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Friday, November 28, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Church Is A Vision To Behold -- Overlake Christian's New $37 Million Building In The North End Of Redmond Is Open For Business

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

REDMOND - The Rev. Bob Moorehead shivered the first time he stood on the bare stage of his new church and looked out at 5,138 empty theater seats fanning out three stories high.

He stared for a moment, feeling small.

"And then I closed my eyes, and I'm thinking this place is big, but there's 200,000 people on the Eastside and we're going to have to have services here 12, maybe 14 times a week to get them all in."

The arithmetic - and probably the vision - is off the mark. As big as Moorehead's new Overlake Christian Church is, it would take 40 services to seat the whole Eastside. And no way is everyone really coming to his church, even as it grows to be among the biggest in the country.

But the dream is pure Moorehead, who has a sign in his office saying, "Attempt things so impossible that unless God is in them, they're doomed to failure."

Parishioners at Overlake Christian have watched their numbers shoot up to megachurch heights - from about 70 in 1970 when Moorehead came here to 6,000 who now worship there every weekend.

They've said goodbye to hundreds of Overlakers who have moved with Moorehead-trained ministers to eight churches that have opened in neighborhoods from Federal Way to Everett.

And they counted the days until their new $37 million church at 9900 Willows Road is ready for occupancy.

It finally happened: Workmen and city inspectors were barely out of the building in time for a Thanksgiving service Wednesday night. Regular Sunday services begin Dec. 7.

Parishioners say they feel as at home in this mammoth new building as they do with the old-fashioned theology and nontraditional music of Moorehead's services.

At 250,000 square feet, Overlake now has what is thought to be the state's largest church building. It looks more like the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field than a church - there's no steeple and cross reaching to heaven, no primary-colored stained-glass windows.

Parking for 1,900 cars

It sits on land zoned light industrial but has a view of the rolling greens of Willows Run Golf Club next door. A parking lot for 1,900 cars stretches out front for a half-mile.

Worshipers will be shuttled from the parking lot. They'll enter a glassed-in mall with a book shop and information booths. Reversible escalators will take many up to balcony seating and back down to ground level after services. There is a gym, chapel and restaurant-sized kitchen.

The auditorium is fitted with the latest in sound technology; two huge video screens above the stage can display close-ups of the preacher, words to the hymns and Bible passages.

There's a block of pews for those who prefer them to theater seats. When children are dropped off for Sunday school, they'll be given a number to be flashed on the screen if they need their parents.

Overlake is one of some 400 "megachurches" that have sprung up nationally in the past few years. The word has come to mean a church with an average Sunday attendance of more than 2,000. Most are, like Overlake, huge, independent, Protestant, evangelical and Bible-based.

These institutions also have been called "the Next Church," "seeker-sensitive churches" and even "shopping-mall churches" for their one-stop, something-for-everyone programs.

Overlake, while huge by Washington standards, nationally is in the middle of the megachurch pack. First Baptist Church in Hammond, Ind., with 20,000 worshipers on Sundays, is the largest, according to the International Mega-Church Research Center in Bolivar, Mo.

Bill Hybels is pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., the second-largest in the country with about 15,000 members. He began the same way Moorehead did - knocking on doors and asking people to come to his church.

"One-on-one evangelism is the key," Hybels said in a visit to Seattle last summer. "We have built into our people a contagious Christian faith. When they talk to their friends, they ask them to come to one of our services. That's why we're successful."

Doorbelling works

"I'll bet we've been to 25,000 or 30,000 homes over the years," Moorehead says of the church volunteers who help him doorbell. "I think that exposure really paid off. People whose doors I knocked on said they had never had that happen before. But Jesus didn't command the world to go to church. He commanded the church to go out to the world."

The approach has worked.

"We really like Bob Moorehead, his style of preaching," Greg Thomson said. He and his wife, Shannon, both 27, live in North Seattle and started going to Overlake four years ago. She is a nurse, and he's a sales representative for a software company. At Overlake, they are active in the Foundations group for young marrieds.

Moorehead "preaches from the Bible, whereas most preachers' messages are based on their opinion about how to live a good life, and the Bible is just held up as the standard," Thomson said.

The traditional Bible-based message is popular. But, oddly, traditional music (read that 19th-century hymns with organ accompaniment) is "boring to a lot of people in our age group," Thomson said. "We like more contemporary, more upbeat music."

The size of the church was daunting at first, Thomson said. "But whether a church has 500 people or 1,000, unless you get involved you aren't going to be happy."

Small groups help

Leyla and Glen Crabtree, who also belong to Foundations, say the only way to negotiate a megachurch successfully is to become deeply involved in its small, group programs.

"The small groups don't make you feel like you're in a church of 5,000," said Leyla Crabtree, 23. She and Glen live in Kirkland and teach at Cedar Park Christian School in Bothell. "We all know each other really well."

To Moorehead and other megachurch pastors, this is what the church ought to be - a dynamic place with plenty of opportunities to spread the Gospel.

But that doesn't mean he will ever call Overlake and all its spinoff churches a denomination - one characteristic of evangelical churches is a rejection of the centralized authority and internal politics that being a denomination implies.

"We don't criticize denominations," said the Rev. Tim Avery, Overlake's pastoral administrator. "But we're not out to build one."

Planting churches is just a way for the church to grow, he says. Overlake helps a new pastor get acquainted with potential parishioners by letting him preach on a weekday night for a while, gives him some seed money to get started and pays his salary for 15 months. After that, his church is on its own.

Hard to leave

But some Overlakers find it hard to leave, even if the new church is closer to home. They aren't required to leave, but they are strongly encouraged to.

Moorehead says his goal is to spread the word, and members can do that best by working with new people in their neighborhoods.

"It would be difficult for us to go if they started a church in our neighborhood," Thomson said. "I wouldn't want to rule it out, but Bob Moorehead is the main reason we're here."

Sally Macdonald's phone message number is 464-2248. The e-mail address is: smac-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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