Carol Bryan sings during a recent country music service, Toledo Country Limits, at the Church of St. Andrew United Methodist.
The first thing the Rev. Loran Miracle did when he started a new Saturday night service was to buy a few fashion accessories.
"I bought myself a big belt buckle with a rhinestone cross and a pair of black cowboy boots," Mr. Miracle said.
The western clothing fits the theme of "Toledo Country Limits," the new worship service held every Saturday night at 6 at the Church of Saint Andrew United Methodist.
"Country music has a pretty broad appeal, especially in this area," Mr. Miracle said. "We felt that was a way to reach out to people, to connect them to Jesus using music they know and love."
He came up with the idea after attending a conference about five years ago on how to bring people into the church.
"One speaker said that if he moved to Miami, he would get a good conga band. I thought since I'm in Toledo the demographic here is, and has been, country," he said. "It clearly is No. 1 by a longshot. So the idea kind of spun from there and some people in my church really caught that vision."
The Rev. Loran Miracle speaks to the congregation during one of the new services.
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He said he hired professional musicians because "we had to make the music the very best that we could."
The band is called The Range and offerings are taken up by ushers passing hats - cowboy hats, naturally.
Mr. Miracle, who has been pastor at the Church of Saint Andrew for 11 years, said country music has always been one of his favorite genres.
"My Dad hails from southeast Kentucky. I grew up on Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton and Flatt & Scruggs. I have eclectic tastes but I've always enjoyed country music."
The pastor builds his sermons around the themes of country tunes, including such hits as "Jesus, Take the Wheel" by Carrie Underwood, "Three Wooden Crosses" by Randy Travis, "I Saw God Today" by George Strait, and "Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love" by Trisha Yearwood.
There's no shortage of sermon material in country music today, the minister said.
Paul Wood, a member of the church who helped plan the Toledo Country Limits services, said "there are some real spiritual messages in country music. They actually say 'God' and 'Jesus.' You don't hear that in pop music."
Mandi Dewulf sings and claps along with the music at St. Andrew s.
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The church's first country service was held April 26 and more than 200 people attended. Attendance has been slightly more than 100 per week since.
The services are scheduled to last 55 minutes, and Mr. Miracle breaks the service into three or four parts, alternating music and message.
The pastor said that although he uses country music as a sermon tool, he does not water down the Gospel message or use the songs as novelties.
"I don't want it to appear as if the lyrics drive the message," he said. "The sermon is the same as you would get at any church service."
He believes country music makes more references to spirituality than other genres because the artists sing from the heart.
"The people that are singing it are singing songs that relate to them, songs that are important to them and reflect their values and how they want to live their lives," Mr. Miracle said. "That comes through in their songs and their religious faith is part of who they are and they have no problem singing about."
He and Mr. Miracle said they are looking to appeal to people who don't normally go to church.
"I believe there's a large audience, a large group of people that are maybe turned off by traditional church and think it's too stuff, not for them," Mr. Wood said. "They think church is for the 'hoitytoitys' in starched white shirts."
Mr. Miracle said the new service makes it easy for people to invite friends or colleagues who are country music fans.
"At the least you'll hear good country music," he said.
Toledo Country Limits is at 6 tonight and every Saturday night at Church of Saint Andrew, 3620 Heatherdowns Blvd. Country attire is welcome; child-care is provided. Information: 419-385-6160 or online at www.toledocountrylimits.com.
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