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.

In 1991, Pastor Jay Ramirez rented a room in a Ramada Inn off Interstate 95 and started preaching. Tonight he roves the stage of plush Kingdom Life Christian Cathedral, which is packed with an enthusiastic crowd. After 14 eventful years, his congregation, now about 2,300, is hosting an international conference on church growth. And Bishop Ramirez is ordaining pastors from several countries.

"God's going to knock us out of our comfort zones," he cautions the gathered faithful. "God is at work in the world ... and is building a spiritual city, a spiritual Jerusalem.... Every stage is going to be uncomfortable ... until we are in the divine order."

This nondenominational megachurch, which has passed through challenging stages itself, is now flourishing, along with hundreds of other megachurches that are reshaping the religious landscape in the United States. A national survey released last week found twice as many as there were five years ago. The late management guru Peter Drucker called the megachurch "the only organization ... actually working in our society," and said it had much to teach other institutions.

What makes them work? Why are Americans shifting in droves to the largest church communities?

Conventional wisdom says their popularity lies in people's penchant for anonymity and that the churches bow to a consumer mentality, redesigning worship, buildings, and theology for a more comfortable experience. Some charge they're businesses in disguise, building empires through marketing and televangelism.

Clearly, there are varieties of megachurches. Yet visits to this one in Milford, Conn., suggest deeper explanations for their appeal. One of the oldest towns in America, Milford boasts Cape Cod houses on shady streets, a beachfront on Long Island Sound, and miles of strip malls along US Route 1. It's becoming a bedroom community for New York City.

Started with the aims of reaching the unchurched and creating a faith community that "demonstrates the kingdom of God on earth," Kingdom Life Christian Church (KLCC) has had a visible impact on members, on Milford, and beyond.

Bible-focused, with dynamic leadership, highly structured youth programs, and adult home fellowship, the church is drawing people from communities all along I-95.

At a Wednesday night Bible study in the hotel ballroom-style sanctuary, a friendly, buoyant group of about 600 is surprisingly diverse: white, Latino, and black; children and parents, all with Bibles in hand. (Teenagers have their class in another building.)

In the spacious auditorium furnished with upholstered mauve chairs and huge projection screens, exuberant singing is followed by a half-hour Q&A with Ramirez. One question has to do with the theology of "The Da Vinci Code" and the "Left Behind" novels. The bishop has read the books, and says there's some truth and "lots of junk" in them.

"I like the Bible - it's filled with history, drama, intrigue, grace, and mercy - and at the end, we win," he says with a broad grin. "I'm not going to get my theology out of novels."

The broad-shouldered 40-something pastor is big on common sense, humor, and thinking things through. Smooth but not slick, with a warm voice and an entertaining manner, he's clearly in control but also attuned to his congregation.

"My brother, who had never attended any church, came and was moved by the bishop's message," says Janet Zove, who handles marketing for a Fortune 500 company. "For my brother to be moved takes a lot, so I came along. I have a Catholic background and this is life-changing - it's about having a direct relationship with God." Despite a demanding job, she volunteers on weekends at the church's Family Resource Center, which has just launched adoption and foster-care services in the community.

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."

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.

"Bishop Ramirez and many church members have been very active in the community and had a significant and positive impact," says Mayor James Richetelli.

Yet, as other megachurches have found, rapid growth hasn't come without strains. As KLCC buys properties, some in the neighborhood worry about the impact on the city tax base, and about rumored plans to build on land that was supposed to be open space. "Friends go to breakfast every Saturday, and many are concerned about their taxes going up," says Carol Paradis, a long-time resident.

In fact, the city last year bought a vacant commercial property the church was poised to buy, to keep it on the tax rolls. KLCC had planned to build a bigger sanctuary there.

"It's a valuable piece of property, and it would be detrimental to have it go to a nontaxable status," the mayor says. The city has since sold it to a developer.

Ramirez points out that a number of KLCC properties are not tax-exempt. The church pays $50,000 in taxes per year.

Organizational and media skills helped

All this growth couldn't have happened without organizational skills - a requirement for megachurches. "Bishop Ramirez is gifted in that area," says Mr. Hashem.

The pastor began his career at Eastman Kodak, where he worked in marketing. The desire to help people more led him to emergency medical services, which he headed in Westchester County, N.Y., and Texas. In the process, he found he had media skills as well. All have come in handy here.

Starting with local public-access TV, the telegenic and media-savvy preacher moved on to a weekly radio show with another bishop, and then to regional TV programming - all available on the church's website.

As KLCC grew, he introduced small groups, where 10 to 20 members meet regularly to encourage spiritual growth and support each other. The groups offer an intimate community within large churches, members say, and are vital for developing leaders.

Scott and Joyce Marlow joined KLCC 10 years ago and first served as youth ministers. Then they became home fellowship leaders, and now coordinate the home program covering four geographic districts. They plan and prepare materials for small-group study based on Ramirez's sermons. Mr. Marlow was ordained three years ago, though he has a full-time job as superintendent of a building firm. His wife, Joyce, is serving in a year-long ministerial capacity. For them, the home fellowship experience is key. "When you get the structure right," she says, "then it grows by word of mouth."

Like KLCC, about one-third of megachurches are independent, developing out of a frustration with denominations. While they allow pastors freedom to preach as they see fit, they lack accountability, training, and credentialing. To address those needs, new independent networks and affiliations have developed, some more formal, some less so.

Ramirez started a network for independent churches in Connecticut called K-Net, joining some 30 churches in fellowship and workshops. In recent years, calls came from pastors in Africa and South America who've seen the website. Ramirez visited Ghana and Colombia and brought several hundred churches into K-Net International.

"We have been on our own for a long time, and need guidance," says Pastor Godwin Normanyo of Ghana, here for the international conference and his ordination as a bishop within the network.

"It's like the dry bones rising up - I see God raising a great army united in Spirit," Mrs. Normanyo adds. "K-Net is a spiritual help to encourage and lift us...."

Inquiries from abroad

These pastors are hungry both for spiritual teaching and for training in organizational skills, Hashem says, and KLCC may use its TV capability to produce teaching DVDs.

At tonight's special service, pastors from Namibia and South Africa are also being ordained. In his sermon, Ramirez speaks of honesty in the pulpit, and of being alert to self-deception, to the pitfalls of sex and money, but most of all, pride. "I encourage you to be a restorer, an individual who knows how to put arms around people," he tells them.

At KLCC, as in most megachurches, the vision and leadership of the senior pastor has been key to its growth. So, too, is the ability to attract talented people and inspire hundreds of volunteers.

However dynamic the music and preaching, however welcoming the congregation, what seems most compelling to churchgoers here is a deep connection to a spiritual mission that is helping them grow - and helping them serve others through Kingdom Life's many ministries.

Two lives transformed - and then joined

Rich and Tina Stoll were together during tumultuous years of daily drinking and drugging, but they were just married last fall - a sign, they say, of transformed lives.

The couple has been coming to Kingdom Life Christian Church for 3-1/2 years, after a friend who had once been part of the partying kept on pestering.

"He'd gone through a big change at this church and kept coming to the bar, witnessing, but we didn't want anything to do with him," Rich recalls after a Sunday service.

During a day of misery 18 months later, however, Rich took him up on it. "I came, and thought the bishop was speaking directly to me," he says. At the third visit, he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.

"At the time, I was strung out on heroin and was doing cocaine. I was stealing money from the job to pay for my habit," he says.

When he prayed for God to take the addiction away, Rich shortly found himself arrested and thrown in jail for three months. In his prayers, he says, God let him know it was so he could get clean, and he did.

"That was the end of it - I have no urge whatsoever," he says, still amazed. "It's not that I'm holier than anyone else, but God has completely transformed the way I think."

Tina followed him and got free, too. "This church teaches you how to apply the word of God in a practical way you can use every minute," she explains. "The bishop breaks it down; it could be forgiveness of your enemies or the ones you love."

What the couple say they appreciate is that the pastor also shows them where to find the message in the Bible and teaches how to pray. "Prayer is very important - I pray morning, night, and throughout the day," Tina says.

Rich is on the security staff at the church, and Tina regularly visits local nursing homes. They didn't rush into marriage, but went through a year of classes at the church "to make sure it was God's will for us," she says. "It seems there wasn't any purpose to our life except getting high. Now we see God does have a purpose for us."

Megachurch statistics

Protestant churches in the US that have a weekly attendance of more than 2,000 - nearly double the number of five years ago.

Megachurches that are nondenominational.

US churches that are megachurches.

Megachurches that are in the South; 25% are in the West, 20% are in the North Central area; 6% are in the Northeast.

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