Keeping the Faithful : Religion: Church attendance grew during the Gulf War. Now congregations try to hold onto the new members.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Silver is a North Hollywood writer

Pastor Jess Moody of Shepherd of the Hills Baptist Church in Chatsworth thanks God every day that more than 1,500 new people came to his church during the Persian Gulf War. Now he is instituting programs to keep them permanently in the flock.

Moody is one of several San Fernando Valley clergymen whose churches or temples experienced dramatic increases in attendance--ranging from 7% to 40%--during the Persian Gulf War.

Now these congregations are taking steps to ensure that the thousands of visitors will become permanent members.

"Successful churches in the 1990s will be the ones who are able to meet a variety of needs at all levels for their diverse communities," said Peggy Shriver, a staff member at the National Council of Churches in New York.

In 1988, the ecumenical council of 32 denominations commissioned a Gallup Poll on religion, which found, among other things, that people tend to come back to church at different stages in their lives.

"What it showed was that the churches with different kinds of ministry will be the ones that will grow in attendance and membership," Shriver said.

"The 1990s will be a time where churches will be challenged to meet and serve the deeper needs of their congregants if they want to hold on to them," she said. "Parties just don't do it anymore."

A number of Valley churches and temples have been successful in addressing the needs of their members, new and old.

To retain war-related increases in attendance, some congregations have looked to traditional religious programs and services such as prayer meetings and weekday Bible study classes.

At St. John Baptist de La Salle Catholic Church in Granada Hills, for instance, attendance increased 40% at weekday Masses during the war. In response to this and to retain new members, the church started an outreach program in which 40 ushers were trained to be "ministers of hospitality." The ushers were asked to help welcome newcomers to the church and make them feel more comfortable, Father John Messina said.

St. John has six weekend Masses that draw the 3,000-plus members to the church, with many also coming for special Masses that are said for a specific intention or group. During the war, parishioners were asked to attend a special Mass that prayed for peace. More recently, the parish celebrated the induction of new altar boys at a special Mass.

"The special Masses have been especially helpful in keeping newer members closer to the church," Messina said.

Other clergymen, such as Moody, are using social and community outreach programs such as drug and abuse counseling, singles groups and matchmaking services to hold onto an increasingly diverse population in the Valley.

Several area congregations have focused on the need to center programs around children and families. In June, Moody's 6,000-member congregation will move to a new 65,000-square-foot building in Chatsworth, a facility that includes a children's gym.

"This will give us a chance to draw in parents to church services because of the attraction of having a children's gym in the building," he said.

At Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in West Hills, the 500-member congregation experienced a 20% increase in attendance during the Gulf War. Many have continued to come because of the increased adult education classes during the week and the "Mommy and Me" group, an activity for mothers and young children, that is drawing many young couples into this aging congregation.

"More younger couples are moving into the neighborhood and, as a result, this year has been the best turnout that we have had in many years," Pastor Brian Woken said. The church is looking to youth for its future growth, he said, "because parents tend to get interested in church when they have children."

The charismatic, nondenominational 8,000-member Church on the Way in Van Nuys, which experienced a 10% attendance increase during the war, offers a Good News Bears Program in which puppets are used to teach the Bible to children 3 to 12.

"This is helpful in encouraging parents to attend church because the children are having so much fun," Pastor Scott Bauer said.

Associate Rector John Farnsworth at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City said family-centered events and Sunday school keep his 380-member congregation growing.

"We are really proud of our Sunday school because it keeps improving and is one way we get new members," he said.

Rabbi Gary Johnson of Temple Beth Haverim (House of Friends), the largest temple in Agoura Hills, said the temple is starting a preschool in September to meet the needs of a very young congregation: 92% of its 215 members are in their 30s, with lots of young children.

"We already have 60 children signed up and I feel that this is going to be a big draw for us," Johnson said.

Women, rather than children, accounted for a 10% increase in church attendance during the Gulf War at Parks Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Fernando, the Rev. Darryl Walker said. Many initially came for a special women's prayer group that the church started in November. Walker said that just a few years ago, about 90 people showed up for church services; now it's closer to 300.

Walker has been the pastor at many congregations, but this is his first Valley pulpit.

"The Valley is unique because there is no central focus. It's more of a suburban sprawl; that's why the church serves as a communal gathering," he said.

Donald Miller, a USC professor of the sociology of religion, acknowledges that the Valley is ripe for church growth in the 1990s.

"Since the Valley is so spread out, the churches who offer a sense of community for people looking to cope with modern contemporary culture will expand rapidly," he said.

A number of congregations have identified this need. The 28 pastors at the Church on the Way are busy with a series of programs at its two booming campuses, located a block apart in Van Nuys. In April, the church instituted a popular Saturday night service, which continues to grow in attendance; a singles-only Bible meeting on Friday nights; home meetings; an Alcoholics Anonymous program and an outreach program in Pacoima that feeds 1,000 people each week. The church also offers four Sunday morning services and a separate service in Spanish for its growing Latino membership.

During the Gulf War, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church instituted a midweek peace Mass and attendance increased by 7%. Now Farnsworth has invited people in the congregation to participate in a midweek peace service on a continuing basis.

At Temple Beth Haverim, Johnson said attendance during the Gulf War increased by 30% at Saturday morning services and 40% at weekday adult classes. Much of the weekday increase, he said, was due to a special class that was initiated during the war.

"We talked about Judaism's response to destroying civilian populations during the war and issues such as what Judaism teaches us about reaching out to help unfortunate people like the Kurds," he said.

The class continues to meet and has become so popular--about 40 people attend each session--that it meets in different homes each Wednesday morning to discuss religious and contemporary issues. From those meetings, people are inviting each other for Shabbat dinners and becoming friends, the rabbi said.

Half of the study group participants "are not members but are new to the temple and that is a very positive sign for our growth," Johnson said.

Several clergymen see this as the beginning of a time of great growth. Moody, for instance, predicts that by the year 2000 his church will grow from its 6,000 members to 16,000.

"We are going to skyrocket in attendance in the 1990s because the revival has already started," he said.

Nationwide, church attendance has increased in the last three years, USC's Miller said. Much of this is due to increased adult-oriented programs and the proliferation of dynamic youth leaders who are drawing the younger generation in, he said.

People have come to expect a lot from their churches, he said. "It's more than just the old-time religion."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World