Pastor Stuart Luce stepped out onto the altar at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Aberdeen with his clothes bulging from sacks of sugar he had stuffed into his shirt and pants.
"You didn't know me then, but about 10 years ago, I was carrying 40 extra pounds, just like this," he told a group of children seated at the altar during a contemporary service Sunday morning.
"This feels so ridiculous, to carry 40 pounds of sugar, and I realized that's what I was carrying on my body. I knew that I needed to get healthier," Luce said.
The church on Mt. Royal Avenue is starting the new year with a "multi-layer worship series" targeting not just the souls but the bodies of congregants.
The Living Holy and Healthy series, which runs through Feb. 9, is based around small groups discussing prominent Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren's book "The Daniel Plan," with a weekly "snack and study," a "Biggest Loser" contest, a walking club and free books, pedometers and other materials for participants along the way.
Luce said after the most recent Sunday service he was inspired both by the faith-based diet plan and his own weight-loss journey.
"I visit a lot of people who are in the hospital or in the nursing home and they are having some major health problems," he said, explaining his interest coincided with an outreach program from the Harford County Health Department.
The Harford County Health Department gave 10 local churches, including St. Paul's, grant funding as part of the Faith Communities Health Program launched last year.
The department received a state grant in January 2015 "to address the county's high cancer mortality and incidence rates," according to a press release, which noted Harford "is a relatively wealthy jurisdiction with a surprisingly high burden of cancer."
The initiative mostly targets traditionally black churches, as black residents are 15 percent more likely than whites to die of cancer, according to the health department.
St. Paul's, a predominantly white congregation, nevertheless got a small grant and is unique in basing its health series around Warren's faith-based diet book and using the funds to offer up to $400 in gift cards to the winning "Biggest Loser" team, Luce said.
"I was thinking of doing this already and here the Harford County Health Department said, 'We want to help you do this,'" he noted, calling it an "awesome blessing."
At the first of five services in a series of topics based on chapters from "The Daniel Plan," Luce told the congregation that good health is perfectly aligned with spiritual concerns.
"I think there are still some folks that are going, 'Why are we talking about this in church?'" he said, explaining that God created the body and cares about the entire person.
Also, the body and soul are not separate, he said.
"If you wanted, this week, you could – breakfast, lunch and dinner – eat Twinkies all this week, and I guarantee if you did that, your soul would feel yucky by the end of the week, because your body would feel yucky as well," he said, pointing out the Bible is clearly concerned with bodily acts, like sexual immorality, and highlights food-related spiritual practices like fasting.
"Our bodies and souls are connected. What happens to one affects the other," Luce said.
He read a story from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus heals the blind, noting the blind men's "faith in Jesus affected their health and they started to see."
Only about half a dozen people had signed up for the "Biggest Loser" challenge by the start of the series, but the initial service drew some more interest.
Praise team member Christy Ward drew some laughs with a skit in which she played a technology-obsessed woman who awkwardly befriends a fitness-enthused neighbor.
"Why does everyone always post what they eat on Facebook?" Ward wondered during the skit, challenging herself not to "make eye contact" with the neighbor running past her house in "a thin, well-toned blur."
The neighbor, played by fellow praise team member Libby Richardson, says she uses running to escape her stressful life but ultimately informs Ward about "The Daniel Plan."
The book promises participants "40 days to a healthier life" through the principles of "faith, food, fitness, focus and friends." It is based on the biblical story of Daniel, who rejects a royal diet while being held captive by King Nebuchadnezzar and emerges looking healthier.
Members of the health series committee fanned out after the service, with Vicki Marderness signing in "Biggest Loser" entrants for their first weigh-in while Sandy Brooks led a group "snack and study" based around faith, the first chapter in "The Daniel Plan."
Marderness said she is a nurse and seemed pleased to help fellow congregants live a better lifestyle.
"I have been living healthy and holy since 1992," she said, explaining that God has helped her through personal health issues and she has striven to exercise every day. "My faith has been the cure for me."
"I have always kept my faith in the Lord and asked for faith and guidance, and it seemed to work," she said. "This is going to help me just by being in fellowship with people. I enjoy going to church and I love seeing everyone, so it can only help improve my life."
"I think it's so much better that we are doing it as a church, because we can bounce ideas off each other," Marderness said.
Lisanne Blake, a Bel Air resident who has attended St. Paul's for about five years, was among those signing up for "Biggest Loser."
"I hope to get healthier for the new year so I can be active with my children," Blake said, explaining her weight loss goal for the "Biggest Loser" challenge is 20 pounds but she also has bigger goals long-term.
"I hope to lose about 50 pounds but just take a little bit at a time. I have health issues, so I need to get ahold of those, too," she said.
Blake said she appreciated the church combining faith and fitness.
"I think it's a great combination, and it's nice to have the strength and the support of your church family," she said.
During the service, Luce concluded his sermon by leading the congregants in a prayer that thanked God for creating them.
"Thank you for understanding the frustration I have sometimes felt about getting healthy, but I know by your power, I can change," Luce prayed.