Two dozen young believers zealous for the Gospel celebrated their first Christmas as a new church 25 years ago. Tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve, many of them along with their children will welcome dozens of potential converts to what is now a thriving, 2,600-member church in Gaithersburg.
There, first-time visitors to Covenant Life Church are likely to witness some of what senior pastor C.J. Mahaney, a self-described former pothead who co-founded the church in 1977, calls abundant examples of God’s grace on repentant sinners like himself.
“We want to be known,” Mr. Mahaney preached Dec. 8, kicking off a series on the Bible’s book of Galatians, “as a church transformed by the Gospel.”
In fact, Covenant Life Church has proved so successful in harvesting souls for Jesus Christ that it spawned a mini-denomination, Sovereign Grace Ministries. It counts 52 affiliated churches in 17 states plus Great Britain, Bolivia, Mexico and Canada, and supports start-up churches in Ethiopia and Uganda.
“What I see is outward evidence of God’s favor. That’s at the heart of the success of this church,” says Wayne Grudem, a theology professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona whose “Systematic Theology” underpins much of the church’s teaching. “I know of churches around the United States who are looking to Sovereign Grace Ministries as an example of the way churches ought to work.”
C. J. Mahaney leads a “reformed charismatic” movement, with the emphasis on “reformed,” which some view as radical by modern evangelical Christian standards.
He travels below the radar of the mainstream media, despite occasional sermons on topical subjects such as the September 11 attacks and the sniper shootings.
And his 30-year journey is a Christian twist on a Horatio Alger story. Only for self-reliance, substitute reliance on God’s promises.
Within two years of his “rebirth” at age 18 in the summer of 1972, Mr. Mahaney was co-leader of the largest prayer group in the District during the “Jesus movement” and on his way to becoming a powerfully affecting young preacher.
Today, Covenant Life Church, or CLC as members call it, has a $5 million operating budget, a capacious new $22-million building expansion, a 50-member staff and a 280-student private school. With no formal college or seminary education, Mr. Mahaney, 49, has written or edited five books and oversees a training center for pastors that has graduated 73 men in six years.
The Gospel message
Several factors are afoot besides a prime location in affluent, central Montgomery County: CLC’s carefully honed message focuses on key biblical themes. The church emphasizes training young people in Christian precepts. A tightly knit, 18-man pastoral team oversees varied ministries.
And CLC scales down its very bigness through a network of 80 “care groups,” in which 95 percent of members meet weekly in their homes. They pray, study the Bible and hold each other accountable in developing a personal relationship with God.
The calendar on the church Web site (www.covlife.org) is salted with other activities, including classes on everything from evangelizing and leadership to strengthening marriages and parenting to managing household finances.
But always, Mr. Mahaney, his pastoral team and group leaders emphasize the Gospel as proclaimed in the New Testament: that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on a cross for man’s sins and in doing so satisfied God’s righteous wrath toward sinners.
Nothing believers do can add to or subtract from this objective truth and “saving event,” Mr. Mahaney preaches, although its subjective effect is to transform their worldly lives in the promise of eternal life.
This also is the message of Mr. Mahaney’s new book, “The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing” (Multnomah Publishers). The slender volume distills his concern that too many professing Christians are confused about what the Gospel means.
There is only one Sunday meeting at CLC and it begins at 10 a.m. with an hour of prayer and hand-raising songs of praise traditional hymns as well as in-house originals that echo Bible verses, typically ride a rock beat and are led by a shifting band of musicians and singers. The second hour is dominated by a sermon that teaches from and applies Scripture.
Angie Missal, an elementary-school teacher from Germantown, visited CLC at the invitation of one of her students and was converted.
“I was amazed by this student,” Miss Missal recalls. “She had written on her binder: ‘God first, others second and me last.’ She was unlike any of the others.”
From the earth tones of the 2,800-seat sanctuary to the studied informality of the pastors’ apparel nary a tie is seen on any of the men gathered on the platform nothing is allowed to distract from the Gospel message.
This no-frills emphasis on the saving grace of God, repentance and transformation into humble “servant leaders” pastors sometimes do parking-lot duty attracts those looking for spiritual fruit instead of feel-good or feel-bad fluff.
Lon Wilson, 52, an usher at CLC, says the teaching changed his life.
“I was single, long-haired and a mess,” says Mr. Wilson, confessing that he first showed up in 1978 to check out the single women. But “while I was driving home on the George Washington Parkway,” he adds, “I repented.”
In the beginning
The son of a Takoma Park sheet metal worker and the third of five children in a Roman Catholic home, Charles Joseph Mahaney rejected God at age 12 in favor of sports and, later, the drug culture. His sojourn at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring was not promising.
“My SAT score was so low I didn’t even qualify for the University of Maryland, the state where I was born, raised and lived all my life,” Mr. Mahaney recalled in a sermon last spring. “I took my SATs while on LSD.”
He was born again, he says, the same night that a newly converted friend shared his faith rather than sharing a hash pipe.
He says God used a newspaper ad to lead him to a prayer meeting of young converts called Take and Give, or TAG. By 1974, at age 20, he was alternating teaching assignments with Larry Tomczak, 24, an intern with the AFL-CIO.
Other than the Bible, the only Christian book the long-haired Mr. Mahaney had read was Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic bestseller “Late Great Planet Earth.”
“It was not a pattern I’d recommend and there were deficiencies in my teaching,” Mr. Mahaney admits, “but I retained an awareness of the grace of God.”
He met and soon married Carolyn Layman, a secretary at a Christian conference ministry in Sarasota, Fla. The Mahaneys have three daughters and a son, all raised in CLC.
Attendance at TAG skyrocketed to more than 2,000 every Tuesday night. Meetings at Christ Church of Washington on Massachusetts Avenue NW were a boisterous worship laboratory for charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit primarily prophecy and speaking in tongues paired with Bible-centered teaching.
But TAG leaders learned in a survey that most attendees, some of whom traveled great distances, were not settling into local churches. “Many were being saved,” Mr. Mahaney says, “but nothing was being built.”
TAG leaders began meeting as Gathering of Believers in April 1977, two dozen believers crowding into the Tomczaks’ D.C. apartment, and in late 1979 made the unpopular decision to end TAG.
The young church met in a succession of Montgomery County schools and community centers, eventually renaming itself Covenant Life. The giving of a growing membership allowed construction of a mall-like building that opened in 1993 on Muncaster Mill Road. An even bigger addition opened in time for the 25th anniversary, further drawing passersby.
By the late ‘80s, Mr. Mahaney emerged as senior pastor. He found inspiration in how to lead a church in Charles H. Spurgeon, the noted 19th-century Baptist evangelist whose church in London grew to more than 5,300 members.
“I discovered in him a unique and rare combination of giftings,” Mr. Mahaney says, “a passion and burden for the local church He was an evangelist, he had a sense of humor, he was doctrinally proficient and he was humble.”
Mr. Mahaney and other CLC leaders also studied Reformed theology, known as Calvinism through its origins with 16th-century French reformer John Calvin.
In 1996, Mr. Tomczak stepped down from leadership and left the People of Destiny International family of churches (now Sovereign Grace Ministries) shortly after planting a church in Atlanta. A teen-age son’s rebellion had called into question his scriptural fitness as a father and elder. Mr. Tomczak, 53, who now pastors a 420-member church in Acworth, Ga., later cited differences over doctrine.
CLC’s unusual mix of doctrinal emphasis is appropriate for a post-charismatic period, notes Don Carson, a New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.
“Compared to 26 years ago, [CLC] is more conservative and more traditional, but it is amazingly free,” Mr. Carson says. “I think C.J. has moderated a lot since then. He has had some genuine experiences, but he has learned enough theology and Bible that he has learned to redefine his experiences in terms that are more biblical.”
The bookstore at CLC dubbed “The World’s Greatest Bookstore” is stocked with tapes and CDs of music and teaching plus a wealth of texts that could make up a seminary reading list.
Among them: Calvin’s “Institutes of Christian Religion,” Mr. Grudem’s “Bible Doctrine” and “Saved by Grace” by Anthony Hoekma, former professor at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. Also abounding are the works of Spurgeon, Anglican theologian J.I. Packer and Reformed Theological Seminary President R.C. Sproul.
The relatively few books by women bear titles like “Fearlessly Feminine,” “The Hidden Art of Homemaking” and “Biblical Womanhood in the Home.” Mrs. Mahaney is finishing what likely will be a controversial book on “biblical femininity.”
Women support the church’s scriptural position that only men serve as elders and care group leaders, spokeswoman Carolyn McCulley says.
“We benefit so much from men not being passive about their responsibilities in the family, in the home and elsewhere,” she says.
Female members do, however, lead their own seminars and small- group sessions.
“Men have historically abdicated their responsibility in the home and the church,” Mr. Mahaney says. “We are seeking to challenge men to serve.”
CLC never has pretended to go along with the shifting culture.
Executive pastor Joshua Harris, 27, is the author of “I Kissed Dating Good-bye,” a 1997 best-seller that moved more than 800,000 copies with the premise that young men and women should practice sexual purity before marriage, refraining even from kissing.
“I see sexuality as a huge issue for Christians in this age,” Mr. Harris says, “and it’s a dialogue in the church that needs to be addressed.”
Mr. Harris and his wife of four years, Shannon, have two children. He was a speaker in home-schooling circles and living in Gresham, Ore., when he heard Mr. Mahaney at a CLC conference in the summer of 1996. “My parents encouraged me to sit at the feet of men I wanted to be like,” he recalls.
He moved across the country and into the Mahaneys’ basement in Gaithersburg, then enrolled in the nine-month pastors college modeled on Spurgeon’s London school.
The next generation
Last year, at 26, Mr. Harris was named executive pastor, succeeding John Loftness and bypassing older pastors, including co-founders Robin Boisvert and Gary Ricucci.
“Joshua’s ability to lead was evident to everyone,” Mr. Ricucci says.
Mr. Harris explains that the other men “chose to make me a success,” adding: “They say a politician is thinking toward the next election and a statesman is thinking of the next generation. C.J. is a statesman in that sense.”
The story of dramatic conversion keeps repeating itself.
Harry Berning reluctantly showed up with his father one Sunday in May 2001. Echoing the youthful C.J. three decades earlier, Harry used drugs and had dropped out of high school. Then he heard Mr. Mahaney speak on the Gospel.
“He was preaching on keeping the main thing the main thing and it made sense to me,” says Harry, now 18 and attending Covenant Life School. “I could see how my life was going nowhere. I gave myself to the Lord that morning and asked Him to take my addictions away.
“And that morning, I was delivered from them all.”