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Evangelical Christianity meets resistance

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Days after the Fourth of July, the floor of Christian Faith Center's broad, well-lit sanctuary and the rows of chairs facing the stage were still littered with paper scraps from the church's celebration.

During that jubilant service, church leaders called up the military personnel in the congregation, from young men and women home on leave to Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs, prayed for them and sang "God Bless America." An Air Force serviceman gave senior pastors and church founder Casey and Wendy Treat the flag he carried with him during his flights over Afghanistan and Iraq.

The celebration culminated in 15 to 20 Harley-Davidson motorcycles driving up ramps onto the stage and circling around several times while singer Shania Twain's "Rock this Country" played in the background and concert lights flashed against a giant American flag backdrop.

Treat himself was the last one up, driving his Harley onto the stage to deliver a sermon on freedom. The whole event was followed by a picnic, with games, international foods and an auto show, on the church grounds.

The Independence Day celebration wasn't an example of a typical service at Christian Faith Center, but the church and its charismatic leaders are renowned for breaking conventional religious molds and, in the words of many of their congregants, making religion hip and relevant.

Kristen Tarsiuk, 25, is one of the new faces of a rising tide of evangelical Christians in the Pacific Northwest. The soft-spoken Arizona transplant works in the music ministry at Christian Faith Center after a recent transfer from the youth ministry.

Wearing a tailored denim jacket, white pants and hot-pink, patent leather pumps, she sat in a cushioned chair in the sanctuary of the church where she has worked the past six years, met her husband, Justin, got married and now finds most of her friends and associates.

Treat married Kristen and Justin, whose father, Terry, is an associate pastor at the church, when she was 21. They took couples communication classes together at the church and, between the two of them, they attend almost every service.

Tarsiuk said Casey and Wendy Treat have become a spiritual mom and dad to her and her husband. She said Wendy even gave Kristen her "sex talk" before her wedding.

Members of large, evangelical Christian congregations nationwide said they've found a strong sense of community at church, according to a study of megachurches in the United States authored by Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.

Tarsiuk said a sense of community is what keeps her and her husband at Christian Faith Center.

"There's such great relationships you can build here," she said. "To meet people, you have to put forward a lot of effort, especially for young people.

"It's such a healthy place. I found a place where I have role models and mentors. There's value in their teaching, where I've said, 'I want to do it that way.'"

Tarsiuk said she looks up to the Treats' stability, the strength of their friendships, their health and the solidity of their marriage as models for her own life. And she looks to older church members for help and guidance when she runs into personal challenges.

"We also have friends outside of church and friends who aren't Christian, but this is definitely our community and our family," she said.

Despite studies showing the Pacific Northwest is the most unchurched area in the country, Jim Wellman, professor of Western religion at the University of Washington, said Christian Faith Center is one of the 25 fastest-growing congregations in the region. Mars Hill, a megachurch in Seattle, has been growing at 50 to 60 percent a year, he said.

About 25 percent of people living in the Pacific Northwest claim to be born-again Christian. That's lower than the national average, Wellman said. On the other hand, 25 percent say they follow no religion at all. That's about twice the national average.

But there have been growing trends toward conservatism here. Many members of large, evangelical congregations are looking for a family- and child-centered community that's strong and supportive.

"It's all-American 1950s values mixed in with a contemporary worship," Wellman said. "Even liberals want a little morality for their kids."

In response, entrepreneurial pastors are seizing the market, building huge churches with their own cultural infrastructure, schools and sense of community for their members.

Treat's charismatic, therapeutic and, according to church members, profoundly relevant sermons, are appealing to people in the Seattle area and attracting more and more people. "He preaches to the ethos of the region," Wellman said.

But the Pacific Northwest hasn't traditionally been a hotbed of religious passion, and the recent expansion of evangelical churches here has led to some heated debates. According to Wellman, Pacific Northwesterners tend to espouse a more natural, libertarian individualist, 'We-don't-want-anybody-bugging-us' attitude that doesn't jive with the fervency and joiner-ism of evangelical Christianity.

The Federal Way City Council, before authorizing the project after a five-year approval process, heard testimony from people adamantly opposed to Christian Faith Center's proposal to build a 200,000-square-foot church and 100,000-square-foot school on 50 acres south of South 336th Street between Interstate 5 and Pacific Highway South. Many residents living near the site had concerns about traffic congestion and environmental impacts, but some opponents called the church a "God mall," accused members of being cultish and compared the Treats to Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, controversial and formerly scandal-ridden religious leaders.

"This whole anti-church criticism of them is silly," Wellman said. "It's pretty un-American to keep a church out. (Opponents) lack a real public spirit sometimes. And religion is a public action."

Doug Ostrom, 43, a member and volunteer at Christian Faith Center, agrees.

"Back through history, any time the church has done something more than just be wallpaper, any time people have stood up for high standards and a different way of thinking, it's always brought controversy," he said. "I don't know what brings so much resistance."

That resistance could stem from the common perception of evangelical Christians as a people possessed of their dogma and prepared to share the message with the entire world –– regardless of the beliefs held by other people. Ostrom said Bible-thumping isn't how he operates, but he didn't deny that witnessing is an important part of the Christian faith.

"We're very excited about the things we've learned," he said, referring to the Christian belief in salvation through the crucified Christ. "We're excited about the life we live. It's not mistake-free. It's not problem-free. But our life is very rewarding. It's a life that's transformed. We want to share it."

Patricia O'Connell Killen, professor of American religion at Pacific Lutheran University and chairwoman of the religion department there, said resentment might come from the fact that Treat's religion runs counter to the belief systems held by many people living in the Pacific Northwest. Christian Faith Center's expansion is viewed by many as an aggressive desire to impose their morays on others, she said.

"Treat's community, in the minds of many people, is associated with social and political things they consider regressive and wrong," she said.

Evangelical Protestants usually are anti-gay rights, strongly in favor of patriarchal families, strongly in favor of free-market economics and against a government-funded social safety net, she said.

Ostrom disagrees with the implication the church wouldn't include people that don't fit a conservative mold, but he doesn't dispute there are some behaviors the church considers wrong.

"Our church is not anti-anything," he said, but added, "The Bible talks about sin and right and wrong. Our church welcomes people. We love all people, but we don't like sin. We try to separate the person from the behavior of the person."

Like Wellman, Killen said many in the Pacific Northwest have a deep mistrust of religious fervor and the charismatic pursuit of human souls. There's a perception that religion is a "negative force," she said, "that it's destructive in terms of society. Some people are fine with 'live and let live' in terms of Treat's community. Some are against it because it does increase congestion and eliminate the tax base."

She added that some are just skeptical of the whole operation.

"Some people are suspicious," she said. "There are people that view Treat as a big con man."

Casey and Wendy Treat launched Christian Faith Center 25 years ago out of the foyer of a church called Silver Lake Chapel. Most already know the story of how Treat had been in a Bible-based drug rehabilitation center, where he "gave his life to Christ" and felt called to start a church.

Treat, who was not available for comment for this article, bought the SeaTac location 22 years ago to accommodate his growing flock. When the congregation grew larger, church leaders added another service. Today, it's grown so much, people start leaving when they can't find a parking spot.

Christian Faith Center's growth, expansion, demographic makeup and programming is not unlike other megachurches in the country, according to Thumma's study. Attendance at megachurches across the country averages 3,900 people a week, and the congregations have grown about 10 percent a year over the past five years.

Many Americans have misconceptions about megachurches, Thumma said. It's true they're large, but most are composed of middle-class families and are more racially diverse than most mainline congregations.

Christian Faith Center reflects the findings in Thumma's study.

"We have a very rich diversity. It doesn't draw from any one particular socioeconomic or ethnic group," church spokesman Morgan Llewellyn said.

According to Thumma's research, sermons at megachurches across the country usually focus on God's love, personal salvation, spiritual growth and practical advice for daily living. The same holds true of Christian Faith Center.

"Making the spiritual practical in our lives is what Casey's great at," Tarsiuk said. "I never go away thinking I can't use that. There's really strong teaching here. When I came to Christian Faith Center, I found God makes sense in my everyday life –– in my friendships, in my finances, in my marriage."

That people are happy with the format and the services shows. "People are voting with their feet," Llewellyn said. "People like it. The church has grown."

Ostrom, 43, said the relevance of Treat's sermons attracted him to Christian Faith Center 23 years ago.

"It was a church with real people talking about real issues," Ostrom said. "It was people helping people become better people –– better spouses, better parents, better friends and better citizens. Throughout the year, all these things are addressed from the pulpit."

Llewellyn said the congregation is conservative, which he said means the church is committed to family values, physical health, marriage and the faith that "God really does want you to have a good life." But the church doesn't take political stands, he said.

"The Bible teaches us to support our leaders, Democrat or Republican," Llewellyn said. "The Bible teaches us to love all people. We come from the standpoint that all people need salvation."

About 80 percent of the people who visit Christian Faith Center do so on the personal invitation of a friend or acquaintance, but Christian Faith Center also does outreach "to help the hurting," Llewellyn said. "We give them a place to go and friends."

But the belief that all souls need saving, and the admittedly conservative stance, is what causes suspicion among non-Christians. Killen said that leads some people to be skeptical of the counseling services and group meetings Christian Faith Center provides.

"Because Treat's organization is a private, religious organization, the programs it offers are seen by some people as coercive and proselytization in disguise," she said. "There's a degree to which faith-based religious programs are undercutting religious and civil rights."

There also are concerns the people conducting the meetings are "not necessarily professional," she said. Drug addicts getting a literal reading of scripture as a way to combat a serious addiction is seen by some "as a disguise for evangelicalization," she explained.

The vocal opposition of megachurch expansion doesn't necessarily mean the Pacific Northwest is a godless frontier –– "People in the Northwest, like people everywhere else, are on a spiritual quest," Killen said –– but many don't like the religious experience they feel Treat is selling.

"He represents a whole generation of entrepreneurial, talented, smart men who got into ministry instead of business," Killen said.

Wellman said the relative scarcity of large congregations in the Pacific Northwest offers a potential boon for evangelical pastors. "It's an open, perfect religious market," he said. "There's not a lot of traditional religion here. Entrepreneurs come in and appeal to the ethos of the region. It's therapeutic."

Regardless of the booming business of saving soul, Ostrom said the lessons he's learned at the church have helped him become a better husband, father, businessman and citizen. Like Tarsiuk, he met his future spouse at the church. Treat married him and his wife and they, too, enrolled in the couples classes, volunteer and attend services regularly.

Ostrom owns nursing homes and adult-care facilities. He said the value code he's set out for his 900 employees "is drawn directly from God's word." He argued there's nothing wrong with the proliferation of Christian values.

"In a nutshell, it's being a good person who's helping people, contributing and being part of something good," he said. "Our country was founded on values. Our church is trying to be contemporary without compromising values."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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