The waiting room looks at first like any doctor's office, though unusually bright and new -- no spots and smudges in the children's corner yet. There are, however, a golden stained glass cross on every door and a copy of the Good News Bible amid an array of periodicals on managing stress, eating well and living happily.

The first to thumb through the magazines and visit the offices of the Capitol Hill Wholistic Health Center arrived in March, when the newest and costliest project of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation at 212 East Capitol St. NE opened for business.

Now it serves nearly 140 patients, and the staff hopes to draw more from an estimated 40,000 federal workers nearby as well as 75,000 neighborhood residents, including those in poorer areas to the east.

"Why would a church get into this thing?" asked the Rev. Arnold F. Keller Jr., church pastor. Basically, he said, because the congregation had the space -- roughly 2,300 square feet vacated in 1980 by the Capitol Hill Day School -- and wanted to use it to perform a community service.

Area surveys and data from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B showed a need for quality, affordable health care, and so the church began a nearly 2 1/2-year process of renovating the space and hiring staff. To date the project has cost just over $150,000, including this year's operating budget, while patient fees, set on a sliding scale, have brought in about $6,000. Payments from Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance plans are accepted.

The nonprofit center is the latest of about a half-dozen church-run community medical facilities that have sprung up in recent years in the Washington area, reflecting growing church interest in going beyond a community's religious needs.

Like several others, the newest aligns itself with wholistic, or holistic, medicine, an approach enjoying considerable popularity of late but drawing skepticism as well.

The guiding principle is treating the whole person, curing an illness and then trying, through counseling, to prevent its recurrence and maintain good health.

Keller was familiar with the concept through his friend Granger Westberg, a Lutheran minister and founder of Wholistic Health Centers Inc., a national network of 12 such centers, all church-based.

Speaking to church members, Westberg "outlined his vision and it was unanimous," Keller recalled. The center became part of the network, in, the pastor said, a "very natural wedding" between healing and wholeness, health and religion.

"The very word salvation . . . has its roots in the word healing," he said, noting wholistic medicine is compatible with a "basic theological assumption" that mind, body and spirit work best when most unified.

At the center on Capitol Hill, the Rev. Barron B. Maberry, associate pastor, and his team offer a health planning conference in which patient meets with doctor, nurse and pastoral counselor Maberry to discuss life style, attitudes, goals and problems and to plan a personal health care package.

So far, about two-thirds of those who come say, " 'That's really very interesting but I really only wanted to see the doctor,' " said Maberry, and see the doctor they do. The conference is not mandatory but a resource for those who want to use it.

For many, the meeting is worthwhile, said nurse practitioner Jane Weaver. "We ask people, 'How do you rate your spirit? Are you enthused about life?' " she said. "Sometimes they get instantaneous insights and it's fantastic."

Patient Jane Harvey is one who had that flash of vision when asked, among other things, to write down everything she ate. "I had taken a new job and my eating habits had changed," said Harvey. It was then that "I realized what the problem was: I wasn't exercising enough and I was eating heavier foods, business lunches." She formulated a new diet plan: "Nobody imposed it on me, I did it for myself, by myself."

While Harvey's case illustrates one of wholistic medicine's major ideas -- that the patient takes a responsible role in getting and staying well -- what worked for her may not be the answer for everyone. "It's good for you to eat well and you'll feel better for it but don't think that . . . all your problems will be solved," Maberry said.

The center does hold seminars in certain areas. Future topics include stress management, high blood pressure, prescription drugs, and meditation, and the staff is open to requests for other subjects, but the idea is to supply information, not to suggest that any particular area will hold a cure-all.

Much of the skepticism in the traditional medical community concerns the tendency for some so-called wholistic practitioners to seize upon one fad or technique.

For example, "if somebody is just pumping out vitamins to someone, that's not wholistic," said Dr. Elliott Dacher of Kaiser Georgetown Community Health Plan. That "implies that you can approach people as you approach a car -- in a mechanistic, fragmented way -- but people work in a system," he said.

Center physician Dr. George Keeler, in practice nearly 25 years, combines traditional and wholistic health care. Speaking highly of advances in scientific medicine, he cautions against forgetting "there's a patient behind the biochemical system."

"They treated me like an intelligent person," said Tamar Abrams, who lives a block away from the center. At first, she was "put off when I saw it was in a church." Not wanting any religious involvement, she went feeling "fairly cynical . . . but nobody proselytized," she said.

Although the center is open to people of all faiths, the sponsoring congregation takes a keen interest and certain pride in its proceedings, said Vivian Schrader, Church Council secretary and a member of the center's Board of Directors. "Sunday after Sunday," she said, members asked for a "sneak preview" before the facility opened.

Besides providing volunteer help, donations and publicity, the congregation voted to apply portions of two bequests totaling $140,000 to the project

"The response and interest have been ahead" of what was expected, said Keller, the pastor, who hopes the center will be "successful as a demonstration of church concern for the needs of the total person."