— People of all political persuasions are welcome at the Laurel Church of Christ.
Politics is not.
“Believe it or not, it almost destroyed this church at one time because we’re so close to Washington,” said adult Bible class teacher Stew Highberg, who retired from the Air Force and works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The politics of the president and the House and the Senate would creep in,” explained Highberg, a former Laurel church elder. “So we had to put a moratorium on it. You’ll get booted out of here if you start talking politics.”
He was joking about that last part. Mostly. •Elephant in the pews: Is the GOP the party of Churches of Christ
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More than 300 people worship with this fast-growing Maryland church: Roughly three-quarters work for the federal government, the military or a government contractor or have a family member who does.
“We figure we can try to convince people they’re wrong politically, or we can try to persuade them to follow Jesus,” preaching minister Michael Ray said. “We pick Jesus.”
That does not mean that Ray shies away from moral issues with political undertones. But the minister said he addresses issues such as homosexuality, abortion and gambling from a biblical perspective, not a political one.
The 50-year-old congregation — seven miles north of the D.C. Beltway, the freeway that encircles the nation’s capital — sits halfway between Washington and Baltimore.
One of the larger Churches of Christ in Maryland, the congregation reached an average Sunday attendance of 305 in 2012. That’s up 71 percent from 178 in 2003.
That growth has occurred despite a transient flock whose jobs often take them away — to a new state or nation — after just a few years.
“In many ways, we are uniquely situated to reach the people who live and work in and around our nation’s capital,” said Ray, a Lipscomb University graduate and Kentucky native who came to Laurel nine years ago. “We believe God has put us here in this place at this time to share the Gospel with the 2.7 million people in the area between the D.C. Beltway and the Baltimore Beltway.”
Some Laurel members will gather on the National Mall in January to celebrate President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Other members assembled at the same mall in 2010 to support the Tea Party protests against Obama’s health care plan.
But on Sundays, all the members worship, fellowship and hug regardless of political differences, Ray said, because “the most important thing is what we have in Christ.”
Elder Steve Thornton said he loves the Laurel church because it’s a liberal congregation — and a conservative one.
“We’re liberal in love,” Thornton said, “and we’re conservative when it comes to the Scriptures and doing what God has asked us to do.”
Making the church a “politics-free zone” is just one factor that has helped fuel its growth, leaders said.
Other factors cited:
• Breaking the 200 barrier: As it neared 200 members, the church hired a second minister and replaced its Sunday evening service with small-group gatherings.
Each “Life Group” focuses on the same weekly curriculum. In each group, a trained leader facilitates discussion of specific questions related to that morning’s sermon. The gatherings aim to create a sense of belonging for each member.
“It’s funny because when you hear the sermon, you can’t actually go, ‘Hey, I have a question about that,’” said Air Force Master Sgt. Chyrece Campbell, a mother of five. “I love the fact that in the Life Group, you can say, ‘Wait a minute, where’d he get that from?’”
• Reinvigorating worship assemblies: The church devoted countless hours to learning new songs and striving to worship with more heart and enthusiasm.
Keith Lancaster of Acappella Ministries provided training in four-part harmony during three “Praise & Harmony Workshops” hosted by the congregation.
“We started using ‘The Paperless Hymnal,’ projecting the words and the music on the screen,” said Kevin Caldwell, one of at least 10 men in the congregation trained to lead singing. “That gets people’s faces out of the books and actually looking up. You can actually hear people sing.”
• Adopting an outward focus: The church hired outreach minister Bren White, who splits his time between local outreach and missions in the French-speaking world.
White’s goal: mobilize every Laurel member, be it feeding the homeless, singing at a nursing home or going on an overseas mission trip.
“When people walk in the door, we say, ‘Which of the outreach teams do you want to be a part of?’” White said. “Immediately, it makes them know that we are always thinking about reaching souls, not just doing some activities … to kind of make ourselves happy.”
Dot Highberg, Stew’s wife, oversees the church food pantry, which serves hundreds of needy people each month. A Bible goes in each food box, and a church volunteer prays with each recipient.
Once a month, members bring requested food items from home and place overflowing grocery bags at the front of the auditorium.
“‘Pack the Pulpit’ is incredible in what people give,” Dot Highberg said. “And I get calls all week: ‘What can I give? What can I do?’ The church here is just amazing.”
Another outreach effort delivers community Bible studies to businesses such as Chick-fil-A and Barnes & Noble.
On the first Tuesday of each month, David and Lisa Wood lead one such study at a Panera Bread bakery-café.
“It’s just powerful in the sense that … God’s Word is being explored in a place like Panera,” Lisa Wood said. “And also, it’s sharing that, ‘Hey, if you want to look at the Bible, come to Laurel Church of Christ and we’ll study with you.’ So I think that it’s a really encouraging outreach.”
• Developing the youth: The church’s youth group boasts 40-plus active participants, led by adult volunteers Myron and Renee Harper.
“When we first got here and started doing things in ’99, there were like four kids in the class,” recalled Myron Harper, a deacon.
The Laurel group interacts monthly with other Churches of Christ as a different congregation hosts an areawide devotional. The teens also travel to Winterfest, an annual youth retreat in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
“We all are growing spiritually with each other,” said Andrew Shipley, 17. “If one person is not at church, there are at least three people texting them, saying, ‘Where are you? Why weren’t you at church?’”
“Not during church, of course,” deacon John Shipley, Andrew’s father, said of the texting.
Also thriving at the Laurel church: a young adults class (mostly 20-somethings) and a homebuilders class (couples in their 20s and 30s with young children).
“The Lord has brought people here, and you can sense that the Spirit is working here very actively,” said deacon Jeremy Post, a Tennessee transplant and one of the homebuilders.
Jeannette Robinson, who moved east from Oklahoma, said the church’s friendliness inspired her.
“I live up in Baltimore County, so it takes me 45 minutes to get here,” she said. “But one of the things that was, and still is, very powerful to me was the welcoming, the open arms.”
• Embracing diversity: Visit the Sunday school class for new Christians that White teaches, and it’s like a miniature United Nations — a dozen converts from Africa, Asia and all over the U.S.
Glance at the faces in the auditorium, and it’s a picture of all the little children whom Jesus loves — red and yellow, black and white.
“The world has come to us,” Ray said. “Literally, I can walk across the street from my house, and there’s an Indian family that lives there. You can’t walk through a Walmart or a grocery store without seeing people in their native dress. You’ll see full-length burqas sometimes.”
As Ray sees it, the mission field is ripe for harvest — right here at home.
The best way to reach that mission field?
“Preach Jesus, not politics,” Ray said.