As Howard residents find religion, churches find a crisis over space

Additions to buildings, more parking sought

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, forcing 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 that are bursting at the seams, resulting in applications for expansion filed with the county Department of Planning and Zoning. Projects include building additions and more parking spaces. Church leaders say the influx of worshippers is caused primarily by the growing population, and some say churches also have updated their traditional formats to try to spread their message 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 potential members of 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 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 Columbia Religious Facilities Corp., said the significant growth of congregations during the past few years 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 on its property.

Columbia's interfaith centers - used by more than 6,300 Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims each week on average - are growing as well. Two more centers are 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 residents counted in last year's census - 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 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 worship 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 - Sunday attendance has increased from 190 in 1989 to 500.

The booming attendance has led the church to rent some space from nearby Waterloo Elementary School and buy a small house on an adjacent property for its youth ministry building.

Despite efforts resulting in increasing attendance, Calvary Lutheran pastor Rinker said not all worshippers can adjust to growing congregations. A growing membership can inevitably lead to people feeling that their place of importance no longer exists, he said, and some of those parishioners leave.

"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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