Mat-Su fills pews as soon as they're installed
FLOCKS: Development of churches booms right along with subdivisions.
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News
Published: April 14th, 2005
Last Modified: April 14th, 2005 at 02:14 AM
WASILLA -- The Church on the Rock started in a living room. The Sundays of founding pastor David Pepper were still committed to his duties as an assistant pastor in Anchorage, so the congregation of seven families gathered each Tuesday in a Valley home.
Sometimes only a dozen people would attend, but the close-knit group of longtime Matanuska-Susitna residents started talking to friends, and quickly the circle grew.
That was five years ago. This Easter the church counted 900 people in the seats of its brand-new 13,000-square-foot facility off the Parks Highway on the outskirts of Wasilla.
A nondenominational church that mixes conservative moral values with rousing, contemporary Christian music and casual services, the church's story is remarkable even for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where growth comes in dog years and new homes seem to pop up as you wait at the stoplight.
Church leaders across the Valley report that their congregations are expanding and their pews are brimming as young families and retirees flood the region. Trying to find a church that isn't adding extra services or planning a new building is like looking for an atheist in a foxhole.
More than 100 names can be found on the borough's list of groups that claim property tax exemptions for religious purposes. But are Valley residents any more churchgoing than the rest of the state, or for that matter, the country?
Not necessarily, Pepper said.
"There's a lot of choices out here," he said, "but I would say the overall percentage of people that go to church is probably quite low compared to, say, the Midwest."
Still, churches that are here are flourishing. The Seventh-day Adventist Church of Palmer, for example, is nearly doubling the size of its facility, only 5 years old, with the addition of classrooms and office space.
On a drive into Palmer along the Glenn Highway, the large, electronic sign the church added to help attract newcomers is hard to miss. "Suffering from truth decay?" it read on a recent afternoon. "Brush up on your Bible."
The First Baptist Church of Palmer, meanwhile, was trying to decide how to fit its swelling congregation into a small building with a big parking lot when Fred Meyer swooped in and solved the problem by buying the property in 2003.
As a Fred Meyer store replaced the little church last year, First Baptist used the money to build a new fellowship hall and, more recently, a high-tech sanctuary. The sanctuary alone can hold 540 people, said Kay Carter, the church's ministry development coordinator. Next on the drawing board are classrooms and eventually a gymnasium.
Older, denominational congregations report they too are expanding along with the borough population. But young, nondenominational churches like Church on the Rock and Crossroads Community Church report some of the fastest growth in the Valley.
Services at Crossroads draw more than 800, up from roughly 150 over the past decade, said the Rev. Phil Markwardt. According to the Mat-Su School District, Crossroads pays $60 an hour to hold its services in the Teeland Middle School gymnasium on Seldon Road, but that might not be necessary for long. The church is trying to buy the Cottonwood Creek Mall in Wasilla to meet its rapidly increasing need for space.
Markwardt says all the new faces at his nondenominational church include many people just moving to the region and others who used to attend other churches or are new to organized religion.
The Rev. Andy Arnold, an associate pastor at Wasilla's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, said there's a trend toward mainline denominations losing members, partly because their congregations are getting older and partly because some members have grown disenfranchised.
His church, for example, does not seek to exclude homosexuals from services, which alienated some members. (The church is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of three distinct types of Lutheran churches in the Valley.)
Churches like Crossroads and Church on the Rock are part of a fast-growing group that embraces both technology and conservative values, said Patricia O'Connell Killen, professor of American religious history at Washington's Pacific Lutheran University. "They do a worship that includes a lot of teaching, a great deal of singing, and it tends to be referred to as contemporary worships."
Since about the 1970s, such churches have grown faster than historic, mainline churches, said Killen, author of "Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest."
Some people may simply associate classic, denominational churches with strict upbringings or find the traditions intimidating, said Cheryl Wagner, an administrative assistant at First Baptist Church of Palmer, whose husband is a pastor at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Wasilla.
"People are seeking churches that make them feel good," she said.
There was a lot to feel good about at Church on the Rock last week. On Wednesday night as many as 100 assembled for a two-hour youth service. Everyone's still getting used to the size of the building, which smells a little like fresh paint and is sprawling compared with the strip mall the church lived in until this year.
Many teens arrived early, headed straight for the Matrix Room, a hangout that at first glance looks like any busy nightclub.
Christian rap music pounded from speakers. Black lights gave teeth and T-shirts a purple glow, and a disco ball threw dots of light across the pool tables, dartboard and soda machine. A pair of teens played Halo on an Xbox in one corner, while others watched skateboarding videos on a projection screen.
A few minutes later, the Rev. David Pepper stopped by. At 37, the former commercial fisherman and preacher's son is likely one of the youngest church leaders in the Valley. Pepper grew up in the Mat-Su and says he has a feel for the mind-set here -- an independent sense of opportunity and the desire to get out of the city, buy some land and raise some kids.
Other pastors and his own congregation say Pepper's ability to connect with church members is one of the secrets of Church on the Rock's growth. As he talked about the church's values and programs, the Matrix Room closed and the youth ministry service began in the cavernous hall behind him.
There, Jonathan Tutt, youth pastor and frontman for the Christian rock band House of Asher, was onstage with his guitar. A personable, goateed 25-year-old, Tutt looks a little like Jessica Simpson's groom, Nick Lachey, and it's hard to imagine some of the girls in the audience aren't harboring crushes. The kids seem to treat him like a cool older brother.
The band launched into chugging power chords. "You're all I want ... Jesus," Tutt sang, then spoke to the crowd of teens. "Hey, man, God is good. How many of you know that he is the way, the truth and the life?"
The kids whooped.
The Valley is a tough place for teens, Tutt said. Kids smoke a lot of pot. Adults sell them crystal meth or painkillers. So the church wants them here, where between services, the church's games and gatherings are meant to keep everyone out of trouble.
Sometimes the youth groups visit neighborhoods and knock on doors, offering to shovel snow and rake the yard. Then they invite the occupants to church.
That Sunday, hundreds crowded the Church on the Rock sanctuary for a 10:30 a.m. service and dedication of the new building. Middle-aged parents joined their adult children, settling into rows of cushioned chairs. People in jeans brought their babies and kids.
Tutt began the service with a song, and before long, hundreds of voices joined in, reading lyrics from two large projection screens. By the time everyone found a seat, few empty spaces remained.
As big as it is, the new church already looks crowded.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story first appeared in Wednesday's Mat-Su section, which is distributed weekly in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.