Grace Church: A New Kind of Place to Worship
Grace Church, rising on a hill above U.S. 1 in Southern Pines, is about as far from the "little brown church in the wildwood" as a church can be.
Once it is finished, the differences will be clear from the front door in. The narthex and nave (sanctuary) bear more resemblance to a modern hotel with a performing arts center than to Chartres or Notre Dame or the white-steepled wooden-pewed church buildings so common across the country until recently.
Grace Church is a new kind of place, and that is clear even during construction, with steel everywhere, no wood in sight. Hardly a single space in the building is conventional in a churchly sense.
First-time visitors will walk into a huge high-ceilinged welcome center with refreshments and handshakes. Off to the right, they will see something almost certainly unexpected: an espresso bar. Cappuccino, cafe latt, caf brev -- a Sunday Starbucks just inside the church door.
It is a very welcoming space, a big room where friends meet friends and visitors are made to feel at home.
Children will find their Sunday School rooms look like Hardee's or MacDonald's -- complete with climbing cages, slides and play areas they are used to enjoying along with burgers and fries.
"We want them to feel at home," says Randy Thornton, the pastor of the church.
He is behind one of the fastest-growing religious centers in the county. The church is growing rapidly, expecting by the year 2020 to become a true regional church reaching out to Moore County, with 4,000 people on its main campus, while planting churches here and abroad.
It has been quite a trip for a young minister who began his calling preaching in the living room.
"I preached on one side of the couch," he says. "My wife had Sunday School on the other."
Thornton sees it all as clear evidence of the miraculous hand of God reaching out to the people of this community. He doesn't see why church should be difficult, or boring. It ought to be fun and interesting. He feels that going to church should be something families look forward to doing -- especially teens and children.
"Our purpose is to make it hard to go to hell in Moore County," Thornton says. "That's what we are about."
Thornton's wife, Sarah, grew up here, and the couple came to Southern Pines in 1988 with the vision of planting a local church that would impact the county. He received his bachelor's degree in biblical theology from Manna Christian College in Fayetteville.
The Thorntons have four children: Rebekah, Allison, Ashley and Jonathan. They had only one other family when Grace Church started in their home. It quickly outgrew the living room.
"We moved to a conference room in the Days Inn," Thornton says. "Then we moved to the Town and Country Shopping Center."
Thorton says those moves were one miracle after another. He says God kept urging him to speak to the Days Inn despite being turned down at first by too high a price. That changed after prayer, he says. The same kind of thing happened again and again as the church continued to outgrow its spaces.
A bar and conference center at the former Days Inn stood vacant when Thornton approached the owner about using it for a bigger church home in 1997.
The church moved in, and now it is building a 22,000-square-foot addition, making the final building more than 35,000 square feet of what he calls "ministry space" on 10 acres of land. It is next door to Our Saviour Lutheran Church.
Ministry space means a lot more than a big room for preaching. Grace Church may be big in size, but it is also small, Thornton says.
"We are actually a network of small groups," he says in a welcoming note. "If you'd like to develop authentic and enduring relationships with others, then you'd be glad to know other groups are forming all the time. We'd like to have the kind of contagious Christianity that can influence and encourage the entire community, one life at a time."
That spirit of welcome is built into every steel beam and poured into every concrete floor.
Members won't find a soaring stained glass window rising above a marble altar in Grace Church. If they didn't know where they were, they might think they had arrived at a rock concert or a stage show.
That's because there are no set pieces at the altar end of the nave. The nave in this church is an auditorium, and the altar end is a stage. On either side of the stage, huge television screens can show a preacher close-up to the whole congregation -- or illustrate the sermon by video.
Later, those sermons will be available to download online from the church Web site at http://gracechurchsp.org or on DVD.
Interactive text-messaging is another way to share questions with a teaching pastor, as they can appear on the big screens for answers and discussion.
Music is more than organ and choir, much more. With a state-of-the-art sound system, and with bands of many kinds on stage, the variety of music can cover a cultural range wider than could be imagined only a few years ago.
The congregation itself is international in appearance. Members from faraway places mix with folks born in Moore County, and have every complexion of humanity itself. The church itself is not exactly a member of a denomination, but it belongs to Grace Churches International, "an association of like-minded evangelical, charismatic churches."
Members don't vote on anything at Grace Church. There is no body of elders or deacons in charge, and no bishop. The church is the embodiment of Thornton's ministry, and follows him and his vision of following Christ.
"Our purpose is to advance God's kingdom by transforming people into fully committed worshippers of Christ," Thornton says in a mission statement. "We are about helping God's people discover their individual gifts and callings, creating an environment where these gifts and callings may be developed, and deploying them to be salt and light in their world."
County Commissioner Larry Caddell, a former mayor of Carthage, thinks his story might be typical of many who have moved to Grace from more conventional churches. It was not out of any dissatisfaction, but out of a hunger for something else. In his case, it was family at first, he says.
"What brought me to Grace was my son," Caddell says. "My son left first, my daughter second. It was down to me and my wife, Lisa, when she said, 'I am going, too.' Well, it is good to have your family together in your walk with Christ, so I made the change."
Caddell left the Baptist church he had grown up in to go to the church his family found.
"It was totally different," he says. "The first Sunday I said, 'These people are great.' It has helped me grow spiritually. Randy is one of the most contagious people to be around if you want to love the Lord. He truly believes God is going to transform Moore County. He believes that with all his heart."
He likes the structure of Thornton's church and the sense of consensus that pervades it.
"We don't vote on anything," Caddell says. "I like that."
Caddell's son, Heath, is now on staff with his wife Jodi. He is working toward a second bachelor's degree, adding theology to elementary education, and working with junior and senior high ministries. He is also district pastor for Southern Pines, Whispering Pines, Carthage and some of the surrounding areas.
Other assistant pastors specialize in areas that may seem unusual.
Kevin Baker is "worship and fine arts" pastor after majoring in radio/television broadcasting and pursuing a professional career in song writing and recording. He oversees church multimedia, fine arts and worship.
Jonathan Love works with missions, pastoral care and visitor follow-up.
David Pratt, as "life group" pastor, coordinates various prayer ministries as well as "life groups."
Life groups are gatherings of three or more who meet regularly for a variety of purposes. Their main emphasis is relationships that help people grow spiritually through connection to the community and each other.
The theology is literal, evangelistic, pentecostal and otherwise squarely in the tradition of American pietism, with its emphasis on the experience of a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ.
A statement of faith describes the Bible as "truth without any mixture of error" and endorses "speaking in tongues" and "prophesy" -- forms of ecstatic utterance.
These forms of worship are old, described in parts of the New Testament, but mostly found in Pentecostal churches in the modern era -- though there are some Episcopal and other congregations that practice them.
From the outside, to somebody unfamiliar with this tradition, a person in the grasp of religious ecstasy can suddenly break out in strange sounds (known as "glossolalia"), as if speaking a foreign language, or can speak out in sudden inspiration.
The inner experience of a person caught up in an ecstatic moment has been described as a new state of consciousness: being intensely absorbed by a single idea or feeling and exalted above the ordinary level of daily experience. Unconscious ideas can surface as visions and sounds.
While this might seem novel to traditional Christians, in fact it is as old as the church and is mentioned in parts of the Old Testament as well as the New.
At Grace Church, this "baptism in the Holy Spirit" is seen as available to all, but not essential to salvation or regeneration. When it happens, it should result in those people becoming "helpers" and "comforters."
This is not something a visitor is likely to see at any regular Sunday service, Thornton stresses.
"While I believe in spiritual gifts, it has sometimes been misused," he said. "Paul says he believes in spiritual gifts, but not to let them become a stumbling block."
When churches turn worship almost entirely into that sort of experience, it gets in the way of purpose, turning people away. Thornton says charisma is real, but far behind love and care and community involvement in the life of this church.
"What I want people to know is the love of God," he says. "Lives are changed though the power, and it is a safe place to bring a family and serve God together. People's lives have been changed. Churches like ours are the fastest-growing churches around the world. We believe in prayer and in the answers to prayer. God still does miracles today."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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