AUBURN – Ed Doiron was reading a book when it happened.

“It comes like the wind,” he said, seeking to put words to the feeling.

The same thing happened to his wife, Dot, as she began reading the same book, the one she gave him for his 44th birthday: “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Each of them had undergone a transformation without being able to tell the other exactly what had happened.

“Something’s changing here,” he had told her, unable to explain it at the time.

It was only later, as they began sharing their newfound feelings of peacefulness and joy, that the Turner couple was able to understand what it meant. They had accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts, he said.

Ed Doiron knew it was time to change churches. After 44 years as a Catholic, he had found a “deeper faith,” he said, one that could only be nourished by what he called a “Bible-based” church, where the Bible is central to all religious learning and the place where the answers to all questions regarding faith can be found.

Some friends who attended the East Auburn Baptist Church invited the couple to a service four months ago. It was a perfect fit, he said.

Turning to the church

In a world of growing uncertainty and political division, many people, including Mainers, are turning to the church for comfort and a sense of security. In particular, they are being drawn to evangelical ministries – churches that offer definitive solutions and promised salvation.

“There’s a lot of instability out there,” said the Rev. Dan Michaud, pastor at the New Gloucester Bible Church. “People are unclear about the future. People are looking, they’re searching for a place where they can find answers.”

Often, evangelical churches attract people experiencing a crisis or trauma or “going through a hard time,” Michaud said. That is when they are most likely to be seeking answers.

It is generally understood that the core tenets of evangelism include:

• the inerrancy of the Bible;

• salvation comes through faith in Jesus and not through good deeds;

• adults must accept Jesus as their savior; and

• all Christians must evangelize (share the “good news”).

In some cases, the popularity of evangelical ministries in Maine has created new places of worship. In other cases, it has resulted in swelling attendance at existing churches.

At East Auburn Baptist Church, the modern building is often filled to capacity, leaving only room for those willing to stand. Parking attendants are needed to control traffic. So many congregants are expected for today’s Easter service that the church has arranged to use the St. Dominic Regional High School gym.

“I think the thing that’s hindering our growth is the size of our box,” said Assistant Pastor Keith Wentzel. “We’re full.”

Even though his church offers a Saturday service and three on Sunday, many people end up leaving because there are no seats, he said, lamenting the losses.

A new church that would house up to 700 people is planned, twice the number of seats at the current location. Wentzel said he hopes they won’t soon outgrow their new surroundings.

Across the river in Lewiston, The Vineyard Church of Lewiston also is bursting at the seams. Since 2003, the congregation has doubled to roughly 800. Lack of space has prompted church leaders to move Easter’s service to the Lewiston Armory this year where 1,300 people are expected.

“This is a growing ministry that’s doing well,” said Bob Frederich of Raymond, who serves as mentor to pastors at evangelical churches throughout New England.

Frederich linked the growth of evangelicalism to the 1950s, which was marked by a radical shift in American culture and by the popularization of evangelicalism by the Rev. Billy Graham, who brought the message to American households through television.

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Emily Avery, 28, was holding her 11-month-old daughter, Addison, in the hallway outside the East Auburn Baptist Church nursery.

Avery was raised Catholic but has been attending this church for four years.

“Before, it was just rote,” she said. “I’d do what I was supposed to do and say what I was supposed to say.”

Then she started coming to this evangelical church.

“I realized I had been missing something,” she said. “When I started coming here I realized the truth to it and decided to make more of a commitment to live more of a Christian life.”

Avery said she liked the contemporary style of the services.

“It’s just more real,” she said. “The teaching was just real and relevant to my life.”

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Reasons for the growth of evangelical churches in Maine and elsewhere are numerous.

The Rev. Philip Strout of the Vineyard Church said he believes his congregation is growing because he is trying hard to meet the needs of modern churchgoers.

Vineyard has added several services to its weekly offerings in an effort to accommodate less traditional work schedules. More important, his and many other evangelical churches have updated the way they deliver services, including modernizing the language, he said. The message is the same as it has always been, he insisted. Only the packaging is new.

“It’s a wedding between the ancient faith and the 21st century reality,” he said. “We have an attention span in our society today that’s challenging.”

Even the music has been updated.

“In our church you might think, ‘Now, did I go to a rock concert?'” Strout said.

Evangelical church services tend to be less structured and rely less on traditional liturgy than other denominations, Michaud said.

Many older churches have split with their denominational trappings and struck out on their own. Michaud, who was pastor at the First Baptist Church in East Machias, said that church was once American Baptist but has since declared its independence.

“The American Baptist convention was getting more and more liberal to suit the tastes of the people in Maine,” he said, noting it started in the late 1960s with the advent of female ministers. “To get away from those liberal leanings, they decided to become independent.”

That’s not to say that every evangelical church looks the same or sounds the same, pastors say. Some churches are more conservative than others, some services more traditional. But the underlying message and teachings are universal, they agree.

Another explanation offered for the growth of evangelical churches may be found in the root of the word “evangelical,” which literally means “share the good news.”

When Frederich served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Portland, he ended each sermon with: “Now go and give them Jesus,” a signal to the congregation to spread the word.

Strout said, however, he is not looking to lure churchgoers to Vineyard from other denominations. “I really would not feel we were doing our job” were that to happen, he said.

Instead, he said he hopes to attract the what he calls “first generation believers,” folks who never went to church before setting foot in his.

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It’s 6 o’clock on a Saturday night.

Despite blizzard conditions outside, more than two dozen people sit in pews at the modern church on the outskirts of Auburn.

A man dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans and sporting a goatee stands on the alter, swaying as he strums a guitar. The song is somewhere between folk and gospel.

“All I am and have and ever hope to be,” he sings, “All for Jesus.”

Some members of the congregation join in, some standing, others sitting. There are couples, singles and kids.

Printed lyrics appear on a large screen overhead like Karaoke.

When the singing stops, a man in a yellow button-down shirt stands in front of the group. He also is wearing blue jeans. He is the Rev. Wentzel. He offers prayers for several church members to make swift recoveries from illnesses.

The guitarist sits at a piano off to the side of the altar. He plays another song and sings.

The song’s refrain: “It would be crazy to choose this world for eternity,” a reference to the belief of these people that their devotion to Jesus will bring them eternal life.

Next comes a puppet show with Muppet-like characters engaging in a skit about the virtues of volunteerism, a play to the children in the pews.

Most of the kids file out to a nearby kids’ room when Wentzel launches into a sermon about redemption and the importance of not giving up on “lost ones.”

“God’s perfect in every way, OK? And we ain’t,” he says. “Man was born lost.”

His words appear on the overhead screen, accompanied by illustrations of Little Bo Beep.

“Being lost is not fun,” Wentzel told the crowd. “I was lost until I was 18. It wasn’t fun.”

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