THE LITTLE CHURCH THAT COULD
SouthLake Church in West Linn - with its unique worship practices - has grown from 300 to 3,000 people since 2001
It's mid-morning on any given Sunday in West Linn. Judging by the parking lot at SouthLake Church on Borland Road you'd think The Beatles were in town.
As people - dressed in anything from blue jeans and T-shirts to their Sunday best - make their way into building, they walk swiftly so as not to miss anything.
Coffee and tea is served at the SouthLake Café as familiar faces greet one another. Seats near the main stage have been warming for a while now. Everyone wants to be close to the action.
What's all the buzz about? Worshiping God.
But this isn't your traditional Christian church building, lined with wooden pews and songbooks. SouthLake aims to entertain while they inform people about the gospel. SouthLake seems an entertainment-hub with contemporary music and teaching methods.
And its 'fan-base' is growing like crazy. In 2001, the church - affiliated with the Foursquare movement - had 300 people. Now, 3,000 attend each weekend, forcing the church to grow from one to four services.
Just two weeks ago, 5,000 people attended six Easter services at SouthLake. An estimated 7,000 people attended the nine services at Christmas.
'While a lot of churches can be more of a memorial service, this is a celebration of the resurrection,' said worship leader Wilson Smith III. 'As we grew we didn't want to grow in numbers, but in the quality of relationships.'
Let's 'SouthLake' it
Some SouthLake attendees said the visual realm the church creates keeps services entertaining.
Projector screens display movie clips and song lyrics throughout service. Teen and children areas comprise half of the 30,000-square-foot modern building set on 30 acres.
Teens gather in their own wing with a professional stage, drink bar and messages.
Small children participate in age-appropriate activities and get the same multi-media treatment, which can include people in costume, plenty of props, small group exercises and DVD presentations.
Within the main worship center at SouthLake, the 15-piece SouthLake Band - known for upbeat gospel performances at The Bite of Oregon and at the Rose Festival - carries contemporary tunes from professional musicians. Like any dedicated band, they have CDs for sale in the lobby.
'We like contemporary music, so we're not stuck in one mode. We'll do a Latin and rock song and black gospel and then a jazz (song),'' said Bill Groener, SouthLake's music director.
Groener said that they often 'SouthLake' a song.
'We give it our own twist, or arrangement,' he said. It allows the singers and musicians artistic freedom to interpret popular songs, he said.
SouthLake's pastor, Kip Jacob, often takes Bible scripture and explains the message using concrete examples that apply to modern lifestyles.
'It's a message of grace,' Jacob said. 'It's a message that's uplifting and encourages people that God accepts us right where we are.'
Ann Smith travels from NE Portland each Sunday to hear what Jacob has in store.
'It's a great renewal for the week,' she said, 'with a message that relates to everyday.'
Claiming that they don't want to be 'religious' in the traditional sense, SouthLake is described by regulars as 'a casual atmosphere with a professional delivery.'
Chad Hamar of Lake Oswego plays drums and guitar at SouthLake and heads up the youth band with his wife, Rachel. He said that what first impressed him was the breezy environment.
'Pastor Kip was very 'real' in his message. We felt that we could take that message with us and apply it to our daily lives,' Hamar said. 'Also, the music was unlike anything we had seen at a church before and it lined up perfectly with the message.'
If you miss a service, you can listen to it on the SouthLake Web site. Two hundred small groups participate in discussions - about topics such as grace, clear thinking and the future - using workbooks and accompanying DVDs created for SouthLake, and now used in churches nationwide.
'Some people come to SouthLake to get involved with ministry or just heal,' Groener said. 'It's not a pressure-pot or recruitment center.'
Christian Speer, a West Linn resident, began attending SouthLake four months ago.
'There's a huge emphasis on emotional health. You can come here with your problems and someone can help you take care of them,' Speer said. 'Churches where you can't be yourself are pretty useless. If you are only loved when you are nice (it doesn't work). There's going to be pain and suffering sooner or later.'
Growing in numbers
SouthLake holds services on Saturdays at 6 p.m. and on Sundays at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and noon. The steady growth of attendees since changing their name from Lake Chapel - from when they were in Lake Oswego - to SouthLake and opening their new building on Borland Road in 2001 still amazes Smith. In 2005 an addition was completed on the building to accommodate the growing group.
'One year there were 300 people. The next year there were 600, and then more and more,' Smith said.
Groener said he'll never forget a crowded Christmas service.
'Families lined the stairs. Every window sill and the foyer was full,' Groener said.
Smith and Groener said that having enough room has always been important at SouthLake. As long as the quality of relationships among members remained strong, they were succeeding.
'Our building is open and so is our church,' Groener said of the generous worship areas for all age groups.
'It's rewarding to see kids growing and wanting to go to church,' said Deanna Gilday, children's ministries director. 'They get so excited.'
During one service on Sunday, 93 children in kindergarten through fifth grade participated in Promiseland activities - a group discussion upstairs and small group activities in classrooms.
At the same time the smaller children downstairs participated in activities; teens worshiped in the Student Impact Center on the other side of the building.
'A lot of people are involved with different ministries,' said Oregon City resident Diane Wheeler who volunteers with the children's programs. 'There's a good atmosphere here. I think that's why we're growing; people love it here.'
SouthLake via satellite
Members of the church said that with growth comes responsibility. They said they hope to pass-on what makes SouthLake feel so fresh and alive with newcomers.
Terry Garland of Portland owns every SouthLake Band CD.
'There is no better worship or praise band on the West coast,' Garland said. 'And the teaching is as good as the music.'
Smith said that SouthLake has three goals for the next five years.
They hope to continue forming the SouthLake Foundation which will aid mission teams when they travel to aid communities around the world. Last year some SouthLake members started rebuilding a village in Nicaragua, which was highlighted in half a dozen TV reports.
'SouthLake is considering expanding facilities if necessary, but believes the future for growing churches is in establishing video satellites rather than building bigger buildings,' Jacob said.
Jacob said that off-site services allow for 'one church, many locations.'
Off-site services in the Portland-area will allow more people to experience a SouthLake service without the drive.
These satellite services would include a live feed from the West Linn church to other gathering spots in the region.
'Here the focus is on the relationships, not the religion,' said Ranae Beck, a volunteer at the church.
While not all long-time SouthLake attendees thought their little church would grow in popularity like it has, Groener said that as a church the goal isn't to put up roadblocks for those curious about SouthLake.
'Who would you want to turn away by not growing?' he said.
For Hamar, finding SouthLake seven years ago was finding a place where he could be himself.
'SouthLake is for those who are seeking truth in a world where so many have been turned off by organized religion,' Hamar said. 'They've done a great job at not becoming like a country club where the broken do not fit in. No matter what walk of life you come from or what your beliefs are, you feel loved at SouthLake.'
For more information about SouthLake, visit www.southlakechurch.com . SouthLake is located at 1555 SW Borland Road in West Linn.