While many denominations and independent churches in the United States are staring headlong into a crisis of mass exodus from their congregations, there is one denomination that has seen exponential growth since its founding in 1998 - Amway Christian Fellowship. When asked how Amway affiliate churches thrive in the midst of an overall decline in church attendance among Americans, founding pastor Cecil Coontz responded, “Pfft. These churches practically sell themselves.”
It was the summer of 1998 when Koontz felt a burden to reach out to Christian Amway business owners who were run out of their churches for harassing fellow worshippers into purchasing bulk supplies of toilet paper and assorted cleaning products. “You know, a lot of these folks weren’t even allowed to start their own small groups. Just because Bible study is preceded by a pyramid plan of financial success instead of the latest dopey praise music about nature and personal intimacy with Jesus doesn’t mean it’s not legit. Amway people are some the most on the level people around.”
What started as a prayer gathering and Ponzi scheme with just 4 people in Coontz’s Austin, Texas living room, quickly grew into a church of 40 that needed to rent space at a local elementary school. “When we put our Amway Christian Fellowship banner out on the corner, upwardly mobile people just started rolling in. Success attracts success, and before you knew it, we were able to buy out a Church of God in Christ church and we were on our way. Within a year we met our goal of 2,000 Sunday worshippers. In order to be successful at whatever you do, be it selling skin lotion, or selling salvation, I find that you have to have a goal, a plan to achieve that goal, and stay proactive and positive. It’s foolproof.”
In the six years following the initial ACF church plant, the denomination has grown to over 400 affiliated churches across America, with a stated goal of 20,010 churches by the year 2,010. Pastor Gene Hume of ACF Atlanta, the largest ACF congregation in the country, attributes the church’s growth to their willingness to reach out to a variety of people. “We welcome all salespeople, be they car salesmen, investment bankers or prophecy experts.” Although ACF churches feature the traditional elements of the evangelical Sunday morning worship service - prayer, Bible reading and singing, the church places an extraordinary emphasis on an often overlooked part of contemporary worship. “Our ‘meet ‘n greet lasts an hour and a half,” noted Hume. “It’s such a blessing to see people move beyond the ‘Hi, I’m fine’ blandness of typical meet ‘n greets, and into meeting one another’s spiritual and hygienic needs. Here you see lots of firm handshakes with good eye contact and frequent first name usage. Everybody makes that solid personal connection that is essential in ministry. And sales.” Indeed. THO staffers discovered that ACF Atlanta lived up to the hype when they were greeted with multiple handshakes and double handed finger snaps that ended in both index fingers being pointed at them.
ACF detractors say the church has lost sight of the true mission of modern Christianity to strengthen Anglo-Saxon families. Whitney Samples of the Center for American Church Studies decries ACF’s lack of nuclear family activities. “Where are the exciting children’s programs? Where are the postpartum care groups? Not one single ACF affiliate features a ‘families only’ worship service. It’s an outrage, and an indication that we are entering into the age of apostasy.” Still others cry foul at the church’s rather open focus on financial success. Said Christian Research Institute President Hank Hannegraff “At least tell the people they aren’t giving to you, but through you.”
Coontz responded to Hannegraff saying, “Research this, pal: Jesus talks about money more than any other subject. The Lord knew how to close a deal, now didn’t He? The Great Physician? Heh. Let’s talk ‘Great Closer’. He offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse!” When pressed by THO as to how so many Christians are attracted to a ministry that seems rather unbiblical, Coontz shook his head. “Are you kiddin’ me? Christians will let you get away with anything as long as you attach a Scripture verse to it. That’s why we’re Amway Christian Fellowship, where “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.” Romans 10:12. We follow the Great Commission, and make great commissions! Besides, it’s good to know that you’re not the only one at church with an angle. If we’re all admittedly fake, then fellowship can’t get more real than that!”
Hume believes ACF scratches the most unreachable of evangelical itches. “Let’s face it, people go to church today to fix their problem of the week, then get on with real life - making connections and making money. Besides, statistics prove that once a Christian turns 27, their “on-fire” years are done. Following God is great, but you gotta get practical too. I mean, “Maranatha” and all, but is Jesus gonna take care of your retirement?”
To be affiliated with ACF, Hume encourages pastors to order “ACF Made Easy” by Gene Hume. “The affiliation packet includes 7 DVD’s, 20 audio cassettes, and an ACF Made Easy Journal, so you can track your church planting progress. It features daily devotionals, a “power word” of the day, and dynamic sales strategies - all yours for 3 easy payments of $39.95 plus s&h. Are you gonna get a better church planting deal anywhere else? This church planting scheme saves you time, money and prayer.”