Growth is gospel truth

Influx: County churches race to expand as their attendance blossoms

Woodbine

September 11, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Calvary Lutheran Church in Woodbine is overflowing with worshippers - it holds Sunday school in walkways, has crowded parking lots and considered holding meetings at nearby restaurants.

Its membership has doubled to 260 within the past 16 years, causing the church to extend its single service to three, expand from one to two pastors and add a full staff.

"The goal of the Christian church is to take the Gospel to other people," the Rev. Roger L. Rinker said. "The problem is that when they come in, everything changes - you can't sit where you want to sit, you can't park where you want to park."

The church is one of many in Howard County bursting at the seams, resulting in applications with the county Department of Planning and Zoning for expansion, including building additions and more parking spaces. Church leaders say the influx of worshippers is primarily caused by the growing population, and some say churches also have updated their traditional formats to try to spread their messages to more people.

Rinker said many churches used to wait for people to come to them - a mindset that could have led to a stagnant attendance in the 1970s and 1980s - but now are trying to adapt to the community's differing needs to create a more welcoming environment.

Some new worshippers at Calvary Lutheran Church would immediately leave upon hearing that the church didn't have a nursery, so the staff added one to accommodate the growing population, Rinker said. A director of youth ministries was also hired, and the church has plans to expand its building and parking spaces - with county approval and the necessary funding.

"You can have the best service in the world, but if there's no place to park, people won't come," Rinker said. "If you make it difficult to feel warm and welcome, they won't stay."

George W. Martin, chairman of the Columbia Religious Facilities Corp., said the significant growth of congregations in the past few years - increasing from about 240 to 260 countywide - could be partially attributed to the growing Korean population. The county's Asian population more than doubled since 1990, from 8,098 to 19,124, which could account for Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City applying to add two temporary trailers.

Columbia's interfaith centers - used on a weekly average by more than 6,300 Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims - are growing as well, with two additional centers to be built in the villages of River Hill and Kings Contrivance, Martin said.

The Rev. Bob Wallace, pastor at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbia, said the arrival of more residents - the county's population increased by more than 60,500 since 1990, with 247,842 current residents - helps but doesn't automatically lead to church growth.

He said churches are drawing more people by becoming more hospitable, which he said has always been practiced, but "it just gets lost now and then." Many churches now deliver their messages in a way that nontraditional worshippers find easier to understand, he said.

St. John Evangelical Lutheran holds four Sunday services - two traditional and two contemporary - to reach out to more worshippers. The contemporary services are less formal - Wallace doesn't wear a suit coat, the music comes from a band instead of an organ and the message is delivered in a conversational style. At all four services, Wallace said, the church provides folders that explain how to participate instead of "cryptically giving page numbers and hymn numbers, and the person who is unfamiliar becomes completely lost in the first four to five minutes, and the person is so self-conscious that it becomes an uncomfortable experience."

The church has been holding the different services for the past nine years, and Wallace said the motivation "is not to have overflowing parking lots. ... Our motivation is to bring the story, the narrative of Jesus Christ to the world."

But the church is growing - the church's Sunday attendance has increased from 190 in 1989 to its current 500. The booming attendance has led to the church renting space from nearby Waterloo Elementary School and buying a small house on an adjacent property for its youth ministry building.

At Cross Roads Church of the Nazarene in Ellicott City, the staff is trying to "bring [the church] up to the level of the community," Senior Pastor Kevin T. Hardy said.

The sanctuary is typically at capacity with 300 people at its single Sunday service, prompting the church to add another, starting next month. Popular services, such as Easter and Christmas, usually attract about 500 people, making parking difficult.

To make the structure more accommodating, Cross Roads Church is looking to double its 100 parking spaces and expand and remodel its facility to include a two-story foyer, an elevator and a multipurpose center for youths.

But despite efforts resulting in increasing attendance, Calvary Lutheran pastor Rinker said not all worshippers can adjust to growing congregations.

"Churches don't always want to go through that - it's a difficult, frightening, uncomfortable process," Rinker said. "It's called change."

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