Mega-Progress at a Megachurch ; Going from a Rented Room in a Hotel to a 2,300-Member Congregation 15 Years Later, Kingdom Life Christian Church's Story Is a Study in How a Megachurch Succeeds

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In 1991, Pastor Jay Ramirez rented a room in a Ramada Inn off Interstate 95 and started preaching. Tonight he roves the stage of plush Kingdom Life Christian Cathedral, which is packed with an enthusiastic crowd. After 14 eventful years, his congregation, now about 2,300, is hosting an international conference on church growth. And Bishop Ramirez is ordaining pastors from several countries.

"God's going to knock us out of our comfort zones," he cautions the gathered faithful. "God is at work in the world ... and is building a spiritual city, a spiritual Jerusalem.... Every stage is going to be uncomfortable ... until we are in the divine order."

This nondenominational megachurch, which has passed through challenging stages itself, is now flourishing, along with hundreds of other megachurches that are reshaping the religious landscape in the United States. A national survey released last week found twice as many as there were five years ago. The late management guru Peter Drucker called the megachurch "the only organization ... actually working in our society," and said it had much to teach other institutions.

What makes them work? Why are Americans shifting in droves to the largest church communities?

Conventional wisdom says their popularity lies in people's penchant for anonymity and that the churches bow to a consumer mentality, redesigning worship, buildings, and theology for a more comfortable experience. Some charge they're businesses in disguise, building empires through marketing and televangelism.

Clearly, there are varieties of megachurches. Yet visits to this one in Milford, Conn., suggest deeper explanations for their appeal. One of the oldest towns in America, Milford boasts Cape Cod houses on shady streets, a beachfront on Long Island Sound, and miles of strip malls along US Route 1. It's becoming a bedroom community for New York City.

Started with the aims of reaching the unchurched and creating a faith community that "demonstrates the kingdom of God on earth," Kingdom Life Christian Church (KLCC) has had a visible impact on members, on Milford, and beyond.

Bible-focused, with dynamic leadership, highly structured youth programs, and adult home fellowship, the church is drawing people from communities all along I-95.

At a Wednesday night Bible study in the hotel ballroom-style sanctuary, a friendly, buoyant group of about 600 is surprisingly diverse: white, Latino, and black; children and parents, all with Bibles in hand. (Teenagers have their class in another building.)

In the spacious auditorium furnished with upholstered mauve chairs and huge projection screens, exuberant singing is followed by a half-hour Q&A with Ramirez. One question has to do with the theology of "The Da Vinci Code" and the "Left Behind" novels. The bishop has read the books, and says there's some truth and "lots of junk" in them.

"I like the Bible - it's filled with history, drama, intrigue, grace, and mercy - and at the end, we win," he says with a broad grin. "I'm not going to get my theology out of novels."

The broad-shouldered 40-something pastor is big on common sense, humor, and thinking things through. Smooth but not slick, with a warm voice and an entertaining manner, he's clearly in control but also attuned to his congregation.

"My brother, who had never attended any church, came and was moved by the bishop's message," says Janet Zove, who handles marketing for a Fortune 500 company. "For my brother to be moved takes a lot, so I came along. I have a Catholic background and this is life-changing - it's about having a direct relationship with God." Despite a demanding job, she volunteers on weekends at the church's Family Resource Center, which has just launched adoption and foster-care services in the community.

Patricia McKay was already a churchgoer, but says she "wasn't being fed properly in the word of God. …