Informal Arundel church grows by leaps and bounds

Pastor encourages casual atmosphere

January 17, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The members of North Arundel Church packed their essentials early yesterday -- drum kit, electric piano, a 10-foot stack of speaker monitors and a bunch of Bibles -- and took to the road.

For the third time in its six years, the nondenominational congregation doubled in size and outgrew its quarters, forcing it to become a church on the move. This time, it landed at the auditorium of Glen Burnie High School.

North Arundel is among a growing number of "seeker sensitive" churches -- houses of worship where those attending don't have to dress up, that provide upbeat music and contemporary preaching.

North Arundel Church seems to be attracting a cross-section of seekers from the Glen Burnie area and beyond, says its senior pastor, James D. Pope.

"We've got a lot of bikers. We have people who pull up [on] their Harleys, in their leather and chains and tattoos, and who will sit next to a police officer" during services, Pope said. His philosophy in starting the church was simple: "Reach the biggest hell-raiser around, and the crowd will follow," he said.

The stage of the Glen Burnie High School auditorium, transformed into a church sanctuary, is decidedly low-key.

It has no cross, no Christian iconography of any kind. Pope's pulpit is a music stand borrowed from the seven-piece band that accompanies each service with the strains of Christian rock. He eschews liturgical vestments for a dark blue polo shirt and casual gray slacks for his preaching attire, and sits, when he can bear to sit, perched on a wooden stool.

It is the informality and enthusiasm in worship that seems to initially draw many to North Arundel Church.

Jim Rosso, 41, rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to yesterday's service and strolled in with helmet in hand.

"This is not the regimented thing you grew up with. It's a spirit-filled church," he said.

"I go wherever I feel welcome, and I've been coming to this one for a while now."

In starting North Arundel Church, Pope, 45, feels he has found an outlet for his ministerial talents.

Ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1974 in his home state of Texas, he describes himself as a sort of bad boy of the denomination, chafing at the strictures of traditionalism and going through four pastorates before moving to Maryland in 1990.

Pope led a church in Brooklyn Park for three years, but ran up against the same frustrations he faced in Texas.

Expanding his options

"The traditional music was just death warmed over for me," he said. He retired the organ and put in a piano to modernize the music. His preaching took on a more extemporaneous style. New people started mixing with the sleepy congregation, and that led to conflict. Pope said he understands why longtime members would feel alienated.

"They had built the place, and it was being taken away from them. It was being taken away from them one pew at a time, one parking place at a time."

That led Pope to break out on his own. He decided to follow the model of a highly successful Southern California congregation, Saddleback Valley Community Church, and its pastor, the Rev. Rick Warren. Pope started North Arundel Church in 1993, in an old karate studio above a Glen Burnie coin-operated laundry. "I called up folks and said, `We've got a place to meet. If you have a lawn chair, bring it,' " Pope said.

The fledgling congregation of about 30 outgrew the space, forcing it to relocate in 1995 to the old Harundale Mall. Two years later, more growth led the church to an industrial park building in Glen Burnie, its home before Glen Burnie High School.

Saddleback attracts 15,000 each week to its service. North Arundel draws about 700, with a core membership of about 300.

Pope says he doesn't concentrate on numbers, figuring that if he concentrates on maintaining the mission, numbers will take care of themselves.

"Who am I going to tell they can't come?" he says. "What are we going to do? Put up a `No Trespassing' sign that says `Keep Out?' "

Comfortable feeling

People like Karen Holbruner, 48, say they will keep attending North Arundel because this is where they feel comfortable.

"We've been to several different churches in the past, and this is just where we're supposed to be," said Holbruner, who, with her husband, was to be baptized at a service at the church last night. "You don't have to pretend you're something you're not. People from diverse backgrounds are here. It's like a big melting pot of Christianity. I hope this is what heaven will be like."

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