By 10:55 a.m., pretty much everyones here: 40 or 50 people altogether young, expectant, and freshly scrubbed. They chat quietly and recline on overstuffed couches in the long, wood-paneled room. A few stragglers linger in the back parlor, picking over pastries and coffee. But when the band starts up, everyone finds a seat.
Its time for church.
The music is loud, insistent. Prepare the way, prepare the way, prepare the way of the Lord! Bongos lay down a casual beat. Amp and microphone cords snake across the floor, and the blue-jeaned, coffee-sipping crowd <\m> most of them in their 20s and 30s <\m> smile and tap their feet.
But there are no hymnals here, no Christian symbols, no dress codes or biblical vocabulary. The congregations founder and leader, Brian Upton, is not even a pastor. Hes a public relations freelancer whose professional expertise has been almost as helpful to the ministry as his religious devotion.
Affiliated with the more traditional Trinity Lutheran Church on West 30th Street, In Search Of is part of a growing phenomenon known as seeker services. Seekers (as opposed to believers) are young people with a spiritual yen, but no formal church affiliation. Ten years ago, only a handful of churches in the Cleveland area were holding seeker services. Today, that number is 15 or more, the vast majority of them suburban.
That growth reflects a larger trend: As religion has become another commodity in the American consumer culture, a new generation of churchgoers has become consumers, choosing to shop around rather than endure an hour of boredom at their grandparents church. In response, many churches have added seeker services to their weekly traditional fare. Even churches with contemporary services offer elements of seeker worship: upbeat rock music, drama shorts, movie clips, brief and relevant sermons (some pastors deftly call them messages or teachings), and neutral, non-church venues.
Our culture is so diverse now that one service will not reach everyone, explains Don Cummings, a Methodist pastor walking the line between tradition and innovation in Mayfield Village. Weve got to build a bridge out to younger people, rather than wait for them to build one to us. Three years ago, his church fine-tuned one of its Sunday services to make it appealing to seekers. Within six months, he says, weekly attendance doubled, from 60 to 120.
Other pastors who have adopted some form of seeker service swear by it. Dave Collings in Strongsville says his church has grown from 80 to 400 members in the few years it has been holding seeker services. Rebecca Gumina chirps over the young families that, like a breath of fresh air, have followed the drum set and VCR into aging Lakewood Baptist Church.
As religious outreach, seeker services are trying to revive the aging congregations of Protestant churches by heeding a fundamental law of marketing: Give the people what they want. But is it really religion? Critics charge that seeker services amount to more personal therapy than transcendence, that some pastors simply jettison the rigors of faith their consumers find less palatable and focus more on numbers than on religious content.
Jacob Dorn, a Baptist from the cradle and a professor of American religious history at Wright State University in Dayton, contends that many pastors of seeker services are offering a pretty watered-down and simplistic version of Christianity. I think what is happening is that many of these churches are just making people feel good about the kind of people they are.
But Upton says making people comfortable at In Search Of helps coax them toward God. After three songs and two quick scripture recitations by the musicians, Upton, immaculately groomed in jeans and a flannel shirt, takes a seat on the barstool at the front of the room. His subject today is relationships, and he gets right to the point.
There is probably nothing harder in this life that we will face than relationships, he says, scanning the faces in the room. Relationships define and shape our lives. So powerful is our need for one another that it surpasses our need for food.
From there, its just a small leap to Uptons reasoning that the relationship between the believer and God and among believers themselves <\m> is the most powerful element of Christianity. Religion is not about right and wrong, he insists. Its about Are we in a relationship with God, and are we in a relationship with each other?
He concludes with a scene from the Bible: The crucified Jesus, spotting his mother and a disciple at the foot of the Cross, encourages them to look after one another, to become mother and son. Even as Hes dying, Hes healing a relationship, Upton urges, with a flushed face and a trembling voice. Jesus was always more concerned about people than about being right. By now, Upton is almost in tears.
In the back of the room, one couple stands out. Anna Thornton and her boyfriend, Stephen Taylor, graduated last spring from Abilene Christian University in Texas. Hes got blond dreadlocks past his shoulders; shes got a discreet diamond-stud nose ring. Theyre both in sandals. Despite studying at a religious school in a city Gallup calls the buckle of the Bible Belt, they never found a church in Abilene. So theyre giving In Search Of a try. And so far, they like what they see.
Well come back here as long as we can find something in it that makes sense to us, says Taylor. For me, a church has to be integrated with nature and the creative soul, and humans have to be the biggest element.
Thornton nods. There are people like us here, she says, music we understand.
Upton himself knows what its like to be a seeker. Raised in parochial schools, he dropped out of the Lutheran church in college and spent almost 10 years in religious turmoil, questioning Christianity and exploring Eastern religions. I was a Christmas and Easter Christian, he says. Eventually he returned to the fold at Trinity Lutheran, where he now devotes enough time to have his own office, but doesnt collect a paycheck.
Last year he looked around the church and found the pews empty of worshipers his own age. He knew the reasons why: the boredom, the rules, the inapplicable, outdated sermons, the unpleasant childhood memories. Many young people, he says, find traditional worship, with its formality and its rituals, inauthentic, irrelevant, and unapproachable <\m> all the things he knows God isnt.
People think Christianity is a bunch of dos and donts and regulations, Upton says. But when you take the Bible as a whole, what you see is a God that, over and over and over again, is trying to establish relationships with people. And thats the God I know. Thats the God I want to celebrate. @subhead:Clapping for Christ
Its Saturday night in the Ralph Neighbor fellowship hall and time for Unhinged, the two-month-old seeker service at the Church of the Open Door in Elyria. With a congregation of almost 4,000, a staff of 12 full-time pastors, and a K-12 school, the church campus is massive, with a fellowship hall big enough to swallow the showing of about 60 people sitting around a couple dozen tables facing the stage. Off to the side, theres a spread with coffee and juice.
This is only the sixth week that Open Door has held Unhinged <\m> which the church staff would rather call a show than a service <\m> and it still has an eager, uneasy, amateurish feel. Most of the attendees are parents with young children or couples and singles in their 20s. Probably half are already members of the church indulging curiosity, showing support, or accompanying a nonreligious friend or two.
Mark and Melissa Wagner, a pleasant, tidy couple who are members of the church and parents of two small children, have seen a couple of Unhinged shows. You feel a sense of freedom to laugh and cry and sit back and watch the show, says Melissa, holding a squirming child in her lap.
Dan Stintsman, 31, with his own young son, seems to be here because he cant get enough. Broad, blond, and rosy-cheeked, Stintsman holds several jobs, among them making deliveries for Airborne Express and running his own pest control company. (His business card boasts: Licensed. Insured. Christian Owned. Specializing in Pest Control.) In his free time, he helps out at the church.
This is great! he says. Somebody could go out to a comedy club and get the same atmosphere.
The room goes dark as emcee Tim Guenther, a youth pastor whose bushy white beard and giddy expression reinforce a knack for casual ministering, jostles forward and announces that tonights theme will be Integrity <\m> what would you do?
Two weeks earlier, the service featured a magician who illustrated the power of God, using a coloring book and three lengths of rope. Guenther, wearing a T-shirt painted to look like a tuxedo, presided over a medley of other offerings: an earnest but nervous visiting worship band, a short drama about a fighting couple, a scene from the movie
Tonight, Guenthers in a well-worn Bible T-shirt with the caption, When all else fails, read the instructions. The band is older, folksier, and more polished. The movie clip is from
Guenther meanders from an opening joke to stories about difficult tests of his own integrity: making the right call as a baseball ump, turning down a $100 set of tires, correcting a bank teller whod dealt him $400 too much. Finally he gets around to the Bible, describing the frustration of Asaph, an Israelite who seethed at the success of the wicked people around him.
And there isnt anybody sitting here tonight who cant tell a story about when they saw somebody cheat to get ahead <\m> and it worked, Guenther says to a room of nodding heads. In all, he talks for a half-hour, finally conceding, I dont know the answer either. But its not our job to judge. Its our job to live our lives the very best that we can.
In his office a few days earlier, Guenther insists that the only goal of Unhinged is to introduce young people to faith and Christ. Its important for them not to feel that this is a setup for something, he says. These people are a blank screen, in the best sense of the word. We want to fill in the blanks.
Beside him is Open Doors khaki-clad head pastor, David Walls, the straight man to Guenthers comedian. When Walls came to town 11 years ago, he threw out the rulebook on pastoring and rituals. Unhinged is his vision. Everybodys on a spiritual journey, he explains. Were just in different places. On Saturday nights, we tell people theyre on a journey and help them figure out where they are. We want to be whatever we can to them.
Historically, the church has got it all wrong, Walls continues. They put all these barriers up and say, If you can figure out how to get through the maze, maybe well talk.
I think some contemporary worship is just entertainment, says Deb Gorman, director of diocesal ministries at the solidly traditional First United Methodist Church, an imposing stone building downtown. She wonders what seeker audiences are drawn to. Is it the rock music and the rhythm, or is it the words? I mean, what is the content of their belief?
>Jacob Dorn has visited a few seeker-like services at big churches near Dayton, and his experiences have not brightened his view. When I go there, were singing little praise choruses that are projected on a screen; trite words and repetitive slogans that are not rich, that do not lead to any sense of complexity in terms of understanding the Christian faith, he says. I fail to understand what people find there, other than that theyre just so comfortable in their casual clothes.
He was appalled to find a coffee bar at a church in Illinois and even more appalled to find it common practice. I guess you cant have an hour of God without having your morning coffee, he quips.
Its telling, says Timothy Murphy, a Texan teaching religion at Case Western Reserve University, that many seeker services dont demand that attendees formally commit to the church. In Search Ofs Upton readily agrees. I kind of see it as irrelevant, he says. Were trying to get away from that whole idea of membership and donation plates and envelopes.
Which is exactly what Murphy is talking about. American churches are really torn between marketing strategies and trying to get people in the door on one hand, and on the other hand, knowing who counts as the flock and who are just the hangers-on, he says. The code word now is spirituality, or sometimes faith, but faith without a particular content. Oh, I believe in God, some people say. Well, do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the Cross for your sins, to reverse the sins of Adam, and that apart from this youre headed for eternal separation from God, and with it, eternal life from God? Because thats a very different issue.
Dorn takes it even further.
One thing that I see across much of the religious landscape is that religion is becoming more and more a kind of personal therapy, he says. Churches are spending more energy making people feel comfortable with themselves, helping them work out issues of personal identity and deal with the stresses of work and family. This is a trend in America toward subjectivism <\m> that instead of being drawn outward towards a transcendent God, the individual is focused back inward on the individuals own insecurities and fears and problems.
A loyal Baptist with an occasional pang of agnosticism, Dorn admits that this is a sweeping generalization. Nevertheless, he is troubled by the vacuity that often accompanies the new forms. If it werent for that, he says, Id be on these guys side.
I can sit around a campfire and take the Lords supper with a Diet Pepsi and a piece of rye crisp as the elements, he says. My real concern is about the content of whats being communicated. Are people just being made comfortable in a complacent suburban lifestyle?
@subhead:Spoon-Fed Theology @body:Well aware that their unorthodox methods repel some worshipers, pastors still bristle at the suggestion that theyre making a religious compromise. Its a non-issue, says Upton. You can still proclaim your belief of God and what is truth. God enjoys variety and blesses you when you create a service that is more relevant.
Its unfair to say that all seeker services dilute the content of religious faith or that they dont convey a message. But it is true that, by nature, most seeker services simplify the content to make it more attractive to the uncommitted. Jeremy Voldrich, 26, an enthusiastic member of Open Door, says he has to admit that the theology at Unhinged is a little unchallenging.
But, he adds quickly, it has to be, so that people who dont go to church will come and give it a chance. Maybe some of them will come to regular services if they like it. You try to meet people where theyre at.
>Dennis Zimmerman, a down-home Presbyterian pastor with floppy hair and a disposition his friends call healing, puts a diplomatic spin on it. Jesus, at one point, said, You feed the babies milk, and when they
You dont dump a whole potload of theology on somebody that doesnt have a clue what youre talking about, insists Zimmerman. The challenge for seeker services, he says, is getting seekers to eat solid food once theyre drinking milk.
Leea Knapik, 26, is eating solid food now by the forkful. Petite, sincere, and seriously outweighed by her two giant dogs, she lives with her boyfriend in the small Slavic Village home they own together. A former Catholic, Knapik felt disillusioned by her childhood church, where she and her siblings and divorced father were forced to sit in the back pews as a broken family.
Not only that, but there was no personalizing to it, she says. You read, you listen to the priest, sit-stand-kneel, sit-stand-kneel, and youre out the door in an hour. Everybodys checking their watch.
A little over a year ago, at the repeated insistence of a co-worker, she tried the seeker service at the nondenominational Church of the Living God in Garfield Heights. When Knapik finally made her way to the service, held in a high school gym, her co-worker hugged her and introduced her around. There was a rock band instead of an organ, and the drama team performed a skit. And everyone was so much more personal. People came up to you to ask how youre feeling today.
>But it was Pastor Keith News sermon that really touched her. The moral was that, with God, you can start over, because every day He will forgive you, as long as you ask for forgiveness, Knapik explains. And thats what I needed to hear. Thats exactly what I needed to hear. She wipes her eyes with a tissue shes been wadding into her fist.
Since that first seeker service, Knapiks life has changed. Shes been baptized, joined the church choir, and attends Living Gods prayer den on Wednesday nights, where she and other worshipers gather to pray for the church and the congregation. Shes introduced another co-worker to Christianity, and the personal and financial problems that plagued her a year ago have abated, which she attributes to her newfound faith. She hasnt coaxed her boyfriend to the sanctuary yet, but is hopeful that one day hell go.
It just clears my head, she says. When I go to church, I leave everything at the door. It just makes you feel alive. I go in and sing the songs and listen to the message. And then I come home and I feel better. I feel refreshed. I have breakfast, and usually Sunday is a good day. @subhead:The Big Show @body:Many local seeker pastors look to one source for vindication and instruction: Willow Creek Community Church. Founded in a suburban Chicago movie theater 30 years ago, Willow Creek is now one of the two or three largest Protestant churches in the world. In 1976, its head pastor, Bill Hybels, defined the concept of seekers and then invented a service to attract them.
In the years since, Willow Creek has honed the art of the seeker service to dazzling and flawless production, and organized a worldwide association to help other, smaller, weaker churches replicate its model. To them, Willow Creek is a kind of mothership.
Rising colossally from the bunched farmland and wide, straight roads of South Barrington, Illinois, Willow Creek is a sleek complex with tinted windows, a full-service food court, and a labyrinth of offices and rooms. Its congregation is 17,000 strong, and in more ways than one, attending a service there is a little like going to a rock concert.
Kristen Mapstone, 31, has been an Axis devotee for a couple years. Its just a really great atmosphere, she shouts above the drumbeat as the Sunday morning show begins. Her wide smile stretches to a laugh, and her long, curly hair sways as the band belts out the Barenaked Ladies If I Had $1,000,000.
The teaching here is cut-to-the-quick, you know, exactly to the point, Mapstone explains. And its a nonthreatening place where I can bring my nonbelieving friends.
More to the point, Axis is fun. Craig Isaak, 28, a recent migrant from a smaller church, arrived at Willow Creek and found himself at home. This place is alive, he says. Theres energy, music, drama <\m> theyll use any format to drive the point across.
The music, which makes up at least half the show, is rousing, rib-shaking, and deeply satisfying. Lyrics scroll by on two huge screens on either side of the stage. Instrumental solos thread seamlessly through the performance. Mapstone leans over halfway through the bands first set and whispers loudly, FYI, thats Shania Twains violinist.
After an equally glossy dramatic scene about a disillusioned infomercial actor, 26-year-old Jarrett Stevens, in jeans and a flannel shirt, strolls across the stage, sits down beside an easel, and asks, Remember this? With an easy, open smile, he points to a felt board with several cloth figures <\m> Jesus, a tree, a man, and a collection of followers <\m> stuck to it. Its a flannel graph. Maybe some of you remember this from Sunday school. The audience offers a collective chuckle.
Stevens uses the prop to give his own rendition of the Bible story of Zacchias, with fresh language and topical references. The cadence of his voice is perfectly measured, and at the end of the story, after an encounter with Jesus has changed Zacchiass life and saved his soul <\m> How cool is that!? <\m> the audience is visibly moved.
Then Stevens moves on to the bulleted lessons from the story, projected onto the screens and punctuated with humorous anecdotes from his own bumbling adolescence. He wraps up with an exhortation: Is there anything at all in your life still clogging the arteries of your soul and keeping God from permeating you? Confess it to God. Say, All I need is you.
There is a moment of discomfort, an interruption in the fun. But Stevens quickly rescues it. Jesus is seeking you out, he declares. For more rules? More judgments? More guilt? No. For a relationship.
Willow Creek has drawn its share of fire, too. Charles Henderson, the Christianity guide for an informational website called About.com and the publisher of an online pan-religious magazine, says that, although its a mistake to think all seeker services dilute their theology, thats a fair criticism of Willow Creek. Their Sunday worship service tends to be more of an entertainment phenomenon, where the traditional lessons are downplayed, and you have drama substituting for sermon, he says.
Too often, Henderson believes, services like Willow Creeks proffer religion as an easy answer to lifes questions. I want the minister to be grappling with reality and bringing Christianity to bear on it, he says. I dont want a sugar-coated pill. Its like a why worry, no problem view of religion, when we all know our world is full of real difficult problems, and there are no easy answers.
Mainline churches look at a place like Willow Creek with combined loathing and admiration, says Christina Traina, a religion professor at Northwestern University and the wife of a pastor in Evanston, Illinois. They say, Well, Willow Creek isnt real liturgy; Willow Creek is pandering to commercialism; Willow Creek is the mall-ization of Christianity, and we sure wish we could get as many young adults as they do. And so they go out to Willow Creek to see whats going on, and in some degree, they adopt it.
Pastor Roger Andrews has heard the same old reproach about Willow Creek many times, and hes tired of it. Its unfair. I think Willow Creek is very biblical. They teach the whole Bible, but they do it in a sensitive, loving way.
Andrews has cast his ministry in Strongsville after Willow Creeks, and almost any question brings him around to the topic of the mother church. In the back corner of Applebees, hes sharing a warm and greasy lunch with his church band <\m> a young, attractive, plainspoken couple named Jay and Julie Guerrero. Together, the three of them make up the entire church staff.
After a conference two years ago at Willow Creek, Andrews, 51, felt called by God to leave his church in Perrysburg, Ohio, and move to Strongsville, where he didnt know a soul, to start his own seeker church. When Bill Hybels started Willow Creek, he actually went out and knocked on doors and asked people if they went to church, and if they didnt, he asked why, says Andrews. I did the same thing here. I knocked on some doors and talked to people.
Within six months, after a vigorous advertising campaign and a few spots on local Christian radio stations, Andrews and 30 followers launched their seeker church in a high school gymnasium, calling it Forest Hills Community Church. The congregation has grown to 120, and almost every aspect of the service mimics Willow Creek. In fact, many of the churchs teaching resources, such as drama scripts and video clips, are purchased from the Willow Creek Association.
Andrews knows by heart the stats and bios of Willow Creeks major players, what theyve done, and where theyre going. Jay Guerrero chuckles after one of Andrewss spirited Willow Creek tidbits. People follow the Willow Creek stuff like its sports, dont they? he says. Its funny <\m> they know everything about it. Like men would know sports figures, church people know the Willow Creek folk.
More than once, Andrews interrupts himself and the Guerreros with anecdotes about Willow Creek. When Julie Guerrero describes the churchs regional influence, Andrews insists, Willow Creek has a huge presence all over the world. When Jay Guerrero talks about Forest Hills attempt to throw off the stereotypes of church life and the difficulty of maintaining a service that accommodates both longstanding and new seekers, Andrews adds, Bill Hybels gives a good illustration. Hybels compares a seeker in a Christian church to a Christian in a Hindu temple.
Thats the way unchurched people are feeling when they go to our church, Andrews says. We need to be sensitive. We need to make them feel comfortable. @subhead:Fad or Fixture? @body:Do seeker services actually work? That is, do they attract nonbelievers and convert them into mainstream Christians?
Dorn says he hasnt seen any proof that seeker services gather more new worshipers than church-hoppers who are already in the system. Murphy, too, says its hard to know whether seeker services are doing what they claim.
I dont know that anyone knows, really, Murphy says. Demographic statistics are always behind the curve. And theres the constant tendency for people to exaggerate to make themselves look better. So even the sociologists who deal with demographics are having a hell of a time figuring this out.
For pastors looking out at all the new faces, its a no-brainer. With a little help from a rock beat, a renovated sermon, and a video or two, theyre seeing congregations swell with young, vital worshipers. Ken Sowers, the mild-mannered pastor at Prince of Peace Church in Mentor, another portable church holding services in a local school, says theres no turning back. For the target audience, its probably the only approach that could work, he explains. I couldnt go back to a traditional setting.
While the numbers may be arguable, theres no denying the influence of the seeker movement. Already, it seems as if every church around the corner offers some version of contemporary worship. Murphy suggests seeker services may be a fad. Yet even Dorn admits that, if they arent here to stay, they reveal larger religious and cultural trends that are: the blurred denominational lines, the earthly and human focus of faith, the simplified theology.
Henderson sees this as a positive development. Noting that Christmas carols and organs were once radical additions to the liturgy, he views the seeker ministry as part of the endless process of religious evolution. Let 1,000 flowers bloom, he says. It just adds to the richness of the landscape. The problem of our culture is standardization, and the church is the one place where variety still thrives.
Jesus says that, in addition to our physical families, we also have a spiritual family through faith. Share with the group how youve experienced that to be true.
Our God is a God focused on relationships, not rules. How have you experienced this to be true?
After 20 minutes of this soul-searching, everyone cheerfully recongregates for the last songs, announcements, and prayers. Finally, Upton sends them off with a blessing and a hopeful instruction.
If you share a belief in Him, you are a family, he says. We are a spiritual family. Already were being changed more into His image. And that rocks.