June 17, 2007 in Idaho

‘It’s a God thing’

Virginia De Leon i The Spokesman-Review
 
Photos by J. BART RAYNIAK photo

Sherri Worley of Post Falls, left, a four-year member of Real Life Ministries, shares a prayer with another member of the congregation June 3.
(Full-size photo)

For almost a year, they prayed.

Give us wisdom, beseeched the two young families from Coeur d’Alene. Give us guidance.

And please, God, please give us a church.

“Why start another church?” people would ask Lydia Grubb, whose family wanted to establish a place of worship in nearby Post Falls. “There are certainly plenty of those around here.”

But Grubb and the others felt called to start a new church – one that was evangelistic and dedicated to reaching out to those in need.

“We needed leadership so we prayed for a pastor,” says Grubb, recalling how her family gathered regularly with Jeff and Debbie Ross and their children in 1997. “We prayed for God to touch the hearts of people. … Our time was spent asking God to get people ready.”

So they contacted Bible colleges and church planting organizations. They also read Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Church.”

On Nov. 18 of that year, their prayers were answered with a phone call from Oregon City, Ore. – from a young wrestling coach who worked as a youth pastor at a small church.

Jim Putman, only 31 at the time, had no experience leading a congregation. But he wanted to move to North Idaho to help raise a church.

Nearly 10 years later, the small group of Christians that once worshipped in Grubb’s living room has grown to the size of a small city. Known as Real Life Ministries, the church has an average weekly attendance of more than 7,000. On Easter, it drew crowds totaling more than 12,000.The church moved from a house to a movie theater to a middle school to a big building and then to an even bigger building, all in less than a decade. Now, the church wants to build a 118-acre campus on the Rathdrum Prairie that would include nine buildings, a 3,500-seat worship center and public ball fields.

“It’s a God thing,” Grubb and others often say, when asked how Real Life has become one of the fastest growing congregations in the country.

Fueled by this belief, church members have become an army of sorts – a legion of fervent Christians ready to welcome strangers into their homes, invite them to potlucks, golf and other social gatherings, and share their faith.

“We’re on fire for Jesus,” Putman says. “That’s why we’ve become walking, talking billboards for God.”

Pulpit a concertlike stage

The vibe in this dimly lit, air-conditioned auditorium is similar to the excitement before a big ballgame. There’s a giddy anticipation in the air, an energy that’s heightened by the large crowds and vast worship space.

People wander in holding Styrofoam cups of tea or coffee, produced by Christian growers in Ethiopia and offered free in the church lobby.

Immediately, their eyes are riveted toward the pulpit, a concertlike stage with a large wooden cross flooded with lights and flanked by giant TV screens and massive speakers.

As the electric guitar, bass and drums set a slow, soulful beat, the crowd bursts into song.

“Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down,” they sing, some with outstretched arms and emotion-filled faces. “Here I am to say that you’re my God.”

After overseeing communion, Putman begins to speak.

Last week, 26 people came forward to receive Jesus, he tells the audience. They break into huge applause.

“That’s why we exist,” Putman says, “to see people come to know the Lord. … God never asked you to go to church. He asked you to be the church.”

On stage, Putman looks larger than life – stocky and strong with a booming voice and powerful charisma that leave people hanging on his every word. For almost an hour, he walks back and forth across the stage like a coach getting his team ready for the game. He motivates the crowd with lessons from the Bible and personal anecdotes (yes, he’s had a rough week, too, he tells them), all the while putting them at ease with his self-deprecating humor and a humility that’s almost unexpected from one of the country’s up-and-coming Christian leaders.

Up close, away from all the bright lights and speakers, the preacher is actually no different from most people who have chosen to live in North Idaho. Putman is a laid-back guy with tousled brown hair and a goatee. He’s the father of three boys. He wears shorts to work during the week. He’s an avid elk hunter.

“The biggest church I had ever been in had only 180 people,” he says, shaking his head with disbelief at the memory of walking into Real Life one Sunday about a year after his arrival and seeing more than 1,000 people. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I understood athletics more than I understood church.”

When it comes to shepherding a church whose membership equals nearly a third of the population of Post Falls, Putman doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He has no fancy degrees, he says, no official training in leadership. He calls himself “a bonehead.”

“I had no clue, I had no clue,” he says during an interview in his office, a second-floor room filled with books, photos of his family and pictures of elk and other wildlife.

The son of a Southern Idaho pastor, Putman wasn’t exactly church material during his youth, he admits. There was a time he dabbled in drugs and drank himself to oblivion. When he was 21, he declared himself an atheist.

He saw too much infighting among Christians, he recalls. He met people who “spoke one way on Sunday but did something entirely different on Monday.”

It wasn’t until after he received his bachelor’s degree in education from Boise State University that he found himself back inside a church. His father didn’t give up on him and kept talking to him about Jesus, he says. Putman also started reading books that slowly brought him back to the beliefs of his childhood.

But the most influential book of all, he says, was the Bible. It was the story of Paul’s conversion that made him realize there was hope for him after all, he says.

“If that dude could kill Christians and God wanted him, then maybe God might want me, too,” Putman says. “I didn’t think God could love me after I had hurt so many people.”

His return to Christianity inevitably shaped one of his recurring messages at Real Life: You don’t have to be perfect to come to church. “We have to be real, not fake,” he tells his congregation. “I struggle, I fall down, but I trust in the Lord. We are all on a journey.”

When Putman first contacted Grubb about the possibility of moving to North Idaho – a region where Putman lived for several years, met his wife, Lori, and became a two-time All-American wrestling champion at North Idaho College – his only real church experience was that of a youth pastor.

But his work with middle-schoolers and teens provided the necessary training ground, some say. In Oregon City, Putman started out with only 10 kids in youth group and ended up with 100 in a matter of months.

“I took what I learned from coaching and brought it to the church,” says Putman. “I also just do what the Bible tells me to do.”

Church has 600 small groups

So what draws people to this sprawling megachurch in Post Falls? Why would someone choose to be a part of such a massive organization?

Contemporary American culture is primed for megachurches, according to Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, authors of the soon-to-be-released “Beyond Megachurch Myths.”

Since the 1950s, Americans have grown accustomed to large institutions, they write. Hospitals, malls, even Costco and Microsoft – all these places and corporations are more like a megachurch than a traditional parish of fewer than 100 families.

“After a week of working in a major corporation, shopping in a food warehouse and megamall, viewing movies at a multiplex theater, and having children who attend a regional high school, it seems incongruous that this family would feel comfortable in a 40-person church,” Thumma and Travis wrote. “So the force of cultural conditioning is on the side of megachurches.”

Based on the authors’ observations, Christians who live in Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Valley likely would feel at home worshipping at Real Life Ministries. The church offers practically everything – child care, thrift store, bookshop, volunteer services. Men who like to hunt can get together with other Christian guys who share their passion. Parents who need advice dealing with teens will find others who meet regularly to grapple with the same issue. Recovering from drug and alcohol addiction? Need to lose weight? Real Life has a support group for you.

Despite its size, those who attend Real Life would be quick to tell you that their church certainly doesn’t feel big. Some say it’s impossible to remain anonymous, even among the throngs of people on Sunday.

“We’re all hard-wired by God to be in relationships,” says Jim Blazin, who’s responsible for organizing the church’s community pastors. “Every person here has been equipped to minister. We are a body and each part has a very important role.”

That means everyone who attends the church has an obligation to reach out to others and share their faith, he says. And they do that primarily through small groups – a regular gathering of about a dozen or so people for Bible study, fellowship and support.

More than 600 small groups exist at Real Life Ministries. People often meet with other church members who live close by, but some groups form around recreational interests such as quilting or sports.

Sunday worship is a chance for everyone to be together, but it’s really the least important function of a church, Putman says. Spirituality takes its shape during the week in people’s homes as individuals come together for prayer and support, he says.

“I’m not a fan of big churches, but once I found out about small groups, that made all the difference,” says Don Smith, who recently hosted a meeting of four married couples at his Post Falls home. “It’s the relationships we have with each other that count.”

Over coffee, iced tea and brownies, the Real Life members in his neighborhood gathered on a Wednesday night to read a passage from the Gospel of Luke and talk about how the lesson applied to their lives. They also prayed for their families while sharing some of the challenges they experienced in the past week.

Beyond the two-hour gatherings, small-group members also support one another in practical ways. When someone is sick, they take turns visiting that person and making meals for the family. They baby-sit one another’s kids and watch one another’s homes. They call at all hours for emotional and spiritual support.

“It’s like having another family,” says Smith’s wife, Kathie. “When I have a problem, I feel safe talking to the people here. I share my struggles and heartaches, and they always help me.”

Real Life Ministries also makes sure that people who come to the church don’t fall through the cracks. First-time visitors receive a small plastic bag full of information, including a doctrinal statement of the church’s beliefs, a DVD of worship music, a free Bible coupon, and a bookmark with the church’s phone number, Web site and a quote: “Real life is tough and was never meant to be done alone.” Visitors also are invited to an orientation class and a free lunch with Putman, who tells them about Real Life’s history and how the church can enhance their lives.

Real Life also has adopted a strategic approach toward small groups and keeps careful track of the data they obtain from members. For instance, kids and teens who take part in the youth program are asked not only about the school they attend and grade they’re in, but also their favorite teacher and interests. That way, students can be assigned to a small group specific to their gender, grade and neighborhood.

Each student usually receives a call each week from a Real Life volunteer, who also speaks to the student’s parents, letting them know about a small group meeting and other upcoming events.

Last year, about 40 percent of the middle-schoolers came to church without a parent or guardian, says Thad DeBuhr, who’s responsible for the middle-school ministry. He also found that Real Life was drawing about 200 kids from Post Falls Middle School – almost half the student body, he says.

“The idea is that they do life together outside of church,” DeBuhr says. “The goal, ultimately, is to establish places where relationship can happen.”

One of fastest-growing nationally

With a growth rate of 247 percent in the last four years, Real Life is one of the fastest-growing nondenominational Christian churches in the United States in recent years. As it continues to draw more worshippers from throughout the region, the two original families who prayed for a church simply stand back in awe.

“Amazed and stunned and humbled – that’s very much how we feel,” says Grubb, who now works as Putman’s secretary. “We were just obedient. When God asked us to pray, we prayed. …

“There’s no other way to explain it,” she says with a smile. “It’s a God thing.”

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