April 17, 2006 in City

Easter brings supersized services for some

By The Spokesman-Review
Liz Kishimoto photo

Bryndel Pargman, 7 1/2 months, left, and Madison Pankey, almost a year old, compare Easter dresses at the Spokane Arena during the Life Center Foursquare Church’s Easter service. Their moms, Tawni Pargman, far left, and Kelly Pankey, took the girls out to the concourse level to stretch their legs.
(Full-size photo)

Spokane Pastor Joe Wittwer is used to preaching to big audiences, but Easter Sunday he really had a crowd.

And it made him smile.

He stood center stage in the Spokane Arena and delivered his message to an estimated 7,000 people – probably the biggest audience in the 10 years Life Center Foursquare Church has been renting the city-owned facility for Easter services.

The service was more than just a minister and his Bible.

There was music from an eight-member ensemble, big screen TVs, a skit and volunteers signing for the deaf as part of the multimedia religious service.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me our Easter service was their first church service,” Wittwer said with a smile after the service he conducted in a Hawaiian print shirt and Dockers slacks.

Some who show up for the first time on Easter come back on other Sundays and even become regulars at Life Center, Wittwer said.

He came to Spokane in 1978 to lead the church that then had 100 members. With its contemporary, casual-dress approach and plenty of modern-style music, the church now usually pulls 5,000 people to its regular Sunday services.

When Life Center opened its new 80,000-square-foot church on Government Way last September, there was a traffic jam. Wittwer laughed when asked about that Sunday and said the traffic congestion was eased by multiple services.

His church decided to have just one big service each Easter by renting the Arena as its way of a community outreach – simultaneously opening its doors to its 5,000-plus members and any guests interested in dropping in.

“Easter is one of those times when people who aren’t necessarily members of our congregation will say ‘yes’ to an invitation, and that’s why we do this,” said the pastor, who has headed the Spokane church for 28 years.

“It feels a little different than our church,” Wittwer said as the audience left the vastness of the Arena for the brisk, blue, spring skies outdoors.

“It doesn’t feel as intimate,” he said, but gives the popular church one location where heads can bow together at the same time.

Getting ready for the service this year was no easy task, the pastor said.

With a Spokane Shock football game in the Arena on Saturday night, a team of 25 Life Center volunteers couldn’t begin setting up until 2 a.m. Sunday.

Their work involved setting up a closed-circuit television system with cameras and a high-tech sound system.

Large letters were suspended over the stage, spelling out the theme of the service: “I am not, but I know I am.”

The 90-minute service concluded with Wittwer telling his Arena audience, “God is huge, and I am tiny. Life goes better when I accept my smallness.”

“We’re tiny people, but we can trust a huge God,” he said. “God is the great ‘I am,’ ” the pastor said.

Those who develop such a faith and trust are better prepared to deal with life’s adversities, Wittwer said.

“Sometimes life stinks,” he said as an outline of his message appeared on the large-screen TVs in the Arena.

People have a hard time understanding why a 10-year-old child or a 35-year-old pastor, with a wife and young children, would be stricken with terminal illnesses and be gone, Wittwer said.

“Life does stink sometimes, and sometimes evil wins the battle, but God always has the last word, so trust him.”

And why trust God? he asked. “Because God is huge … and God is good.

“Easter is an annual reminder to us that God always has the last word,” the pastor said.

“It’s so good to know we’re in the master’s hands.”

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