of U.S. congregations do not meet in a full-time house of worship, such as a church, mosque or synagogue, according to a survey last year by Mark Chaves, associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"The most common kind of other place to meet is in a school -- about 5 percent. The most common thing after that is a storefront," Chaves says.

In Howard County, about two dozen congregations rent space from public schools. Baltimore County has about 20, Anne Arundel County 16, Carroll County five and Baltimore three, according to school officials.

In almost all these jurisdictions, school officials say, the number has held steady throughout the years despite the tremendous growth of the suburbs.

Carol Childress of the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based nonprofit group that works with churches nationwide, says starting a church is one of the best ways to attract people.

"We don't have enough churches," she says. "The population is too diverse, too heterogeneous, too plural in both culture and language and lifestyle. No one single church can meet the diversity of needs that reside in the population.

"It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people."

A return to roots

Some churches that rent space on Sundays take comfort in the thought that they are, in a sense, returning to the roots of Christianity.

"At one point we weren't really interested in a building," says the Rev. Fred Lessans, pastor at the nondenominational Living Water Fellowship, which meets at Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City.

"We were trying to follow the model of the early church. The first 250 years, there was no such thing as a church building. They met in homes primarily, or they might rent a hall."

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