Churches' Many New Services
CHICAGO — Forget Weight Watchers. Forget Jenny Craig. Forget counting calories and devouring skimpy diet meals.
A growing number of people are turning to the Bible for help in losing weight. They're shedding pounds by praying to God - and not relying on food when they feel a need for comfort.
But weight loss isn't the only everyday issue being tackled by an emerging brand of Christianity. There is a Christian approach to parenting, to public-relations, and to doing business. There are Christian career counselors, Christian talent agents, and Christian ministries that cater to college and pro athletes.
As churches and other Christian groups increasingly charge into realms long dominated by the secular world, they are transforming the nature of church in America. Their forays into such pursuits - as well as their adoption of secular services such as weight rooms and food courts - are not just an effort to broaden their appeal. They also highlight how many churches, particularly evangelical ones, are striving to be more relevant and practical in people's daily lives.
"The traditional walls that contained religious activity have been blown apart," says Peter Dobkin Hall, a research scholar at Yale University's divinity school.
Take Christian dieting. One night last week, in a tidy, blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, seven residents gathered in the Mayfair Bible Church to watch a video by dietitian and Christian dieting lecturer Gwen Shamblin.
As the church choir practiced in the next room, they sat in pews and watched the willowy Ms. Shamblin standing in front of Egypt's pyramids, telling her audience that the laws of food and dieting - "drink eight glasses of water a day," "count your calories" - are a bondage similar to Pharaoh's captivity of the Israelites. Their hunger, she said, is more often spiritual than material. "I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt," she quoted from Psalms. "Open wide thy mouth, and I will fill it."
Shamblin's approach has satisfied Joan Glover, who tried every available diet, only to gain back all the pounds she lost. "I feel totally free," she says. "I never want to go back to dieting again."
LIKE Mrs. Glover, more Americans are turning to religion for answers, says Diane Winston at the Center for Media, Culture, and History at New York University. "Early in the 20th century, we became enamored of technology and science. We believed they could answer all our questions. Religion seemed irrational."
But science and technology do not apply to many tough personal and societal problems. "So in the past 10 years, especially with the rising evangelical subculture, people have begun remembering that religion has a place in daily life," Ms. Winston says.
Religion has always been a part of Wes Yoder's work life. He's president of a prominent Christian talent agency, The Ambassador Agency, in Nashville, Tenn. His clients include singers, songwriters, and the McCaugheys, the Iowa family with septuplets. It's artificial "to compartmentalize one's life into the sacred and the secular," he says, noting that's what many religious people have been doing. "When Christians do this, they relegate themselves to obscurity in the public square."
But, especially with the growth of Christian rock, that's changing. His agency is growing fast, and he points out that two of America's biggest talent agencies now have Christian-rock divisions.
Many of the forays into secular arenas are being made by Christian evangelicals. Sometimes, they stir controversy.
Take the group Champions for Christ, based in Austin, Texas. It aims to help college and pro athletes navigate the pitfalls that come with success and big salaries. "Fame and popularity can't buy salvation," says staff member Dave Jamerson. Moreover, they often bring temptation, he says.
The group encourages daily prayer and modest living. Its high-profile members include Dallas Mavericks forward A.C. Green, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, and Chicago Bears rookie Curtis Enis. But speculation this summer that the group had edged into being Enis's agent sparked a wave of protest and concerns that it pressures high-paid athletes for money. (It denies both accusations.)
Even as Christian groups and churches are entering the business and entertainment worlds, they are also borrowing from these sectors to help meet members' needs - and to attract more worshipers. Traditionally, parishioners who wanted to socialize organized potlucks or joined the choir. But for some, that no longer suffices.
Televangelist Robert Schuller, for instance, is adding a mall-like food court to his Crystal Cathedral complex in Garden Grove, Calif. Houston's Second Baptist Church - long a standout in secular services - is rehabbing its restaurants to serve 1,200. Its Family Life Center also includes a swimming pool, weight room, saunas, and steam rooms.
"Sometimes churches seem like they're stained-glass fortresses, but we're changing that," says a spokeswoman at Second Baptist.
Such efforts, though, bring charges that churches are commercializing Christianity and losing compassion.
"If there were a soup kitchen for the homeless along with the food court, it might be OK," says Benjamin Hubbard, chairman of the comparative religion department at California State University in Fullerton.
But the changes in churches are good news for the Christian dieters in Chicago - and the 250,000 others who've tried the Weigh Down Workshops. When Mrs. Glover wants to eat even if she isn't hungry, instead of heading for the fridge, "I ask God for help," she says. "And he gives it to me."