Like St. Paul, a tentmaker, Ken Miller has to earn a living before he can preach the Gospel. For him, that means selling gasoline -- and cigarettes, candy, soda and all the other items carried by his service station's ministore.

While he "hates to promote bad habits," thecharismatic preacher from North Laurel knows he needs his secular job -- cigarette sales included -- to support his wife, Tony, and five children.

On a busy afternoon, Miller, a sandy-haired man in a white Exxon shirt with "Manager" written in red on the pocket, greets his customers, punches the cash register, makes change at the Crofton Exxon station.

"How are you?" he asks a customer in an easygoing voice. "Just the soda?"

"A few customers know I'm a preacher. But I don't want to beat anyone over the head with my views. There's usually no timeto talk anyway. Most people rush in and out of the store. It's very busy here, especially in the mornings," the 30-year-old says.

"I stress to the employees to be friendly to people. I'm never in a bad mood. I've had my share of problems, but I don't let them affect my attitude toward other people."

During a break, Miller talks about the church he's starting, Living Faith Assembly, emphasizing faith healing and the miraculous. With two other couples, Miller began meeting May 5 in the Holiday Inn on Route 198, just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. By last Sunday, the congregation had grown to about 20, he said.

He hopes to add Sunday school classes in smaller rooms ashis flock grows.

"Most new churches either meet in schools or hotel meeting rooms. All of the schools I looked into had commitments toother church groups," he said.

"We'll be here for a couple of years," Miller said. "I haven't even thought about where we would move or build once we get established. It would be in the same Crofton-Laurel area, though."

The guitar-playing minister will lead the music until somebody else comes along to do it, he says.

And he'll keep working at the gas station until the church grows enough to support him as a full-time pastor.

The approach is typical of Miller's version of charismatic Christianity, which places great emphasis on having faith that things will work out.

He says miracles can be a part of everyday life. Twelve years ago, he got his first demonstration.

Since childhood, he'd wanted to be a minister. The day before he was to leave home for Bible college in Oklahoma, Miller realized he was$418 short of paying his bills.

He prayed. The next day, when he stopped by his workplace to pick up his final paycheck, his boss gavehim a second one.

"It was within 50 cents of the amount I needed.They said it was sitting there for months, but I had picked up all my paychecks. But they insisted," Miller says. "So I left for school with the bills paid."

After two years at the Rhema Bible Training Center in Tulsa, he became pastor of the Charismatic Christian Center in Clinton, Ill. He stayed for three years.

Miller, who believes in faith healing, says he personally watched a man's foreshortened leggrow about 2 inches: "It lengthened in front of my eyes."

A year ago, the Miller family moved to Maryland from Northern Virginia. Finding no churches in the Laurel area that suited him, Miller decided to fulfill a childhood dream and start his own.

It doesn't bother Miller that he had only two years of theological training. He was ordained by the evangelistic Family of God Ministries in Illinois, and he's worked in every church he's attended, he says. And he doesn't accept the notion of an established church organization keeping tabs on him.

"I think churches should be set up like churches in the New Testament," he says.

"Independent, not controlled by any religious organization or denomination."

Unlike Judaism, the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant denominations, completely independent churches -- including many charismatic groups -- place great valueon running their own shows.

Most mainline groups require stringent theological training: four years of college and often three to five years of postgraduate work.

In the Presbyterian Church, for instance, a 500-year-old tradition greatly emphasizes training.

"We have standards," explains Dr. Herbert D. Valentine, executive presbyterof the Baltimore Presbytery. "We need to be assured the person understands how the Bible works and how to relate an ancient text to modern times.

"If you don't do that, you can be in danger of having flights of fantasy without accuracy. Without accuracy, as the saying goes, the Devil himself can quote Scripture for his argument."

But for a charismatic such as Miller, the backing of a church organization isn't necessary to start a church that he describes as "Bible-based and family-oriented, where Jesus is truly Lord of all."

"We should be independent so we can have freedom to do what we think God tells us," Miller says.

"Sure, there are occasional abuses. But that's true of every facet of life. I just see a void here, and I'd like to fill it somewhat."

Staff writer Marc LeGoff contributed to this article.

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