Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Tim Lundy stepped to the pulpit with one of the toughest jobs of his life. The 42-year-old pastor of Fellowship Bible Church wanted everyone to not focus on the new building.
Forget it was the opening of Little Rock's largest church (200,000 square feet) and new home of the city's largest congregation (6,000 members).
Never mind it was a high-tech, multi-media showcase under one roof, with three choose-your-style worship venues and a children's area that seems more inspired by Walt Disney than the Holy Land.
Look past the two cafes, bookstore, playground, sand volleyball court, and the water cascading over the stones into the outdoor baptistery, with an outdoor amphitheater and soccer fields on their way.
Forget it cost more than $54 million.
Lundy wanted everyone to look past the building into eternity.
After “How Great Thou Art” was sung, the pastor stepped up to a 1,450-seat auditorium so packed it required a call for “scooch music” — a pause to give everyone time to fill the few empty seats on the fringes.
Lundy, the “directional leader” and one of three lead pastors at the church, thanked contractors, architects, staff and volunteers. He reminded them of prayers at the site when it was a cow pasture, and he introduced a video that included images of the construction.
“More than anyone, we thank God,” Lundy said, with hints of his Southern drawl.
Except to say the new building was “shabby” compared to Heaven, he all but ignored the new surroundings for the next 30 minutes.
Reading verses from Revelations, he urged everyone to prepare to meet Jesus face to face. He appealed to them to let neighbors, families and friends know how to get their names in the Book of Life so they could enjoy eternity with God and avoid the agony of Hell.
“We are the army of God,” Lundy said. “The battle for the souls of humanity goes through us.”
To close the first sermon in the new location, Lundy invited everyone to walk out of the auditorium and assemble around a towering cross centered in the plaza.
A few worshippers raised their hands to the heavens and all sang “Amazing Grace.”
Super-sizing the Church
On May 18, the opening of the Fellowship campus on 1401 Kirk Road in West Little Rock was a landmark event for the conservative “megachurch,” a label typically assigned to Protestant, suburban churches with more than 2,000 members.
It was also another milestone in the recent history of religion in Arkansas. Nondenominational churches continue to appeal to more worshippers, particularly young, affluent and suburban families.
Dave Travis, co-author of “Beyond Megachurch Myths,” said there are about 1,450 megachurches in the U.S. — more than 10 times the number that existed in 1980.
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, its 6,000 members make Fellowship the largest church in the Little Rock area. It is twice the size of St. Mark Baptist Church (approximately 3,000 members). New Life Church in Conway, Immanuel Baptist Church and Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church have about 2,500 members each.
Statewide, Fellowship in Little Rock is the third largest, behind First Baptist Church of Springdale with 10,400 members and Fellowship Bible Church in Northwest Arkansas with 7,000, the Institute reported.
Travis, of Atlanta, said population shifts, increased mobility and large tracts of available land in the suburbs have contributed to the rapid rise of megachurches. However, the most significant factor is that younger generations have become comfortable with “big” — whether for school, work, shopping, recreation or worship.
“There's no built-in fear of large,” Travis said. “Only those raised in small churches would say it's not normal.”
The author said megachurches have also responded to “a generational movement where kids and youth drive a lot of decisions” in the household.
Larger churches, recognizing a potential weakness, have done a good job of breaking membership into small units of common interest and “creating places where people can plug in better,” he said.
For instance, most megachurches offer “small groups” for adults in lieu of “Sunday School” classes. Members at Fellowship in Little Rock, for instance, are assigned to groups of five or more families who take turns hosting home meetings for Bible study, fellowship and to organize community involvement; about 200 small groups are now active in the church.
‘Take Care of the Kids'
Between the names Agape and Zion, among majestic cathedrals and abandoned buildings, with roots extending back to statehood, the Little Rock area has approximately 200 churches, three temples and a mosque.
How did Fellowship get to be the biggest of them all?
“You can see it when you walk in the door. When you take care of the kids, parents will keep coming back,” said Lundy, who with his wife, Lea, has five children.
After walking through what could pass as an amusement-park ride entrance, children enter halls and rooms that, depending on age, invite them to a pirate ship, a spacecraft, a Medieval castle, a Klondike gold rush, or a “Raiders of the Lost Ark-” type search, all with Bible lessons linked to the themes.
For first-graders, there is Paradise Pond, a nature setting hosted by Woody the “talking tree” (thanks to a behind-the-scenes narrator with a voice-activated moving mouth).
For youth, a worship area for 550 provides high-tech games, audio-visual capabilities, a cafe and “hang out” space.
It's no coincidence that the new Fellowship campus has the look and feel of an enclosed retail mall — a common source of fun and comfort for families today. Experts in modern retailing helped design the facility.
“A church has to be innovative,” Lundy said, recalling that the invention of the printing press enabled mass production of the Bible in the 15th century and hastened the spread of Christianity.
“You always have to be in search of a new way to deliver a constant message. You can keep the same values but introduce the innovation,” he said.
Lundy also said adults have been attracted through the Men's Fraternity and other programs aimed at the spiritual growth of men (“If you reach the dad, you reach the home”) and for women, such as “Moms 'n More,” for women in early years of marriage and motherhood.
Variety in the pulpit also is appealing. Rather than one preacher, Fellowship has three senior pastors who provide varying styles. With Lundy, current pastors are Bill Parkinson, a Little Rock native and one of several church founders, and Fareed Tulbah, who moved from Houston about a year ago.
Yet, Lundy said, the main reason for the church's growth was its approach to the Bible, applying its scriptures to the lives of families.
“Bible is in the name [of the church] for a reason. It's not just God's word, but it has an impact on real life,” he said.
The church believes the new campus will contribute to growth, not always measured in increased numbers, Lundy said.
“For Fellowship, the location and design of the new campus speaks to our desire to create a place for connection and real life-on-life relationships among our members,” Lundy said.
“We needed enough land to be able to create this type of space for people of all ages,” he said. “The old campus was very difficult to navigate. Older people and parents with children had a hard time getting around. The new facility will encourage more community and connecting points for members and guests.”
At the new campus, worshippers have choice of three venues — all displaying mammoth video screens that give the audience a high-definition view of videos, lyrics and sermons in progress.
A main Worship Center has theater-style seating for 1,450 and is promoted as “the perfect place for energetic worship with a passionate community of believers.” (The pastor delivers a “live” sermon at the worship center; those in other venues see the identical sermon by simulcast or by delayed video.)
The Chapel, “adorned in Southern Pine trusses” and “ornate stained-glass windows,” according to press materials, offers room for 450 people to have a more “intimate, reverent atmosphere.”
The Warehouse — sometimes called the Edge — has room for about 750 people to sit at tables, booths, pews and chairs and experience more “progressive worship” with a high-decibel band and light shows.
Miles away, in Benton, Fellowship attracts about 300 to a modular building each week; they see a live broadcast from the Little Rock campus. About the same number gathers each Sunday at a metal pre-fabricated building in Cabot, but they watch a DVD of the sermon from the previous week. Both campuses plan to build and expand, a church spokesperson said.
Various locations — from Tucker Prison to about 17 area firehouses — receive the DVDs each week. From a new website to radio broadcasts, from YouTube to podcasts, the church has deployed the most popular media to spread its messages.
In January 2006, when Fellowship announced plans to sell its Hinson Road campus, Lundy said the church hoped to have a satellite site in downtown Little Rock by 2008. Those prospects are now unknown.
“Given the demands of building the Little Rock campus and developing Benton and Cabot, we backed up to look at the big picture of where we want to go as a church. We continue to pray about the possibility of opening a new campus downtown and are looking at the residential growth in that area of Little Rock,” a spokesperson said.
A church that struggles
Four hundred and sixty-seven years before Fellowship opened its new campus, Christianity came to Arkansas.
It was 1541, and Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto allowed his priests to pray with native tribes and erected a cross in what is now Cross County. He also tortured and slaughtered his hosts after they failed to help him find gold and fortune.
Eventually, missionaries arrived with more interest in lost souls than treasure. By Spanish and French law, only Catholicism was allowed in the territory before 1803. With the Louisiana Purchase by the U.S., more Protestant missionaries and preachers began to arrive.
In 1828, a Presbyterian minister was amazed how many worshippers brought guns and knives to a service on the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock. One hundred eighty years later, members and guests minus the weapons still attend First Presbyterian Church, now at Eighth and Scott streets.
It's known for outspoken minister, Dr. Howard “Flash” Gordon, 69, who criticizes city officials and Chamber of Commerce-types for giving too much attention, he believes, to office towers, sports arenas, and luxury hotels and too little time solving problems of the homeless and hungry.
Others know First Presbyterian as a church that supports multiple programs to help the poor. For example, it provides basement space for the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization that coordinates with 17 local churches to house and help the homeless.
Still, others identify it as one of several churches that struggle in downtown Little Rock. Fewer than 100 people normally attend Sunday services, Gordon said, describing Presbyterians as one of several “dying” mainline denominations.
Then, there is the sanctuary, seemingly lifted out of Europe centuries ago.
“Our worship is aided by a magnificent new Nichols and Simpson pipe organ, brilliant stained glass windows [1928 reproductions of 13th-century Gothic designs], and a collegiate Gothic building designed by John Parks Almond,” a church brochure says.
Gordon said the sanctuary reflects First Presbyterian's approach to worship, and offers a sharp contrast for most mega-churches.
“The question is, are you in the priesthood or in sales? Do you have a mystery or a product?” Gordon said. “I'm not being derogatory about either one. At the end of the day, people's understanding of God is made better at both places.
“Our sanctuary is a place of worship, a holy place. It's not an auditorium or concert hall,” he said. “We are not part of the culture. Our task is to move toward the kingdom of God.
“It's not a competition to be the biggest church. We just do what we do, and if people come, those are the people who need this kind of ministry,” Gordon said.
Gordon said all churches wrestle with how many dollars to budget among facilities, staff and benevolence. First Presbyterian faced the issue when the idea came three years ago to purchase the grand pipe organ.
“We discussed that in a day-long retreat,” he said, noting a long-time member “made the point that anything that helps us worship God properly gives us the ability to serve God properly.”
A decision was made to spend $1 million from the church's endowment to buy and install the organ, he said.
Escaping the island
Tim Lundy said he hopes that people do not define Fellowship by its campus.
“In the end, the building is just a tool. The mission is to the city and world and that can never take place in one location,” Lundy said.
“I believe the greatest misconception about Fellowship is that our ministry and focus is limited to West Little Rock around our campus. The reality is that our ministry is city-wide in campuses, focus and the people whose lives are changed,” he said.
Lundy's sensitivity reaches back to the 1990s, when some in Little Rock were critical of the conservative, fast-growing church.
He said more than 10 years ago church leadership, before he arrived, recognized the congregation was on an “island” — a largely self-contained congregation that was not building relationships in the community. This fostered misgivings in the public and left church members unfulfilled.
Guided by Robert Lewis, now a pastor-at-large and founder of Men's Fraternity, the church introduced a new approach of “building bridges” to the community through programs to help the homeless, hungry, low-income, and individuals and families in crisis, Lundy said.
Today, a church spokesperson said, about 1,500 of its members are regularly involved in letting “their light shine in such a way that when others see their good works they will glorify the Father who is in heaven.”
Much of the work has been in what the church describes as South Midtown, south of Interstate 630.
From providing mentors to about 125 elementary school students, helping in the adoptions and foster homes for more than 100 children, to building homes through Habitat for Humanity, helping the elderly stay warm and fed, the church offers a dizzying list of its membership's volunteer work.
Possibly the most high profile program launched by Fellowship has been “Sharefest,” a weekend event that mobilizes about 3,500 volunteers from 100 churches each year to “bless the community through school improvement projects, neighborhood clean-up activity, neighborhood and home improvement projects.” In addition, Sharefest organizes blood donations for the Red Cross, food collections for the Salvation Army, and have raised money for more than 30 non-profit community organizations.
Most of the home page of Fellowship's website is devoted to inviting anyone in the community to Celebrate Recovery, a nationwide faith-based program aimed at helping people recover from drug and alcohol abuse; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; lust and pornography addiction; eating disorders; “people pleasing and workaholism,” and other addictions. About 200 regularly attend the program hosted by the church.
preachers or elders
Fellowship created its island in the minds of some outsiders by a high public profile on social issues. Times have changed. The days are gone when it campaigns to “Stand up for Decency,” attacking homosexuality and sponsoring Little Rock television advertising campaigns that compared abortion to the Holocaust.
But for Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock in 2008, a change in its public campaigns doesn't mean a change in outlook.
“We haven't changed our conservative theology on social and moral issues,” Tim Lundy said. “The church has maintained its Biblical values and interpretation of the truth of God's Word consistently for 30 years.”
Citing scriptures, no woman is allowed to preach at the church, nor can a woman join its governing board of elders.
When asked how he would respond if his daughter believed she had a “gift” to preach and wanted to follow in the footsteps of her dad, Lundy replied: “I would be thrilled for my daughter to want to follow in my footsteps, but I believe that Scripture points out there are some roles in the church that are limited to men. Those roles are few and they do not apply across the board to all of society, but they are limited by Scripture. As much as I personally do not want my daughter to be limited from using her gifts in any way and encourage her to pursue her dreams, I cannot do so against what I believe is the teaching of Scripture. We have women who serve as pastors on staff and are gifted teachers, but they do not serve as elders or preachers within the worship services.”
Fellowship is among a number of conservative congregations used for distribution of a voter's guide compiled by the Family Council, an organization guided by conservative commentator James Dobson and self-described as “an organization dedicated to the promotion of marriage and family and the sanctity of human life.” The vote guides query candidates on abortion, stem-cell research, homosexuality, and government threats against “family structure, family economics and parental rights.”
The Family Council has been active in the ongoing effort to prevent homosexual couples in Arkansas from adopting children.
Fellowship provides about $2,400 annually to support the operating budget of the Family Council, and provides additional funds to help produce the voter's guides.
“While we respect the work of the Family Council, we are not part of the leadership or of their board and do not guide them in the positions that they promote. Generally, we have been appreciative of their work. However, that does not mean that we agree with everything that they do or with every position that they take,” a church spokesperson said.
Lundy said he knows the church's theology won't appeal to all Arkansans, but he hopes the church will be known — and maybe even critics will be inspired to visit — by the lives of its members.
“Some people may not like us, and they may have great reason to disagree with us, but I don't want the reason they never heard us is because of the way we lived,” he said.