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Religious revival: Steinbach's already large Southland Community Church set to double

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STEINBACH -- Its foyer is probably larger than the MTS Centre's.

At 5,500 square metres, the Southland Community Church is already one of the largest churches in Manitoba. It attracts so many people it needs four services, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, to accommodate the whole congregation.

It already looks like a convention centre -- it's about to get much bigger. It's begun a $15-million expansion that will nearly double its size. Once completed, it's believed it will be the second-largest church in Manitoba behind Springs Church in Winnipeg.

For any other organization, this would be an outright success story -- growth, facility expansion, economic spinoffs. But big churches with big capital expansions tend to arouse suspicions.

It often seems a cynical public is more trusting of large corporations than large churches today. There are always questions about whether a church has the expertise to manage big dollars. More cogent, perhaps, are concerns about misplaced priorities, whether a rapidly expanding church such as Southland becomes too preoccupied with construction projects and the bottom line, at the expense of its spiritual and moral mission.

Southland Church is a non-denominational evangelical church in Steinbach, so named because it was originally located in south Steinbach. As recently as 1996, it had just 150 members. Today, Southland attracts 3,300 people each weekend.

That's not membership that tends to be inflated with churches. Those are actual people in the pews. The church has more than 600 children, Grade 4 and under, in its Sunday school. It hardly slows up in summer: in the last week of August, attendance was 2,800 people.

 

Those are phenomenal numbers, even for a faith-based community such as Steinbach. There are 500 people for every church in Steinbach, compared to 3,500 per church in Winnipeg. Mississauga, Ont., has one of the lowest ratios in Canada with 7,000 residents for each church.

The arrival in 1996 of Senior Pastor Ray Duerksen and a handful of other former Mennonite Brethren signalled change.

Duerksen, now 56, is a former commercial pilot who left the cockpit when he and his wife "felt a very strong call of God." He became a pastor and "planted" a non-denominational ministry in Woodstock, Ont. He returned to Steinbach, his original home, finished his seminary degree and assumed the helm of the small Southland church.

Duerksen's brand of gospel resonated with people. It is a feel-good, more exuberant worship service than the traditional kind, accompanied by contemporary music. It's not the "prosperity gospel" of some evangelical churches, where spiritual and economic prosperity are closely connected. But talk of fundraising is more top-of-mind, judging from the service I attended and from my interview with Duerksen.

Also, Southland established a very strong youth ministry with top-notch programs for children. Once it began attracting young families, the growth just started to snowball.

Duerksen receives much credit.

"He's a tremendous leader," said Len Neufeld, church chairman and a Steinbach businessman. "We're very fortunate to have a leader who could probably be a CEO of almost any company in this province. But, having said that, he would be the first to tell you it's not about him."

While Southland's phenomenal growth seems an anomaly today when so many churches have falling attendance, it's really a common pattern, said University of Manitoba associate professor of religion, Kenneth MacKendrick.

Yes, overall church attendance is in decline. Surveys show the percentage of Canadians who regard themselves as Christian has been falling by about one per cent a year for decades. Studies show people tend to lose religion fairly quickly where they feel safe from physical threat, have health care and have at least some degree of personal liberty.

"You see it in every instance," said MacKendrick. Christianity has stalled in North America and Europe, but it's growing in Asia, South America and Africa.

It's the traditional denominations -- Anglican, Lutheran, United Church, Catholic, Mennonite -- that experience declining attendance. The evangelical churches are picking up the disaffected church members.

MacKendrick maintains people are leaving mainstream churches partly because the churches have become more accepting of other faiths. The message to people then is that faiths are almost interchangeable. Without a clear message of salvation associated with a particular religion -- "If you come here, you're saved. If you don't, you're damned," as MacKendrick put it -- people drift away. Evangelical churches have a clearer message.

"The churches doing well are ones that have a really hard-core salvation message and have a really strong religious message," MacKendrick said.

A church such as Southland, in other words.

Southland's phenomenal growth is attributed largely to church-switching. It has drawn people from other churches the way a Walmart draws customers from smaller retailers. (Wikipedia says Walmart was a model for some mega-churches in the U.S.)

There's nothing nefarious about that, and Southland doesn't try to raid other churches' members. In many cases, it's simply that a larger church can offer more programs.

Duerksen concedes that Southland draws from other churches but added that many Southland members attend more than one church.

"No church has closed down because of us," he said.

But Southland is finding new members with no previous church affiliation, too, he said. Its growth is also reflective of its location. Steinbach and the surrounding area, a catchment of nearly 60,000 people, is the fastest-growing region of the province, thanks to an aggressive immigration program. Southland translates its services into Low German, High German, Russian and Spanish. People can hear the translations through headsets.

Southland has also unearthed new churchgoers by offering Saturday services.

"In society today, there's so much shift work, so many restaurant workers, emergency personnel, truck drivers" who can't make Sunday services, Duerksen said. Southland's 4 p.m. Saturday service attracts as many people as the traditional 11 a.m. Sunday service.

He agreed an uncompromising salvation message is one of Southland's strength, quoting John 17:3: "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

Why so much expansion? Couldn't Southland take that money and spend it on outreach ministries helping others?

First of all, running four services a weekend is a strain on resources. The new auditorium will hold more than 2,033 people. That's thought to be second only to the Springs Church on Lagimodiere Boulevard, which holds 2,400 people. Other large churches in Winnipeg are the Church of the Rock, Oasis, Riverwood and Soul Sanctuary.

The expansion will allow Southland to reduce services to just two each weekend, one Saturday and one Sunday.

But Duerksen also believes many churches spend too much on outreach before attending to the needs of their own congregations.

"One of the biggest mistakes churches make is not investing in their own people before investing in missions outside the church," he said.

"This is our Jerusalem," Duerksen said of the Southland church. "We have to take care of these people, then they can take care of other people."

One of the more startling features of Southland Church is its staff. It has the equivalent of 30 full-time employees. It's a staggering number for a church to employ. That includes a communications person. It even has its own technology department with tasks such as posting services on its website and producing DVDs and CDs of message services.

"People don't come here to serve us. We're here to serve them," said Duerksen.

Even with its expansion, Southland donated $300,000 to outside missions last year. Duerksen intimated that's a sizable sum. One area of mission work is in Uganda, Africa. Southland delivered two brand-new John Deere tractors and a disker there.

It's also building a 24-unit addictions centre. It's on 11/2 hectares of prime real estate, valued at $1.6 million, a donation from two businessmen. The apartment will house people recovering from addictions.

"These are people who are not part of our congregation, who become part of the congregation," Duerksen said.

Services are held in the church auditorium with its cushioned chairs, not wooden pews. Its coffee shop is about the size of an average Tim Hortons. There's an information centre behind a long desk to assist arrivals.

"We don't want people just to come in, attend the service and leave. We want them to connect," said Duerksen.

Its prayer room includes cubicles to operate laptop computers. People bring their laptops to keep a journal or write out prayers. The church has many rooms, including a banquet room. On a tour Duerksen provided, the banquet room was set up for a wedding to be held that weekend.

It's not as large as some of the mega-churches in the United States that report up to 24,000 members. Those are like small communities that include restaurants and retailers such as Christian toy stores. But Southland has the same approach.

The time I attended, a Christian rock band played with full speaker sound as people were finding their seats. It's almost like the warm-up act. Coffee is self-serve at the café and it's very good. You drop a loonie in a tin can and carry the coffee into the service with you. Between the two, coffee and fairly loud live music, there's no excuse for falling asleep.

Some people even get up in the middle of a service to get a coffee or bottle of juice. Behind the band is a choir, also fully amped. Surprise, surprise. Most of the choir is under 30, an enviable situation for any church.

Curiously, and perhaps it's a reflection of its non-denominational character -- such churches adopt the word community in their names to indicate they are non-denominational -- there are few religious icons in the building, not like many older, mainstream churches. The auditorium has only a flat metal cross at the front.

The band opened with a Christian rock song that was like Hey Jude -- you wondered if it was ever going to end. Not that it was a bad song, but it lasted 20 minutes. It wasn't the case where you sing a three-minute hymn then sit down. The song went back and forth from high tempo to slow, when it became more of a talking prayer and everyone closed their eyes. Occasionally, people in the audience would raise a flattened hand in the air. I took it as a receiving of the holy spirit.

Dress is contemporary casual. A number of young men and women wore hoodies. Several young men wore their baseball hats, forwards and backwards, during the service. Many people wore jeans and someone wore a jean shirt. One man wore a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off.

Church announcements are pre-taped with different announcers and shown on two big screens. Then Duerksen comes out. He has a very friendly manner about him. His subject is how divorce effects children, and his message is don't be the one to "perpetrate" a divorce.

While he pokes fun at social science studies early in his talk, he cites them liberally later, quoting statistics on how divorce hurts children. Near the end, he cites one study saying 87 per cent of couples fell in love again after a lengthy period of lovelessness in their relationship. Hang in there, is his message.

It's what sermons tend to be, a kind of moral pep talk. Church is one of the few forums for discussions on morality and the self-examination that goes with it. The sermon is a little long at about 45 minutes. Then the band comes back onstage for a closing number.

The whole service is 90 minutes, but it really doesn't seem much different than any other church, except for a few more bells and whistles. The famous conservatism we hear so much about at many evangelical churches surfaced only a bit when Duerksen made excuses for Ronald Reagan's pioneering no-fault divorce law when he was governor of California. Duerksen believes no-fault makes divorce too easy. But that was the whiff of politics.

During our interviews, both Duerksen and church chairman Neufeld, whose company, Three Way Builder, is handling the church's expansion, wanted to get across their view that communities under-appreciate churches in general.

For example, Southland has more than 1,000 members who volunteer at the church. That increases volunteerism throughout the community, Neufeld said.

"Churches generally develop volunteerism. People get into that mentality of volunteerism. And when people buy into volunteerism with their hearts -- you can buy in with your head but to buy in with your heart, they become part of building your community."

Duerksen said the biggest spinoff from a church may just be that attending church changes people.

"They change in their behaviour, in their relationships, in their child-rearing, in their jobs... The change is a tremendous influence on a community."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 J1

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