Mega-churches find new ways to handle large congregations

Posted: Friday, March 30, 2001

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- The volunteers dreaded going to church each Thursday evening to begin filling the more than 350 trays for Sunday's Holy Communion. It took seven people up to 30 hours over three days to fill communion cups for the congregation at Southeast Christian Church, which has more than 15,000 members.

No more. Not since inventor Wilfred Greenlee joined the church and came up with a machine that cuts the preparation time to 1 1/2 hours.

The Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine is made of a stainless steel bucket with 40 plastic tubes that run through a sheet of Plexiglas into the cups of a communion tray. A push of a lever on the side allows just enough grape juice to fill each cup half full.

''No overflowing and no spills,'' said Greenlee, 78.

A retired engineer from the former International Harvester plant in Louisville, he holds patents for his work on a tractor transmission, a helicopter camera mount and the communion dispenser.

''I've invented things all my life,'' said Greenlee, who was raised on a farm in southeast Missouri. ''I left school when I was 14, but I kept learning new things. I just taught myself.''

His stainless steel communion dispenser is about 25 inches high and holds 24 quarts. According Greenlee's calculations, it can fill trays for 14,000 people in 90 minutes.

''It's cut our volunteers down to two or three instead of five to seven, and we only need one room to fill the trays,'' said David McConnell, communion volunteer at Southeast Christian. ''We're working smarter, not harder.''

Greenlee's product, which he has sold to churches in nine states, is one of several being marketed to so-called mega-churches whose congregations number several thousand.

Sarasota, Fla.-based ChurchPlaza Inc. caters exclusively to the multibillion-dollar church market. It offers such products as carpet that can double as a sports floor, movable partitions, theater seating and stackable chairs.

Dr. Thomas McElheny, 53, ChurchPlaza's CEO, said mega-churches appeal to many people because the larger facilities are better prepared to host more activities.

''They're very attractive across the board,'' McElheny said. ''Church is not a one-hour thing on Sunday anymore, it's seven days a week for many families.''

Willow Creek Community Church, of South Barrington, Ill., which experienced phenomenal growth in the 1980s, coined the term ''mega-church,'' McElheny says. It remains the national model, with a weekend congregation of 17,000.

Experts say that of the nearly 400,000 congregations in the United States, almost 10 percent average 1,000 or more members.

''The idea of a larger congregation is different for all of us in the beginning because people on average don't like to change,'' said McConnell, one of the communion volunteers. ''Will's machine sat on the counter for weeks before anyone used it. Everyone was happy with the old way.''

Greenlee's communion machine, which he makes by hand in a workshop at his house, sells for $2,995.

''I'm not going to make a huge profit on the invention,'' Greenlee said. ''But as long as I satisfy the church, then that satisfies me.''

Greenlee is also working on a machine that would put the cups in each communion tray before using the dispenser.

If Greenlee keeps inventing, McConnell says, the volunteers may not be needed any more: ''He's going to make our jobs obsolete.''

End Adv for Release AMs newspapers of Friday, March 30



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