I once sold advertising for a weekly newspaper in Lacey, Washington called the Leader. I was its Advertising Director, a distinguished sounding title that came with a blank run sheet (a tally of ads to be published that week) and little else.
In the late 1970s, selling ads for a weekly on a daily newspaper’s turf was tough … no, it was next to impossible. It was hard, and not very profitable work, but during my two year stint at the Leader I did get to meet some fascinating people … people like the Reverend Glen Cole of Olympia.
I always referred to him somewhat irreverently as King Cole. I couldn’t help it. He had single-handedly created an evangelical megachurch in a small city that expanded faster than a middle-age waistline.
The King always made a little time for me. He liked advertising. He thrived on it. He understood how to make it work. And he did a magnificent job of making it work for his church, and for him.
When he came to Olympia to assume the pastoral role at what was later to become the region’s first megachurch, The Evergreen Christian Center, his congregation numbered around ten, and including his family. A decade or so later his congregation exceeded 3,000 and his construction crews were busier than one-legged paper hangers.
He was constantly building … a bigger, plusher sanctuary, a day care center, schools, and, well you get the picture. By the time King Cole left, his Christian Center could accommodate half of the population of Tumwater.
The reverend left Olympia to answer a call from an Assembly of God church in Sacramento. On Sundays he’d preach to congregations numbering upwards of 5,000 souls, not to mention radio and TV audiences. The King was definitely a charismatic leader and preacher extraordinaire.
I can remember my first interview with him. I was pitching an advertising campaign I’d created for his church in the Leader. He politely listened to my preliminaries, leaning back in a big leather desk chair, legs crossed, carelessly kicking a spotless white loafer up and down.
But after a short time, I said something that clicked. He abruptly leaned forward and said, That’s it! That’s what it’s all about! I can’t remember what it was, but whatever it was, it sure kick-started the reverend’s engine.
He started telling me about how he’d come to town with nothing to a church that offered him next to nothing. He told me about watching cars drive by, wondering what they were thinking, trying to figure out how to talk with them, how to get them thinking about his church and religion.
Well there’s no doubt that he found some pretty good answers. His church’s phenomenal growth stood as testament to that. But there was more to it. Something that I subsequently found to be much more powerful than slick advertising campaigns and the like.
My journey to this discovery began, appropriately enough, in my church at the time, Lacey’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
At a Sunday mass the pastor exhorted us to sacrifice, to give up an entire day to prayer and fasting. I can’t recall what the occasion was, but the notion caught my fancy. I decided to give it a go.
For obvious reasons I figured Sunday would be the best day for this endeavor, so the following Sunday I skipped breakfast and headed to church.
First stop, Sacred Heart. Nothing special about the mass that day. Just an ordinary mass with its rituals, readings from the bible and a homily about those readings. I can’t remember which Gospel of Jesus he read, but according to the preacher it all boiled down to this … the world’s a wonderful place, made by God and working just as He intended it to work. It all sounded reasonable and comforting enough.
Next I went to the Saint Mark Lutheran Church. Same basic ritual, same bible reading, and pretty much the same homily. The world was looking like a pretty good place by the time I walked out of Saint Mark.
Then came the Episcopals at Saint John’s. Again a repeat of the rituals, same bible reading, homily and preacher’s reassuring conclusions. The world was indeed looking better and better, although I was starting to get a bit hungry.
But never mind. I had evening prayers yet to take care of. That’s when I visited King Cole’s world. It was a world I’d never experienced before.
The Assemblies of God churches are what most of us would call born again. It’s a religious tradition much different from the Catholic or main-stream Protestant traditions … much different.
The first difference I noted was the stadium seating. As I sunk into my plush, theater seat (no hardwood pews there) I felt as if I were settling in for a Broadway show. The stage lights shone on a bee hive of activity, like actors getting ready for curtain.
As the congregation filed into the stadium sized sanctuary, the band started tuning up. It looked more like a rock group than a church choir. The preachers, dressed in business suits and dresses, were huddled, presumably talking about their game plan for the evening.
Abruptly, without warning or ritual, it started. The King walked up to the podium, a flexible, over-sized bible in hand. The band started playing an amplified gospel vamp. He leaned forward, stared us in the eye, and with a booming, yet empathetic voice amplified by stacks of hi fi speakers told us,
“I know some of you are sufftering. I know some of you have loved ones in jail. I know some of your marriages or on the rocks. You have loved who’ve passed. You’re in pain … but remember …
Wow. It suddenly it became very clear. He was preaching a very old message, one that had changed the world … and in many ways still is.
No fairy tales about how things were perfect … they’re not.
Life’s fragile. Life can be painful. Life can be bitter. But you can find redemption. Things can turn around. You can be okay. And you can be okay forever.
The King delivered that message naked and raw. No ancient rituals. No fancy King James English. Plain, straight, simple street lingo. A homily anyone could understand. This reverend preached real world stuff, and the 1,000 plus in the congregation that night were enthralled by sermon that mean something, delivered from the heart by King Cole, preacher extraordinaire.
I had to thank him. He gave me an insight that night into how powerful retelling a message of love and forgiveness for the umpteenth time can be.
I didn’t change religions that night or since, nor have I had a born-again experience or become a member of Cole’s flock. I did see, however, quite graphically, how and whys the King went on to preaching greatness, founding the first mega-church north of Los Angeles.
It also made me wonder about the messages I heard earlier in my day of fasting and prayer. I wondered about the flip side those passionless homilies about how God made the world and everything in it was just like a Walt Disney fantasy.
I had to wonder about the effect of their homilies on, for example, a 10 year old girl undergoing the traumas of abuse going to church to hear everything’s just like God wants it. Somehow it seemed a bit pale and empty, especially after enjoying the concert I heard at ECC.
I later thanked my Sacred Heart Pastor for urging me to make that day of sacrifice. I learned so much more than either of us had bargained for. In fact I guess if we were still using King James English I’d have to say I had a vision of sorts.
That sure was quite a day! Oh, and I heard some damned good Christian rock too!
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