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‘American Idol’ goes to church

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SHREVEPORT, La. (BP)–Music became an avenue for ministry when Summer Grove Baptist Church hosted one of Shreveport’s biggest events of the year -– “American Idol” auditions in late June.

American Idol approached Summer Grove six weeks earlier seeking permission to use the church’s facilities. Because Summer Grove’s campus once was South Park Mall, American Idol personnel knew space would not be a problem.

Pastor Rod Masteller said the church prayed about and carefully discussed the request before reaching a decision, embracing it as an opportunity to show Christ’s love.

“Some people think church is off to the side, its own little community. We want to draw them in,” Masteller said. “We want everyone in this community and the country to know the church is not snobbish. We don’t want to change our beliefs or morals, but we want them to know our doors are open.”

Associate pastor Greg Tonjes said the church was able to minister to people in “a very nonthreatening way … even if it’s just providing a drink of water.”

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“We’re reaching people that would never step foot on a church campus,” Tonjes said. “People who would never come to Summer Grove [came] to watch American Idol.”

The first round of competition started at 10 a.m. June 27, with 35 contestants taking to the stage one by one to sing their hearts out in front of an audience that often applauded and cheered with enthusiasm. Unlike subsequent parts of the competition, a panel of local judges did not address the singers, instead silently making notes and jotting scores.

Quite a few contestants said they loved having the competition in the Louisiana church.

“What better place to show your talent?” competitor Susan Roberts said, while fellow contestant Denise Williams said she felt she and the other singers would perform better knowing they were in God’s sanctuary and He would be watching them.

Charlie Jones of Fox 33 television complimented the church for its “out of the box thinking. It’s good exposure for the church, for people who haven’t been here since they’ve taken over the mall.”

Such thinking is what associate pastor Charles Reynolds said Summer Grove aims for. “People no longer flock into churches,” he said. “We have to do things that will attract people to church. It’s why we have to think outside the box.”

At 4 p.m., even more people came for the final rounds. The 20 finalists from the morning’s auditions returned to compete against not only each other but an additional 20 finalists from auditions in Marshall, Texas.

Only one would be chosen to continue on to American Idol in Denver, where they are guaranteed an audition before the producers, who then decide which contestants get to go before judges and actually be on television.

Visitors heard more than singing during the final rounds, with Masteller sharing a short message with the crowd.

“Whether you go on to American Idol, or stay right here, God loves you,” he said from the stage.

Though some of the visitors might not have been a part of any church, a number of the contestants said the church was the root of their music. Various worship pastors and music ministers competed, while other contestants gave credit to their church choirs for their love of singing.

“Some of the finest music comes out of churches,” said Seva May, one of the competition’s judges. “Many musicians today started honing their skills in church.”

After the judges handed in their scores, Sylvia Dudley, 20, heard her name called as winner of the Ark-La-Tex American Idol competition. She took the microphone and the first words out of her mouth were thanks to Jesus for her win and her talents. The church venue, Dudley later said, was apt because “singing comes from the spirit, after all.”

Cyndi Thornton, Summer Grove’s communications services coordinator, said it was a joy to fellowship with and minister to everyone who came to the church for the competition.

“This is our home,” Thornton said. “You want people to come into your home. The invite is always there.”
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Sarah Sutton is an intern with the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.