Tolerance, coffee and rock ‘n’ roll at Woodcrest

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:55 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The lights go dim. The curtains part. The drummer beats three times to signal the start of the show, and the crowd is on its feet.

This isn’t a rock show. This is Woodcrest Chapel, and theatrical performances are the norm here. They are also its formula for growth.

Bob McNear has been going to Woodcrest for eight years. He notes one of the more memorable Easter services.

“We did a funeral service for Jesus Christ a few years ago,” McNear said. “We had a casket, we had pallbearers, we had music, and it was intense.”

Productions such as these have helped Woodcrest come a long way from the days when its sermons were held at the Holiday Inn. Attendance has skyrocketed: Since its inception in 1987, Woodcrest has averaged 100 new members per year. There are now 1,900 members.

Marta Mougin recalls the pastor’s mother speaking about healing and forgiveness by telling a personal story of her experience at a prisoner-of-war camp.

“I can still see her there; it was just dynamic,” Mougin said. “It was just a small little woman sitting on a tall stool telling her story.”

The church’s success can be attributed to its nontraditional sermons. Complete with light and sound effects, a live band and two theatrical view screens, the sermons give new meaning to the word “worship.”

This week, Senior Pastor Pieter Van Waarde incorporated a clip from the movie “A Few Good Men” to enhance his sermon on finding purpose in life.

According to marketing director Jody Todd, Buddhists, Jews and Catholics have attended services at Woodcrest.

Although rooted in Southern Baptist traditions, Woodcrest considers itself interdenominational.

The congregation is made up of a number of families with parents in their mid-30s and 40s. But Van Waarde said the membership is more complex.

“Every time we tried to settle on a demographic position, we found multiple exceptions to that,” he said.

As a result, the church conducted a psychographic evaluation to define their congregation.

“They’re highly skeptical of religion, for example,” Van Waarde said. “They would be people who are culturally aware.”

Van Waarde grew up as a Methodist. He saw church as something his parents made him do. Spirituality eventually became more important in his life and he sought a different way to express it.

Being unconventional is only part of the Woodcrest formula. Staff members use contemporary media and technology to provide a connection between faith and everyday life.

A song by Lenny Kravitz, “What Did I Do with My Life?” was a segue into the pastor’s sermon on finding purpose.

Another draw is the comfortable, informal atmosphere. The dress code is more relaxed than traditional congregations; on a typical day, members wear suits and ties or shorts and sandals. The pastor has worn blue jeans and a T-shirt during services.

Before entering the auditorium, members can grab a cup of decaffeinated, regular, or, this week, chocolate-raspberry coffee, complementary of Woodcrest. If those flavors don’t suit their palates, they can purchase a latte made at the Woodcrest Café.

The growth at Woodcrest is also a result of its willingness to accept all people, regardless of their backgrounds.

Bob McNear, a recovering alcoholic, finds Woodcrest to be an accepting church. He felt shunned by other churches because of his past.

“I was disqualified by my actions,” he said.

Joy Dunafon has been attending services at Woodcrest for 11 years. She finds the culture open.

“I’ve never felt like, when I walk through the door, anybody looks at me and has a judgment about me or anything,” she said. You’re very free to be who you are and that’s a very refreshing feeling.”

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