Forget it was the opening of Little Rock's largest church (200,000 square feet) and new home of the city's largest congregation (6,000 members).
Look past the two cafes, bookstore, playground, sand volleyball court, and the water cascading over the stones into the outdoor baptistery, with an outdoor amphitheater and soccer fields on their way.
Lundy wanted everyone to look past the building into eternity.
Lundy, the “directional leader” and one of three lead pastors at the church, thanked contractors, architects, staff and volunteers. He reminded them of prayers at the site when it was a cow pasture, and he introduced a video that included images of the construction.
Except to say the new building was “shabby” compared to Heaven, he all but ignored the new surroundings for the next 30 minutes.
Reading verses from Revelations, he urged everyone to prepare to meet Jesus face to face. He appealed to them to let neighbors, families and friends know how to get their names in the Book of Life so they could enjoy eternity with God and avoid the agony of Hell.
To close the first sermon in the new location, Lundy invited everyone to walk out of the auditorium and assemble around a towering cross centered in the plaza.
Super-sizing the Church
On May 18, the opening of the Fellowship campus on 1401 Kirk Road in West Little Rock was a landmark event for the conservative “megachurch,” a label typically assigned to Protestant, suburban churches with more than 2,000 members.
It was also another milestone in the recent history of religion in Arkansas. Nondenominational churches continue to appeal to more wor-shippers, particularly young, affluent and suburban families.
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, its 6,000 members make Fellowship the largest church in the Little Rock area. It is twice the size of St. Mark Baptist Church (approximately 3,000 members). New Life Church in Conway, Immanuel Baptist Church and Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church have about 2,500 members each.
Statewide, Fellowship in Little Rock is the third largest, behind First Baptist Church of Springdale with 10,400 members and Fellowship Bible Church in Northwest Arkansas with 7,000, the Institute reported.
“There's no built-in fear of large,” Travis said. “Only those raised in small churches would say it's not normal.”
Larger churches, recognizing a potential weakness, have done a good job of breaking membership into small units of common interest and “creating places where people can plug in better,” he said.
‘Take Care of the Kids'
Between the names Agape and Zion, among majestic cathedrals and abandoned buildings, with roots extending back to statehood, the Little Rock area has approximately 200 churches, three temples and a mosque.
How did Fellowship get to be the biggest of them all?
After walking through what could pass as an amusement-park ride entrance, children enter halls and rooms that, depending on age, invite them to a pirate ship, a spacecraft, a Medieval castle, a Klondike gold rush, or a “Raiders of the Lost Ark-” type search, all with Bible lessons linked to the themes.
For first-graders, there is Paradise Pond, a nature setting hosted by Woody the “talking tree” (thanks to a behind-the-scenes narrator with a voice-activated moving mouth).
It's no coincidence that the new Fellowship campus has the look and feel of an enclosed retail mall — a common source of fun and comfort for families today. Experts in modern retailing helped design the facility.
“You always have to be in search of a new way to deliver a constant message. You can keep the same values but introduce the innovation,” he said.
Variety in the pulpit also is appealing. Rather than one preacher, Fellowship has three senior pastors who provide varying styles. With Lundy, current pastors are Bill Parkinson, a Little Rock native and one of several church founders, and Fareed Tulbah, who moved from Hous-ton about a year ago.
“Bible is in the name [of the church] for a reason. It's not just God's word, but it has an impact on real life,” he said.
“For Fellowship, the location and design of the new campus speaks to our desire to create a place for connection and real life-on-life relation-ships among our members,” Lundy said.
At the new campus, worshippers have choice of three venues — all displaying mammoth video screens that give the audience a high-definition view of videos, lyrics and sermons in progress.
A main Worship Center has theater-style seating for 1,450 and is promoted as “the perfect place for energetic worship with a passionate community of believers.” (The pastor delivers a “live” sermon at the worship center; those in other venues see the identical sermon by simul-cast or by delayed video.)
The Warehouse — sometimes called the Edge — has room for about 750 people to sit at tables, booths, pews and chairs and experience more “progressive worship” with a high-decibel band and light shows.
Various locations — from Tucker Prison to about 17 area firehouses — receive the DVDs each week. From a new website to radio broad-casts, from YouTube to podcasts, the church has deployed the most popular media to spread its messages.
“Given the demands of building the Little Rock campus and developing Benton and Cabot, we backed up to look at the big picture of where we want to go as a church. We continue to pray about the possibility of opening a new campus downtown and are looking at the residential growth in that area of Little Rock,” a spokesperson said.
A church that struggles
Four hundred and sixty-seven years before Fellowship opened its new campus, Christianity came to Arkansas.
It was 1541, and Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto allowed his priests to pray with native tribes and erected a cross in what is now Cross County. He also tortured and slaughtered his hosts after they failed to help him find gold and fortune.
In 1828, a Presbyterian minister was amazed how many worshippers brought guns and knives to a service on the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock. One hundred eighty years later, members and guests minus the weapons still attend First Presbyterian Church, now at Eighth and Scott streets.
Others know First Presbyterian as a church that supports multiple programs to help the poor. For example, it provides basement space for the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization that coordinates with 17 local churches to house and help the homeless.
Then, there is the sanctuary, seemingly lifted out of Europe centuries ago.
“Our worship is aided by a magnificent new Nichols and Simpson pipe organ, brilliant stained glass windows [1928 reproductions of 13th-century Gothic designs], and a collegiate Gothic building designed by John Parks Almond,” a church brochure says.
Gordon said the sanctuary reflects First Presbyterian's approach to worship, and offers a sharp contrast for most mega-churches.
“Our sanctuary is a place of worship, a holy place. It's not an auditorium or concert hall,” he said. “We are not part of the culture. Our task is to move toward the kingdom of God.
Gordon said all churches wrestle with how many dollars to budget among facilities, staff and benevolence. First Presbyterian faced the issue when the idea came three years ago to purchase the grand pipe organ.
“We discussed that in a day-long retreat,” he said, noting a long-time member “made the point that anything that helps us worship God properly gives us the ability to serve God properly.”
Escaping the island
Tim Lundy said he hopes that people do not define Fellowship by its campus.
“In the end, the building is just a tool. The mission is to the city and world and that can never take place in one location,” Lundy said.
“I believe the greatest misconception about Fellowship is that our ministry and focus is limited to West Little Rock around our cam-pus. The reality is that our ministry is city-wide in campuses, focus and the people whose lives are changed,” he said.
He said more than 10 years ago church leadership, before he arrived, recognized the congregation was on an “island” — a largely self-contained congregation that was not building relationships in the community. This fostered misgivings in the public and left church members unfulfilled.
Today, a church spokesperson said, about 1,500 of its members are regularly involved in letting “their light shine in such a way that when others see their good works they will glorify the Father who is in heaven.”
From providing mentors to about 125 elementary school students, helping in the adoptions and foster homes for more than 100 children, to building homes through Habitat for Humanity, helping the elderly stay warm and fed, the church offers a dizzying list of its membership's vol-unteer work.
Most of the home page of Fellowship's website is devoted to inviting anyone in the community to Celebrate Recovery, a nationwide faith-based program aimed at helping people recover from drug and alcohol abuse; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; lust and pornography addic-tion; eating disorders; “people pleasing and workaholism,” and other addictions. About 200 regularly attend the program hosted by the church.
No women preachers or elders
Fellowship created its island in the minds of some outsiders by a high public profile on social issues. Times have changed. The days are gone when it campaigns to “Stand up for Decency,” attacking homosexuality and sponsoring Little Rock television advertising campaigns that compared abortion to the Holocaust.
But for Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock in 2008, a change in its public campaigns doesn't mean a change in outlook.
“We haven't changed our conservative theology on social and moral issues,” Tim Lundy said. “The church has maintained its Biblical val-ues and interpretation of the truth of God's Word consistently for 30 years.”
When asked how he would respond if his daughter believed she had a “gift” to preach and wanted to follow in the footsteps of her dad, Lundy replied: “I would be thrilled for my daughter to want to follow in my footsteps, but I believe that Scripture points out there are some roles in the church that are limited to men. Those roles are few and they do not apply across the board to all of society, but they are limited by Scripture. As much as I personally do not want my daughter to be limited from using her gifts in any way and encourage her to pursue her dreams, I cannot do so against what I believe is the teaching of Scripture. We have women who serve as pastors on staff and are gifted teachers, but they do not serve as elders or preachers within the worship services.”
The Family Council has been active in the ongoing effort to prevent homosexual couples in Arkansas from adopting children.
“While we respect the work of the Family Council, we are not part of the leadership or of their board and do not guide them in the po-sitions that they promote. Generally, we have been appreciative of their work. However, that does not mean that we agree with everything that they do or with every position that they take,” a church spokesperson said.
Lundy said he knows the church's theology won't appeal to all Arkansans, but he hopes the church will be known — and maybe even crit-ics will be inspired to visit — by the lives of its members.