In 1969, Charles Blake began pastoring a COGIC church of 100 members in Los Angeles. It had been founded in 1943 during the denomination's golden age of expansion out of the South. Blake represented a new generation, and though he had personally seen and heard COGIC founder Charles Mason, he was not of the pre-World War II generation. He was armed with college and graduate degrees and fresh ideas.

All those ideas seemed to blossom in 1971 during a life-changing visit to Robert Schuller's Garden Grove (Calif.) Community Church (now the Crystal Cathedral). As Blake sat in the massive congregation, God grabbed his attention. "My mind was suddenly opened to the possibility of pastoring a big church," Blake recalls. "All of the boundaries were removed. I could conceive of being as big as God would make me."

Today, Blake's West Angeles Church of God in Christ has 13,000 members—the largest in the denomination—with 155 paid staff, an $8 million budget, more than 100 weekly ministries, four Sunday morning services, and a new 5,000-seat auditorium in the works.

Blake, 54, is a shining example of COGIC's success at growing big, urban churches. He notes that virtually every major American city has at least one, and often two or more, COGIC churches with more than 1,000 members.

In a day when many denominations point with pride to one or two "mega-churches" in their midst, how has COGIC managed to grow them en masse? George McKinney, 63, pastor of the 3,000-member Saint Stephen's COGIC in San Diego, offers an analysis similar to his colleague's. Both he and Blake say the key to COGIC's growth as a denomination as well as to individual COGIC churches' impressive growth is the fact that the denomination has held to a high view of Scripture, has emphasized the immediate work of the Holy Spirit, and has always fostered a vibrant brand of worship that has a high expectancy of miracles and encountering God's presence.

Although some pastors do flirt with elements of "Word-Faith" or "prosperity-gospel" teachings to increase their numbers, observes McKinney, it is not the norm. Adds Blake, "We have always taught that the Lord will provide and deliver, but that does not translate into Christians by their faith being the most wealthy people in their community. It is not about wealth; it is about service to God."

The underpinning ingredient to COGIC's numerical success, say both men, is its commitment to the nation's urban communities. "When many churches were fleeing, COGIC and other Pentecostal groups were digging in to serve the hurting homeless and the masses of common people," explains McKinney.

McKinney estimates that 60 percent of his church members at one time were on the streets. These form his target audience. Every Friday night, church members go into San Diego's red-light district, seeking converts. "We have been cowed and intimidated by 'drive-by shootings,' " says McKinney. "Now our members are doing 'drive-by praying' by the prostitutes and drug houses. We welcome people who have been caught up in crime and drugs. We rejoice in God's grace to deliver."

Still, many COGIC pastors, including Blake, don't shy away from using basic church-growth techniques. West Angeles sponsors four special days a year when members are challenged to bring guests. As many as 126 people have been saved in a single guest-oriented service. Says Blake, "Any church that is going to sustain growth must put to work the best principles, marketing ideas, and service strategies. We seek to provide a positive experience for visitors by insuring adequate parking, good facilities, honest preaching, and good music. We try to make it user-friendly."

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