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Peoples Church Takeoff

An emphasis on the Holy Spirit and missions work fuels growth for congregation in Oregon's capital.

Fifteen years ago, members of Peoples Church in Salem, Oregon, were reeling after losing a beloved pastor to cancer, despite the congregation's fervent prayers for healing. Those in the flock were grieving and disheartened, and attendance began dwindling.

Attendees at the Assemblies of God church, founded in Oregon's capital city in 1953, struggled with a crisis of faith. Newly arrived Pastors Scott and Bonnie Erickson believed healing compassion for the 900 in services needed to be their priority, even above spiritual direction.

"The people here had been through a lot," Erickson recalls. "They were disillusioned. It was tragic."

Even before officially taking the pulpit, the Ericksons had committed to extensive prayer and fasting for the bruised flock on how to change the inertia.

Erickson sensed God telling him to preach faith to the people. That seemed incongruous.

"They had heard a lot before about that, and it had not gone as they hoped," Erickson says. "But we did just that, preached faith, and especially focused on the need the fresh touch of the Holy Spirit."

Leaders at People Church credit the steady, even phenomenal growth -- attendance currently averages 3,300 a week, nearly quadrupling during the Ericksons' tenure and ranked 23rd nationally among fastest-growing megachurches by Outreach magazine -- to encouraging to exercise of the spiritual gifts in both personal and corporate prayer and worship.

AG Executive Presbyter Warren Bullock also credits the church's commitment to "Spirit-empowered worship, evangelism, preaching, and functioning of the gifts."

However, Bullock -- who witnesses those Pentecostal examples personally, as a part-time administrative pastor at the church -- underscores these ministries are not the stuff of "wild-eyed ecstasy, but biblically sound and theologically sane expectation and desire for the Spirit's work."

Furthermore, Bullock agrees with Erickson that if the spiritual gifts are the fuel, it is a commitment to missions work that is the engine that has powered church growth.

Each of the past 15 years, Erickson says, the congregation has increased its AG World Missions giving, even as it has launched and continues to support myriad community and compassion outreach programs on the home front.

Missions support at People Church involves more than parishioners' pocketbooks, too. The congregation has sponsored and trained ministers abroad, built foreign Bible schools, and even sent volunteers overseas to hold pastoral and biblical education seminars.

Peoples Church neighbors the 125-year-old Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school for about 450 Native American children from elementary through high school grades. The school draws students from tribes all along the West Coast. More than 100 of those students have attended Peoples Church services, and 60 have given their lives to Christ as Savior.  

Ministry on the tough streets is a priority for Peoples Church, with volunteers and pastoral staff giving boxes of food to the needy twice a week, or bringing clothes, food, and outdoor services to a number of semipermanent transient camps.

Bonnie Erickson oversees outreach programs at four area shelters for battered women and their children, inviting them to church for haircuts, nail care, massages, and new clothing. The church also maintains a weekly schedule of jail ministry, which includes not just visits and services behind bars, but programs to help convicts find employment and make successful transitions back into society.

Church representatives also visit eight area nursing homes every Sunday, bringing the worship and gospel to the disabled and elderly.

"There are a lot of different ways into our community, and we want those people to know that God loves them," Erickson says. "That means we have a lot of unusual people who come to church, often with tremendous needs."

Visitors may be recently released inmates, or people without a bed; the hungry and addicted, along with the well-dressed and financially successful, but spiritually empty.

"You don't have to look a certain way," Erickson says. "As a result of that attitude, we see a lot of tattoos, piercings, and funky hairdos. Our job is simply to let them know that Jesus loves them."


Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.