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Born again: Pastor's pitch on rock radio saves dying Atlanta church

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

ATLANTA (AP) -- Along Ponce de Leon Avenue, where fast-food signs stand out like neon exclamation points, Grace United Methodist Church is easy to miss -- camouflaged in plain red brick, its stained-glass windows obscured by protective film.

It has spent most of a generation beat-up in a bad neighborhood, a grand old church in its dying days. Membership sagged to near nothing. The roof and pipes leaked. A small staff struggled, quite literally, to hold the place together.

Eighty years after the church rebuilt from two fires, a half-century after it became the first in Georgia to put Sunday services on television, there was talk of barring the sanctuary doors.

Until the new minister, a young go-getter from the suburbs, desperately tried one last idea. And there -- on an edgy rock radio station, of all places -- began what the congregation calls the miracle that saved Grace Church.

If you called central casting and asked for a minister, they might send you the Rev. John Beyers. At 37, he has intense eyes, ink-black hair shaped and parted perfectly, a voice with a built-in echo.

He was 32 when he became senior minister at Grace. He recalls worrying about prostitutes lurking at nearby corners and cracked drug vials on the lawn. The church, walking distance from Atlanta police headquarters, needed private security.

Just as grave was the church ledger: Only a few dozen people were coming for services, leaving behind sparse collection plates.

''It's so much easier in the suburbs. Things are prosperous, and there's lots of money and families and kids,'' Beyers said. ''Grace was in a terrible place.''

It was 1997, and gentrification was taking hold in Atlanta. Not far from the church, young adults from packed suburbs were starting to move to the core of the city.

Many of the twenty- and thirty-somethings were the nonreligious children of baby-boom parents. They were Grace's best -- and maybe only -- chance at survival.

Beyers thought about the old black-and-white telecasts of services at Grace, the exuberant preaching and grand organ music he remembered. He decided to take the church back to the airwaves.

The playlist at WNNX-FM includes bands called Alien Ant Farm, Scapegoat Wax, Godsmack and Saliva. Listeners tune in for songs like ''Fat Lip,'' ''Hash Pipe'' and ''Your Disease.''

Its morning show is typical big-city FM fare -- wisecracking disc jockeys, celebrity gossip, the news and traffic.

The station seems an odd fit for the program Beyers had in mind.

A small business in Florida distributes short parables called Perceptions for ministers to read in 60-second radio spots, and Beyers thought the ads might be a good way to reach people.

One message teaches about humility by relating the story of a man who turns pages for concert pianists. Another teaches about disappointment by telling about a woman who mistook her boyfriend's excitement over his car for an upcoming marriage proposal.

Beyers' colleagues warned him that the radio ads were, at best, a longshot. At worst, they said, the station was unrighteous trash that had no business associating with the United Methodist Church.

Buying a year's worth of spots on the station cost Beyers $150,000, money the struggling church could hardly afford to toss around. He went on the air two days after Christmas.

Weeks passed. In Grace Church's majestic, Gothic-style sanctuary, there were no signs of life.

Beyers tried to pick nonthreatening messages, the ones without what he calls ''brother-are-you-saved language.'' He tried to strike a spiritual chord without sounding too religious.

''We're not selling anything when you listen to my ads, I will not tell you how great my church is, how wonderful our children's department is, how beautiful our choir is,'' he said.

Greg Wood was one of the first to hear. A loan officer in Atlanta in his early 30s, he was a regular listener to the morning show. He thought of church as a condemning environment.

''You know, 'Thou-shalt-not. You're going to hell if you do this.' It was all so foreign to me,'' he said. ''This was nonthreatening religion. The messages, the way they're presented, it really hits home.''

Wood came to Grace early in 1999, about five weeks after Beyers' Perceptions messages debuted. He saw no one else close to his age.

Diane Farnell was an accountant in her upper 20s who also listened to the morning show. Between the commercials, she grew familiar with Beyers' voice.

''It was always there, and I just started listening,'' she said. ''Then I realized he was from a church.''

She joined the church earlier this year.

Hundreds of young adults have flocked to the church, including some who have abandoned suburban megachurches outside Atlanta to be part of the renewal at Grace. Since early 1999, not one Sunday has passed without a newcomer telling Beyers they heard him on the rock station, Beyers said.

''We are really attracting pagans -- people who are completely disassociated from biblical faith,'' he said. ''A lot of these young adults have never been to church. So when they come in, it's like a whole new world.

Nearly three years after he started, Beyers leads a casual worship on Sunday mornings that looks more like a standup act. He grasps a microphone stand, tries to connect with people seated in front of him at round tables.

They are a curious mix -- elderly members in their Sunday best and cell phone-toting Gen-Xers in casual dress.

The traditional service at Grace Church has found new life, too. The church now attracts at least 500 people on a typical Sunday.

Financially, times are still tough. The church is still paying for years of neglect. The operating budget is up to $1.2 million, from just $300,000 when Beyers took over.

The next project: Renovating the old stained-glass windows, now faded and covered with film.

In its heyday, the church took particular pride in the windows, which are imported from England. The renovation is exciting for older members, like Tina Guillebeau, who joined the church at its pinnacle in the 1960s.

Even in the difficult days, she said, she could not leave Grace Church. If the church was going to close, she would be the last one out of the sanctuary.

Now on Sunday mornings, she stands outside the social hall and greets the church's new lifeblood, hugging young adults in golf shirts and khakis as they file in to hear the music.

''They're like angels to me,'' she said. ''Just like angels.''

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On the Net:

Grace United Methodist Church: http://www.graceatthecross.org

WNNX-FM: http://www.99x.com



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