Chapel service reveals strengths, weaknesses of troubled church

Valley Daily News/May 8, 1988
By Nathalie Overland

Men and women - talking, hugging, always smiling - moved about greeting each other in the auditorium-size space that is Community Chapel.

It was a recent drizzly Sunday morning. Inside the well-lit church, loud piano music with a modern gospel beat blared from the row of large elongated speakers hung vertically behind the pulpit. They are the only decoration on the chapel's stark white walls that tower upward to the vaulted ceiling.

The rows of pews on the crimson carpet face a stair-stepped dais. Shortly before 11 a.m. a makeshift choir of chapel members gathered on the steps. Their voices joined with the music. They sang about love of Jesus, in songs composed by chapel members.

The singing was a cue that what passes for a Sunday service at Community Chapel was beginning. Hand-in-hand, dozens of couples moved toward the front of the church where the choir sang. Others crowded to the front of the aisles.

"Would you like to dance?" a tall, gray-haired man asked a younger woman who was sitting alone. She smiled shyly and nodded, grasping his outstretched hand. They made their way to the front of the sanctuary, slid in among the crowd of whirling and twirling men and women. They were soon lost in a sea of upraised arms.

For more than a half hour the well-dressed churchgoers danced, their eyes locked on their partners as they whirled and swayed to the heavy-beat gospel music that has become Community Chapel's trademark. Though the church is chilly, the dancers soon were mopping their brows with handkerchiefs. Some of the women waved small fans to cool themselves.

The women wore dresses, the men conservative colored suits or sport coats. The men were clean shaven. Beards, a sign of rebellious spirit, aren't tolerated. Most of them appeared to be between 25 and 50 years old.

Shoes were left scattered below the pews. Men danced in stocking feet and women replaced their high heels with dance slippers. Some individuals left their spouses temporarily to dance with their "spiritual connections." Other spent the entire service embracing their connections.

In the padded pews, some of those who were not dancing were connecting. Men and women unabashedly stared into each other's eyes, caressed each other's hands, offered an occasional hug or kiss.

Strangers at the service were not welcome. Stone-faced ushers stood at the back of the church, occasionally walking down the aisles to scan the crowd. Strangers in the company of an ex-member or someone already known in the church attracted less attention.

Even on Sunday the chapel had a hollow feeling. Unlike years past, when churchgoers arrived an hour early to ensure they could find a parking space and a seat, more pews were empty than full. The pews toward the back of the church were roped off, apparently to encourage people to sit in the front sections.

When Donald Barnett, the leader of Community Chapel, stopped dancing, he picked up a microphone and stilled the crowd with his voice.

He asked his chapel followers to pray for him on this April morning. He told them he had experienced many sleepless nights lately and had been forced to take a sleeping pull the night before to ease him into much needed slumber. That morning, he said he felt dizzy.

While he spoke of his troubles, the elders of the church were holding their own service in the smaller church located nearby on the 44-acre complex in Burien. The elders are part of Barnett's troubles. The now 800-member congregation split in march after church elders attempted unsuccessfully to remove Barnett as pastor.

Some chapel followers maintain allegiance to Barnett and others attend service conducted by the elders. Except for the setting, however, there appeared to be little difference between the two services.

Both camps still hold fast to their self-styled doctrine of spiritual connections, and both congregations are regularly reminded through sermons and other messages that their troubles are a test from God.

Community Chapel is obviously a troubled church. While Barnett complained of sleepless nights and preached of suffering, followers waited in line to use the microphone. They offered encouragement to a congregation that is under fire, that is experiencing a swift drop in followers, that is enduring dozens of divorces among them, that is hurting from the split in their ranks.

While some local pastors and other theologians decline to label Community Chapel a cult, most local religious leaders agree that the church exists on the fringe of Christianity with its unorthodox doctrine, its submission to one leader and its isolation from the world at large.

By and measure, the chapel has experienced a significant metamorphosis from its humble beginning as a Bible study.

The Bible study first met in 1967 in the Des Moines home of Barnett, who was then a Boeing employee. At the time, Barnett's wife, Barbara, worked as a Welcome Wagon greeter and invited neighborhood newcomers she met to join the Bible study.

Some young adults who attended Pacific Lutheran University also heard about the study and joined. As his following grew, Barnett, who is not an ordained minister, incorporated

his Bible study group as a church on Nov. 2, 1967.

The fledging congregation continued to meet in homes until the summer of 1969, when the church members bank rolled the construction of a sanctuary on land the church still occupies between Burien and Normandy Park. A Bible college was added in September of that year. The growth continued.

"There were a number of factors, that caused the growth," said one former church leader who joined the church in 1969. "When the church started, the people who were involved were successful professionals who were willing to sacrifice their time and money to make the church go. The thing that was promised was that Jesus was coming soon, the place was going to blow up, and we needed to save as many as we could before it did."

That urgency coupled with an emphasis on purity attracted many young people who dropped out of Pacific Lutheran University in the late 1960s to attend the Community Chapel Bible college.

"There were kids who were idealistic and hated phoniness," said the former church leader, who asked not to be identified. "This seemed at the time to be a pure from of religion. You could sell yourself on it."

The main sanctuary was constructed on an additional 36 acres in 1978 to accommodate continued growth. Meanwhile, some of the chapel's unrthodox Christian teachings were becoming suspect among other local pastors.

In an apparent move to arrest criticism of his church, Barnett in 1979 invited are ministers to a "Puget Sound Charismatic Ministers Discussion on the Doctrine of the Bible." Instead of offering open discussion, however, Barnett reportedly monopolized the meetings by preaching his "Oneness" doctrine. That doctrine, which denies the Trinity godhead, is widely recognized as contrary to historical Christian teachings. Ministers, including Dr. Daniel Pekota, soon stopped attending Barnett's meetings.

"He (Barnett) was aware of the fact that his teachings and some of his practices were not looked on favorably by the more orthodox element in the Christian church," said Pekota, a professor of God Northwest College in Kirkland. "It became obvious after awhile that it appeared he was using the meetings as a platform to put out fires regarding his church."

Despite outside concerns, the chapel continued to operate largely unnoticed by the public until 1986. That's when Community Chapel member Janet Cole drowned her 5-year-old daughter, Brittney, in a Portland motel bathtub. Following the murder, Cole said she wanted her daughter to go to heaven before she reached the age of responsibility and was possibly controlled by demons, a teaching she gleaned from Community Chapel.

That murder sparked intense controversy of Community Chapel. Chapel membership reached its zenith in the early 1980s, with some reports crediting the Burien church with as many as 4,000 members. Many former members agree, however, that the church never attracted more than 3,000 individuals.

Community Chapel also at one time boasted 22 satellite churches. The first satellite or offshoot church, was spawned in 1971. The numbers of satellites grew as chapel members moved and established satellites, or friends of members expressed interest in forming a church similar to Community Chapel. Although each satellite had its own pastor, Community Chapel and Barnett was considered the leaders.

Today, largely due to the teaching of spiritual connection, the number of followers in at the Burien church has dropped to 800. Satellite churches have dwindled to 12. More than 80 chapel couples have divorced in the past three years. A few individuals have committed suicide, many more have considered it.

Church leaders face lawsuits filed by former members. The church reportedly is struggling financially. On May 16, the courts will rule on a request by church elders to dissolve the church corporation and place its holdings with a court-appointed receiver. Former elder Mark Yokers said it's likely that if the court approves the dissolution two new churches will be formed, one headed by Barnett and the other by the elders.

The signs of trouble are everywhere, yet the faithful still arrive each Sunday, smiling, toting Bibles. They are normal people - salesmen, artists, media employees, blue collar workers - who are compelled to carry on the doctrine that former members say has swept the church into affliction.

Since 1979, chapel members have not been allowed to vote on church matters. Those decisions are instead entrusted to the leaders, who regulate everything from reading to eating.

Members do not read newspapers or magazines and they don't watch television for fear of the "demons" that they believe accompany the media. They are instructed to read only books that are approved by leadership and available in the church lobby.

Chapel members listen only to music they have composed, teach only curriculum they have devised. They observe no holidays because of the celebrations "pagan" origins.

"People have been led step by step to believe the pastor," said a former church leader. "They are taught not to use logic and reasoning, but to go with the spirit. This created a feeling that they were better than everyone else, and everything they did was right because they're doing it. That's what caused the chapel to grow and alternately is causing its collapse."

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