Using Cooking Demos, Elephants to Fill the Pews Church attendance in the United States is on the decline. But one young pastor is finding innovative ways to get people back into the pews. Among the strategies: live elephants and cooking demonstrations. So far, the approach seems to be working -- the Fellowship now has more than 14,000 congregants.
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Using Cooking Demos, Elephants to Fill the Pews

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Using Cooking Demos, Elephants to Fill the Pews

Using Cooking Demos, Elephants to Fill the Pews

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, my colleague Alex Chadwick talks to the director of a new documentary, The Bridge. It's about people who committed suicide by jumping from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

First though, we go to an unconventional church, Houston's Fellowship of the Woodlands. Sunday services have been known to include onstage car crashes, cooking demonstrations, and the occasional live elephant. That's getting a lot of people into the pews.

NPR's Alex Cohen has more.

ALEX COHEN: More than a decade ago, a young pastor named Kerry Shook wanted to preach about communication and he wanted to make his sermon lively. So he brought in a ping-pong table.

Pastor KERRY SHOOK (Fellowship of the Woodlands): Communication is like playing a game of ping-pong.

COHEN: Kerry and his wife Chris drove balls straight at each other's heads to illustrate combative conversations. And then to demonstrate healthy communication, they got into a nice volley.

Ms. CHRIS SHOOK (Fellowship of the Woodlands): And so what we do is we just try to stay at the table, both of us, whether it's fun or not, stay at the table, keep talking, keep working through issues until we come to a resolution for both of us.

COHEN: Pastor Kerry Shook says congregants were talking about their sermon for weeks to come.

Pastor SHOOK: People remember that ping-pong table. In fact, we hit some balls out into the audience and people kept the ping-pong balls and put them up on their mantle at home to remind themselves when they're in conflict with their spouse to stay at the table.

COHEN: Shook suspected he was onto something with live demonstration, something he now calls the wow factor.

Pastor SHOOK: The wow factor to us is doing something at church that makes people just say, wow, I can't believe they could do that at church. And really what it does is knock defenses down, because a lot of people come into church and they're a little bit scared. And we want to do something that makes them realize, hey, church can be fun.

COHEN: Previous examples of the wow factor include building a 75 ton sand castle onstage, manufacturing a rainstorm...

Pastor SHOOK: You think you can jump over me?

COHEN: And then there was the time the pastor brought in a professional motocross racer who performed jumps inside church.

(Soundbite of motocross bike)

Pastor SHOOK: Yes!

COHEN: Pastor Kerry, as he is called, wears untucked shirts, jeans and cowboy boots. The completely bald, somewhat stocky preacher uses a wireless headset mike so he can walk around the stage. Pastor Kerry cracks jokes. His choir looks and sounds like the Broadway cast of Rent.

(Soundbite of song "God of Wonders")

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing) You are holy, holy. The universe declares Your majesty.

COHEN: And Pastor Kerry's successful. The church has gone from just a dozen members to more than 14,000 in 13 years. Other church leaders are taking notice. Last week, several hundred from all across the country gathered at Pastor Kerry's church to learn more about the wow factor.

Pastor SEAN PAUL JONES: I think it's exciting and catches people's attention.

COHEN: That's Sean Paul Jones, a young pastor who came because he's starting a church of his own.

Pastor JONES: People are looking for that excitement, you know. They're looking for cool, clean, glossy-looking stuff.

COHEN: Couldn't you argue that you don't need a lot of bells and whistles to understand that Bible?

Mr. EDDIE BOYER(ph): A lot of un-church people, though, would argue that the Bible's very hard for them to understand because they haven't grown up trying to figure it out. So anytime we can give them an open door where they have something that they can relate to, it really helps out the un-church person who might have no religious background at all to go, oh, that's something I can relate to, I can understand that.

COHEN: That was Eddie Boyer, who's helping Sean Paul start the new church. The two admit as much as they'd like to emulate Pastor Kerry, at present they don't really have the budget to do what he does. Few churches do.

When I caught up with Pastor Kerry on his lunch break, I asked him about funding his Sunday spectaculars.

I can't help but wonder what the expense of all of this might be. Trucking all the sand, you know, getting the motocross. Where does the money come from and might it be used for other, more Christian tasks maybe?

Pastor SHOOK: Sure. Some of the things we do is fairly expensive. Some of the things we do are not expensive at all. Because we're a church, we get a lot of these things donated, which is kind of cool. Other things we pay for. But one of my pet peeves is that Hollywood spends so much time, effort and energy and resources trying to get the message out that they have.

And sometimes the message isn't that great. But most churches spend very little time, effort, energy and creativity and resources getting the message out. And we've got the best message of all, the good news of Jesus Christ.

COHEN: From the looks of it, the Fellowship of the Woodlands isn't holding back much when it comes to getting its message out. The church recently launched a cable TV show. Viewers in two dozen states can now tune in to Pastor Kerry and the wow factor each week.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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