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Onward Christian Soldiers

Grace Church in Eden Prairie: An intimate house of worship
Michael Dvorak

It is the day before Independence Day in the Year of Our Lord, 2005, and our men and women in uniform are fighting overseas for our God-given freedom. That's what a few thousand worshipers have come to hear about during the 10:30 morning service at Grace Church, the casinolike "independent evangelical" complex that sits amid the rolling hills of Eden Prairie. The arena-sized parking lot is filled with newish cars and trucks, including a souped-up Lexus adorned with American flags, flag decals, and 1280 The Patriot bumper stickers. Parked next to that is a sedan whose lone sticker testifies, "Mary Kay: Enriching Women's Lives."

Before the service, worshipers take to the Divine Grind, the church's coffee shop. The counter is manned by well-scrubbed teens clad in aprons and denim shirts embossed with the Divine Grind logo. Many of the customers have their own type of uniform: Old Glory ties, shirts, and skirts. A few busy techies in headsets and Grace-logo shirts scurry about with walkie-talkies, getting ready for the day's program. The subject, according to the listing in the "Faith and Values" calendar of the Star Tribune, is "Righteousness Exalts a Nation."

The 4,400-seat church, which rivals anything the Hennepin theater district has to offer, is nearly full. On the stars and stripes-plastered stage, a full orchestra and choir create a din of song and faith--the backdrop to a historical pageant. Two massive video monitors broadcast the morning's actors/parishioners, who portray Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and other founding fathers, who speak of Jesus Christ, country, and family. The lone woman is Abigail Adams, whose message is, Stand by Thy Man.

When the opening program finishes and the orchestra swells into its umpteenth rendition of "God Bless America," the video monitors order, "Congregation Please Rise." Then visiting pastor Ken Parker addresses his herd. "God has raised up, in this second part of the Earth, as Christopher Columbus said, a nation that was basically founded on Christian values," begins Parker.

He invites all first-timers backstage after the service, where he and the other pastors will provide refreshments and personal insight into the Lord. "We have a gift for you," he says, and as he prays into the microphone and the orchestra plays softly, helpers move through the church with gift baskets that resemble large, vintage beanbag ashtrays.

Parker then introduces the day's guest speaker: Bob Dees, leader of Campus Crusade for Christ Military Ministry (www.milmin.com). The theme of Dees's sermon is advertised on the screens: "Faith in the Foxhole and Hope on the Homefront: Liberty in Christ." Dees is a retired general and former Microsoft executive. His hair is browner than you'd guess for a man his age, and apparently bulletproof. Accompanying him to the stage is his wife, Kathleen, whom he calls a "good army wife" because she has stood by him for 31 years and moved their family 23 times. He clasps her by her shoulders, then gently guides her back to her place in the front row. She never says a word.

"We are a ministry to the armed forces of the United States, and to the armed forces of the world, seeking to win the nations of the world and the militaries of the world," begins Dees. "We have several ministries. One is to the enlisted members of all the defense forces of the United States. We touch every recruit that comes through the armed forces of the United States. And then we seek to evangelize and disciple them through their careers, making them ambassadors in uniform.

"We have missionaries all over the world, and it's very powerful when you see the impact, and that you can affect the militaries of those cultures. You can sway the whole culture and the nation towards Jesus Christ. Since 9/11 we've passed out 920,000 gifts into the pockets of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. We give them the Bible, a daily bread, and we have incredible reports from the battlefront of encouragement of the word of God, the sustenance of the word of God, in difficult times."

Dees speaks of the American flag as the screens burst with images of the nation's banner, including coffin drapes. He unveils a sculpture of a kneeling soldier. When he says, "This memorial was made of the bronze altars, the bronze images, melted down from Saddam Hussein's palace," the congregation--unprompted by the video monitors--erupts into a long round of applause. "Is that not a fitting way to honor God, honor our service members?" says Dees. "That's what our service members do when they go in harm's way: They turn evil into good and they try to turn evil to God."

He continues, "We have heard all about weapons of mass destruction. There's been a search for weapons of mass destruction. I'm here today to testify that we have found the weapons of mass destruction. It is Satan's artillery. Satan is a master of deceit: temptation, pride, isolation, deception, self-sufficiency, anger, and malice of all forms. Satan's weapons of mass destruction rage all about us, and these weapons are every bit as real as Saddam Hussein's scud missiles. As the North Korean artillery. Every bit as potent as Al Qaeda."

As he speaks, the screens show images of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, praying, being baptized in foxholes, and evangelizing. A marine's helmet scrawled with the 23rd Psalm fills the screen. "It is encouraging to see these indicators of faith in the foxhole," says Dees. "But the reality is, too many of our troops are prisoners of war still. Prisoners of war to the master of deceit, these troops do not yet know liberty in Jesus Christ."

The screens yield to a photo of a dead young soldier from Brooklyn Center whose mother is in the audience. Underneath his face are the words "In memory of Sgt. First Class Mickey E. Zaun," which generates another standing ovation.

Another soldier is now onscreen, speaking by video from an undisclosed location. He is the chaplain Lt. Carey Cash, author of A Table in the Presence: The Dramatic Account of How a U.S. Marine Battalion Experienced God's Presence Amidst the Chaos of the War in Iraq ($19.99, W. Publishing Group). He is young and eager, flush with a military crew cut and ruddy cheeks. If Dees is the grandfather of the movement, Cash is the next generation.

He reiterates all of Dees's talking points and tells his captive Grace Church audience--which includes napping adults, reverent adults, wish-I-was-onstage adults, and bored kids who look at their parents quizzically--"First we get the military, then we get the nation."

Dees wraps up the day's festivities with "God bless Grace Church, God bless you, God bless our troops, and God bless the United States of America," which is followed by a toothy, histrionic blonde who sings an efficient medley of patriotic songs. A few parishioners sing along with their hands over their hearts. Some get up and leave, keen to beat the crowd to the coffee shop and bookstore, and to the parking lot, too.

"America, that's us," finishes Parker. "Around the world, sometimes people hate us. But they hate us for all the right reasons. It's fabulous to be Americans. God has blessed us."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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