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Whole new Sunday vibe

Along with casual attire and lively sermons, rocking music is revving up hushed houses of God to keep boomers and Gen-Xers interested.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published October 3, 2003

[Times photos: Skip O'Rourke]
"People see the electric guitar and it's like 'Whoa! Church isn't so boring,' " Jose Rivera said. The liberated Lutheran rehearses Tuesday with Tania Enriquez, left, and Erin Payton, with the band Ichthus, which plays at the contemporary service at Apostles Lutheran Church.

photo
Jason Pfeil practices the electric guitar Tuesday for the band Ichthus at Apostles Lutheran Church in Brandon. The band plays during the 9:45 a.m. contemporary service.

BRANDON - Daniel Stahl grew up in an era when teens worshipped bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Who.

Pastor Stahl has since dedicated his worship to God, but the leader of Bay Life Church still remembers his rock 'n' roll adolescence.

So when he needed to drive home his message about the biblical principles of money management - and what can happen when those principles are ignored - he turned to the 1973 Pink Floyd hit Money.

Stahl, 49, played the tune (sans words) during services for his 2,000-plus congregation, a mix of teens, 20-somethings, baby boomers and seniors.

"Some people didn't like that too much," Stahl, 49, recalled. "They thought I went too far. But most of the other songs I use are well received."

Like Boston's More Than a Feeling, which he used to open a three-part series of sermons on commitment. Or the Eagles' Desperado, an apt accompaniment to Stahl's discussion on fighting the lure of old temptations.

Throughout the Brandon area, churches are using secular songs, Christian rap, rock and pop music, casual dress codes and DVD giveaways to attract and retain members. In a bid to keep up with the times and attract younger members, church leaders are forming hip young bands to lead Sunday's songs of praise. Pastors are abandoning their robes for polo shirts and khakis, and they're coming out from behind the pulpit to deliver sermons peppered with jokes and pop culture references.

It's a strategy increasingly employed by churches across the United States, where congregations face extinction as longtime members grow old and pass away.

"Just ask people how many of them carry around a CD or cassette in their car of Best Organ Classics," Stahl said. "All of us grew up on rock 'n' roll music.

"This is no different than what Martin Luther did in the early 1500s, when he took contemporary tunes of his day, we're talking barroom tunes, and put scripture to the music."

* * *

Jose Rivera is more than a decade past adolescence, but the 29-year-old Brandon resident still remembers walking into Sunday Mass with his mother, who would turn to him and put her finger to her lips.

"Shhh. No talking."

On Sunday, as Rivera played and sang with the contemporary worship band at Apostles Lutheran in Brandon, his joyful noise was welcome.

Dressed in jeans and a Super Bowl T-shirt, Rivera led the musicians through rousing, drum-filled choruses that had the 100-plus churchgoers tapping their feet and bopping their heads.

The songs are all about God and thanks and redemption and serving, but the beats aren't all that different from the tunes on FM radio. Close your eyes and some songs sound like MTV Unplugged.

Rivera and the band set traditional worship songs to modern beats, and they use contemporary Christian tunes from artists like Michael W. Smith and even the rap group D.C. Talk.

"People see the electric guitar and it's like, "Whoa! Church isn't so boring,' " Rivera said. "We're just trying to get everyone involved. If not, you lose them."

Apostles Lutheran started its Sunday contemporary service a year ago, after eight months of planning. Pastor Handlee Vigee confesses that he's old-fashioned. In fact, he enjoys ultratraditional Gregorian chants.

"But we are definitely in the midst of a cultural revolution, and the traditional style of music and worship isn't something that appeals to a lot of the younger generation," Vigee said. "We wanted this to be not just a concert for entertainment but something that used music to deliver the word and sacrament."

That means music and sermons that deliver the same message but with a faster beat. For the contemporary service, sandwiched between two traditional ones, Vigee abandons his white robe for a polo shirt and khakis.

The approach is working. And not just with younger congregation members.

The 9:45 a.m. contemporary service is the most popular, with more than 100 attending each week. Some longtime church members, including more than a few grandparents, prefer the more modern service.

One older woman blows bubbles after communion and shakes a maraca-like instrument when she hears a song she likes.

"I think people are learning more about how people are supposed to worship," Rivera said. "It doesn't have to be SHHH! If you're going to pray and celebrate God so quietly, you might as well stay home and do it by yourself."

* * *

At Crosstown Community Church in Brandon, the theme is "Come as You Are, No Strings Attached."

All the services are contemporary, and they feature live, upbeat music and theatrical productions.

The designer of Rainforest Cafe recently redesigned the children's area, and a new service on Friday nights will feature progressive, "postmodern" music aimed at a college crowd, said Cindy Wiley, director of creative image for Crosstown.

"It's not really an age thing here," Wiley said. "It's more of a mindset."

A mindset that welcomed one pastor's recent appearance onstage with his Harley. His message: the importance of sharing faith with others. The pastor uses his bike to meet other Harley devotees and eventually lead them to God.

Crosstown has grown from 15 founding members in 1988 to about 1,600 today.

That Causeway Boulevard church begat Bay Life nine years ago. When Stahl and a dozen or so other people were forming Bay Life, they went to the parking lot at Wal-Mart in Seffner and surveyed the shoppers: Why don't you attend church?

"The No. 1 answer was, "Church is boring,' " Stahl recalled. "They also said it wasn't relevant to their lives."

Since that day, Bay Life has set out to make itself relevant.

Leaders targeted baby boomers and Gen-Xers with singles groups, theatrical productions and Wednesday night services for college students. The Sunday services are high-gloss events that feature large television screens, live music and Stahl's easygoing delivery.

And sometimes, Top 40 tunes.

"All of us grew up on rock 'n' roll music, and that's the kind of music people listen to," Stahl said. "That or new country. By using that, it makes our service more happening, like an event."

On Sunday, the audience was a mix of ages, races and backgrounds. The churchgoers were clad in dresses and fancy slacks, faded jeans and long ponytails, cargo shorts and Abercrombie & Fitch-style T-shirts.

Tiffany Sartain, 30, recently moved to Brandon from Georgia, where she grew up. On Sunday, she came to Bay Life for the second time. It was a world away from her hometown Baptist church.

"You can come dressed in whatever you want. The preacher is laid back; he makes me feel so comfortable," Sartain said. "You can relate to the music, whether you're a teenager or an adult. They don't have churches like this where I come from. This is awesome!"

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 11:54:15]

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