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Mega-progress at a megachurch

Going from a rented room in a hotel to a 2,300-member congregation 15 years later, Kingdom Life Christian Church's story is a study in how a megachurch succeeds.

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Patricia McKay was already a churchgoer, but says she "wasn't being fed properly in the word of God." She visited for a year before joining. "Some churches try to dictate to you, but the bishop challenges you to go back into the Bible and make sure he's telling you the truth. He's a man of God who lives by the Word."

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Ms. McKay particularly values the church's multicultural character: "The other churches I've been in were all black, but I wanted to have friends with people of all different races."

That was certainly part of Jay Ramirez's vision. Alienated from religion himself at one point, the Massachusetts native says he found faith again while working as chief of emergency medical services in east Texas. He got a theology degree, then was youth minister in a virtually all-white church.

Praying about his future, he says in a lengthy interview, he envisioned a diverse church in the Northeast, despite the region's reputation as cool toward religion.

Women's roles in church embraced

Now he reminds his congregation that "God doesn't see age, race, gender. He sees hearts, motives, obedience - people who keep the Word and love each other." He's also blunt about women's role in church: "Whoever said women have no place in ministry is pompous, and did not grasp the gospel. God did not segregate women from the gifts," Ramirez says. KLCC's pastoral staff is as diverse as its congregation.

Critics say some megachurch pastors bring in crowds by making people feel good and avoiding Christian demands. Ramirez's preaching style, however, while strong on love, is "a little in your face," says Jim Hashem, a former businessman who sold his high-tech firm and volunteers as chief of staff. "The bishop is going to provoke you to change your life. He will always call for self-inspection and continual progress. A lot of people, including me, like that."

Ramirez chose Matthew 6:33 as his church's "anchor" scripture: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." What's important, he says, is a tangible relationship with God and Christ that pervades one's life - and touches society.

Caring for the community is key

KLCC grew not by door-to-door evangelization, but by prayer and caring for the community, Ramirez says. "We'd meet every Friday to pray for the community. We started cleaning up the neighborhood ... If we are really serving, we never need worry about people coming or about money," he adds. "People want to make a difference. When they go hear a sermon and just go back to their ballgame, it doesn't happen. It happens when they are empowered to make a difference everywhere they go."

At the same time, he and church members had to wrestle with prejudices in order to grow. When different races started coming, they held "open, no-holds-barred forums to get this stuff out of us and take a proactive stance on healing," he says.

KLCC is strong on tithing, and with members' giving, Kingdom Life has purchased some 25 properties in Milford and renovated many. It now operates close to 100 ministries, from Joseph's Storehouse (providing goods to the needy) to a School for the Performing Arts. Its prison ministry also works with inmates when they are released, helping them get jobs and housing, and fixing up used cars for them.

The church's rehabilitation efforts helped spur Devon Revitalization, a $6 million neighborhood-renewal project. The bishop sits on the board with local officials.