Born again: Pastor's pitch on rock radio saves church

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ATLANTA (AP) Along Ponce de Leon Avenue, where fast-food signs stand out like neon exclamation points, Grace United Methodist Church is easy to miss camouflaged in plain red brick, its stained-glass windows obscured by protective film.

It has spent most of a generation beat-up in a bad neighborhood, a grand old church in its dying days. Membership sagged to near nothing. The roof and pipes leaked. A small staff struggled, quite literally, to hold the place together.

Eighty years after the church rebuilt from two fires, a half-century after it became the first in Georgia to put Sunday services on television, there was talk of barring the sanctuary doors.

Until the new minister, a young go-getter from the suburbs, desperately tried one last idea. And there on an edgy rock radio station, of all places began what the congregation calls the miracle that saved Grace Church.

If you called central casting and asked for a minister, they might send you the Rev. John Beyers.

He was 32 when he became senior minister at Grace, where only a few dozen people were coming for services, leaving behind sparse collection plates.

It was 1997, and gentrification was taking hold in Atlanta. Not far from the church, young adults from packed suburbs were starting to move to the core of the city.

Many of the twenty- and thirty-somethings were the nonreligious children of baby-boom parents. They were Grace's best and maybe only chance at survival.

Beyers thought about the old black-and-white telecasts of services at Grace, the exuberant preaching and grand organ music he remembered. He decided to take the church back to the airwaves.

The playlist at WNNX-FM includes bands called Alien Ant Farm, Scapegoat Wax, Godsmack and Saliva. Listeners tune in for songs like ''Fat Lip,'' ''Hash Pipe'' and ''Your Disease.''

Its morning show is typical big-city FM fare wisecracking disc jockeys, celebrity gossip, the news and traffic.

The station seems an odd fit for the program Beyers had in mind.

Beyers' colleagues warned him that the radio ads were, at best, a longshot. At worst, they said, the station was unrighteous trash that had no business associating with the United Methodist Church.

Buying a year's worth of spots on the station cost Beyers $150,000, money the struggling church could hardly afford to toss around. He went on the air two days after Christmas.

Weeks passed. In Grace Church's majestic, Gothic-style sanctuary, there were no signs of life.

Beyers tried to pick nonthreatening messages, the ones without what he calls ''brother-are-you-saved language.'' He tried to strike a spiritual chord without sounding too religious.

''We're not selling anything when you listen to my ads, I will not tell you how great my church is, how wonderful our children's department is, how beautiful our choir is,'' he said.

Greg Wood was one of the first to hear. A loan officer in Atlanta in his early 30s, he was a regular listener to the morning show. He thought of church as a condemning environment.

Wood came to Grace early in 1999, about five weeks after Beyers' Perceptions messages debuted. He saw no one else close to his age.

Diane Farnell was an accountant in her upper 20s who also listened to the morning show. Between the commercials, she grew familiar with Beyers' voice.

''It was always there, and I just started listening,'' she said. ''Then I realized he was from a church.''

She joined the church earlier this year.

Hundreds of young adults have flocked to the church, including some who have abandoned suburban megachurches outside Atlanta to be part of the renewal at Grace. Since early 1999, not one Sunday has passed without a newcomer telling Beyers they heard him on the rock station, Beyers said.

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