By Woody Baird Of the Kathryn Rogers, Post-Dispatch religion writer, contributed information story.
St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord" means something real to the Church of God in Christ, and that exuberance is spreading rapidly.
The predominantly black, Pentecostal church, born in the rural South, began expanding north and west with the black migration begun in the early part of the century.
Now, the National Council of Churches lists it as the country's fastest-growing denomination with a membership that increased by more than 48 percent between 1982 and 1991.
At the church's annual convocation held in Memphis last week, a visit from President Bill Clinton underlined what members see as the church's growing status.
Clinton, a former governor of Arkansas, also spoke at the church's 1991 convocation while campaigning for president.
"This signifies that the Church of God in Christ is a meaningful entity. We are very proud of this," said Elder Al Westbrooks, an aide to Henry L. Ford of Chicago, the church's presiding bishop.
Ford counts the president as a personal friend and carries in his wallet a picture of himself with Clinton, Westbrooks said.
Leaders say the church's growth is largely because of an unswerving faith that God is a living, personal presence in a follower's life.
"We believe God is a healer. He heals in all areas of life. And if He doesn't, so what. He's God," said David A. Hall Jr., pastor of Temple Church of God in Christ of Memphis. "God is real in this church."
Though its origins were rural, the 5.5 million-member church has its primary influence in the inner cities of the Northeast, South and Far West.
Its focus is on strengthening the family while opposing crime and drugs.
"Our families are being decimated . . . and we have nobody to blame but ourselves," Hall said. "We're not crying victimization. We're crying liberation."
The denomination is based in Memphis, where it was formed in 1907 by Charles H. Mason, a preacher from Mississippi who was the son of former slaves.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last address at the denomination's mother church, the Mason Temple. He gave his "mountain top" speech there the night before he was assassinated in 1968.
Clinton stood in that same pulpit Nov. 13 and praised church members for their efforts to shore up the American family and rebuild the spiritual foundations of inner-city neighborhoods. …