That Old-Time Religion Is Packing 'em In

Times Staff Writer

Roy Darby stood in the back of the auditorium, snapping his fingers to Christian music and passing out bulletins--and occasional hugs--as more than 500 people filed into Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach.

Inside, the audience stood and sang, swaying and clapping and reaching toward the ceiling as Christian singer Jamie Owens-Collins entertained before the start of an evangelical service.

"Good stuff," said Darby, "compared to what I used to do on Friday nights--get wasted" on alcohol and, occasionally, drugs.

"Now I don't need that," continued Darby, 28, who attributes the changes in his life during the past two years to his involvement with Hope Chapel.

"A friend of mine brought me here to meet girls," Darby said. "I found the Lord instead."

Darby is not alone. So many people have been drawn to the 16-year-old Hope Chapel congregation in Hermosa Beach that the church has branched out--a move Hope officials refer to as "planting a church."

So far, 42 Hope Chapels with a total of more than 10,000 members have sprung up throughout Southern California and elsewhere, the most recent in Redondo Beach, Carson and Nashua, N. H.

The Hermosa Beach chapel is becoming an increasingly well-known institution in the area. It is a major element in the lives of many of its members, some of whom turn to Hope Chapel for everything from upbeat religious services to financial counseling, intimate prayer meetings to emotional support groups, from outreaches to sports clubs.

Associate pastor Don Stewart describes Hope Chapel as "evangelical, fundamental (and) charismatic." Its slogan is "Give 'em Heaven."

Most of the 2,250 members of the Hermosa Beach congregation are young--in their early 30s and half are single, according to church officials. Most live within a five-mile radius of the church.

"Our target audience . . . are baby boomers--people between the ages of 20 and 40," said Stewart, who like other church officials is fond of using marketing terms to describe church activities and talks about the church as a business, although it is nonprofit.

Non-Religious Language

"We go out of our way to avoid religious jargon," Stewart said. "We teach religious truths, but in non-religious terms," he said.

One of Stewart's favorite books, he said, is "A Passion for Excellence," a best-seller on business success by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin, and he often recommends it to others.

Stewart, who is the church's second-ranking official, is careful to observe that the book does not conflict with the Bible's doctrines. The church teaches its congregation to live by the Bible's words, literally.

Hope Chapel is affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Los Angeles-based evangelical church founded in 1923.

Ralph Moore started Hope Chapel in 1971 in Manhattan Beach. In 1976, when the congregation outgrew those facilities, the church moved into an abandoned bowling alley at 2420 Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach, where it remains. Moore left the Hermosa Hope Chapel in 1983 to open chapels in Hawaii and Zac Nazarian has been the pastor of the chapel since then.

$3-Million Budget

The Hermosa Beach chapel has 11 ministers licensed by the Foursquare Church and 60 other full-time and 70 part-time employees and operates on an annual budget of nearly $3 million, of which 42.8% is used for salaries, Stewart said.

He declined to disclose the salaries of the pastors, but said that they make only about half of what an executive who runs a business the size of Hope Chapel earns. "Pastors are notoriously underpaid," he added.

The church seems to have good relations with other denominations in Hermosa Beach.

Bill Weaver, pastor of the New Life Church in Hermosa Beach, said, "We have sent a great host of people (to Hope) because as a small church, you find very quickly that you can't meet all the needs of the people."

His church, part of the Assembly of God denomination, started with only eight members two years ago and has grown to about 70.

'On Target'

"I believe they're on target with what they're teaching and their ministry," he said. "They are actively involved in the community and they are ministering to a large cross-section of the community."

Every weekend, Hope Chapel has five services that last 1 1/2 to 2 hours each. About 60 non-members attend those services each week, Hope Chapel officials said, which is proof to them that they are reaching the community.

Several members said that they first came to the church with friends or relatives and were impressed by the casual atmosphere and fellowship.

Claudia Hassanally, 38, was "literally shopping around for a church I felt comfortable bringing my kids to" when she began attending Hope Chapel about three years ago.

Her daughters, ages 13, 10 and 7, are enthusiastic about attending services each weekend, she said. As for herself, "I wanted to learn what was in the Bible in a positive atmosphere."

Humor in Sermons

Nazarian, who declined to be interviewed, gives almost all the sermons at the church, frequently mixing humor with his preaching and quoting liberally from the Bible.

His manner, although somewhat flamboyant, does not go the extremes of some television evangelists, nor does he raise his voice often. Like most of his congregation, he dresses casually.

Hope Chapel encourages attendance at its "mini-churches," which are similar to prayer meetings and Bible studies. The 46 mini-churches usually meet on Wednesday evenings at the homes of congregation members.

Ken Capps, an associate pastor, said the meetings are very popular with the members, attracting about 850 people each week. Church members say that it is at these meetings that they get to know one another.

Nearly 200 people also attend the Hope Chapel Ministries Institute, a series of courses taught by the church staff, Stewart said.

Many 'Ministries'

Hope Chapel also has more than 60 "ministries." Some are outreaches to groups such as prisoners or the handicapped and some are support groups for crime victims, people with compulsive behavior or women who have had abortions. The ministries are organized around common interests and at least two of them involve ex-Mormons.

Sports clubs and aerobics classes also are listed among the church's ministries.

Although many of the ministries do not seem religious, Stewart said, religion, "one way or another . . . works its way in. We're not into religiosity. We're into loving Jesus. . . . We're not into carving notches in our spiritual guns, just wherever (religion) occurs naturally.

"The serving and fellowship are not usually thought of as spiritual," he added, "but in our thinking, it's intensely spiritual."

Members Involved

Church officials generally do not start a mini-church or a ministry, but help members of the congregation who wish to begin one.

"When the Lord starts working in your life, then the ministries flow out of them," Stewart said. "We see ourselves as an enabling environment."

The Hope Chapel staff analyzes the church's programs each year, and if a program is not drawing people, "we can it," Stewart said.

Capps said a new chapel is opened when a "critical mass" is reached--about 40 people willing to begin a new congregation. Within two years after the "grand opening," the new Hope Chapel has usually attracted some 200 members, he said.

'Pastor Factory'

The leaders for these new congregations, officials said, are trained in a nine-month course they call a "Pastor Factory." Half a dozen pastors graduate each year, Capps said.

The church enjoys doing the unconventional, he said, citing as an example the Easter sunrise service held in the Liquor Barn parking lot in Manhattan Beach. He said such practices show that the church is contemporary.

The church advertises in the Easy Reader, a local paper, with cartoons that "poke fun at religiosity," he said. One recent cartoon showed a little boy asking a preacher after a service: "You mean we got all this trouble over one lousy apple?"

While the church attempts to offer a light, informal structure to its teachings and services, it uses a more formal approach in its efforts to obtain financial support.

Donations Encouraged

As in most churches, a collection plate is passed near the end of the service. Envelopes for tithes-- one-tenth of a person's yearly income--or offerings are included in the church bulletin, complete with biblical quotations such as "For God loves a cheerful giver."

The church encourages members to become "book-signing members." Less than half of the congregation have opted for membership, which requires signing a four-part commitment that states: "I commit myself to supporting the body of Christ at Hope Chapel through: Supporting the leadership . . . Participating in fellowship . . . Ministry . . . Financially supporting the Hope Chapel Ministry through my 'tithes' and offerings. I realize that I have both an opportunity and a responsibility to worship God through my finances and to participate with Him financially in what He is doing in this world."

Stewart said, "We don't make a big deal out of the difference" between book-signing members and non-members who attend services regularly.

"What we teach is that tithing is what the Bible teaches," he said, "but it's between them and the Lord. . . .

'It's Working'

"It's not a heavy-handed thing--that's probably why it's working," he said. "Tithing is a part of Christian church teaching everywhere," he said, especially in the fundamentalist churches.

The church's nearly $3-million annual budget supports church programs and helps congregation members who experience financial hardship, Stewart said.

Stewart said that the church expects members to do more than support the church financially. Members, he said, are also responsible to bear witness and attract others to Hope Chapel.

Apparently, members take the responsibility seriously, because officials said that attendance has grown every year.

"Keep telling people about Jesus," Pastor Nazarian told the congregation at a recent service. "It's working; the kingdom is growing."

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