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A cool tweak to tradition

Live music, later hours and chill settings are guiding a “missing generation” back to church.

Published October 28, 2006


On Sundays, the Italian Club in Ybor City becomes a haven for the young and hip.

Blackout curtains cover the windows. Video screens project movie clips. And chairs fill with members of the MTV generation sporting multihued hairdos, hip huggers and tank tops.

On stage, a rock band jams, covering songs from Coldplay and the All-American Rejects. Before long, a man clad in jeans and a T-shirt takes the stage. He cradles a Bible and a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. His sermon lasts 27 minutes — about the time of the average sitcom.

This is cool church.

Paul Wirth, lead pastor at Relevant Church in Ybor City, hopes to reach what some religious scholars term as the “missing generation,” 20- and 30-somethings who shun traditional Christian worship services because they feel they lack cultural relevance.

His year-and-a-half-old church mirrors a national trend. Sensing that young adults are more comfortable in bars and coffee houses than in traditional sanctuaries, alternative churches and ministries with nontraditional worship styles have cropped up with increasing speed in the last decade, scholars said.
In the last two years in particular, the religious media have taken note of the growing movement, called emerging churches.

And in their own way, mainline churches are jumping on board too, in some cases sponsoring the “U2charist,” a worship service that features U2’s music.

“These churches are popping up as frank expressions of the countercultural movement,” said Kenda Creasy Dean, an associate professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

It’s difficult to quantify the number of emerging churches and ministries, primarily because the groups pride themselves on their lack of structure. Emergent Village, a loose federation of emerging churches, says it doesn’t record members but has a 10,000-member e-mail list.

Conservative critics

The emerging church movement, which includes independents and small groups connected to established churches, has critics at every turn. Conservatives argue that its worship styles buck tradition, sometimes challenge long-standing theological views and lack reverence. Liberals often take issue with the new churches’ dismissal of organization, particularly because they eschew denominations.

“We’re making everybody uncomfortable, so we must be doing something right,” said Tony Jones, Emergent Village’s national coordinator.

Still, some ministers caution that what makes the movement fresh and catchy also could weaken it.

“It’s just a really hard generation to reach,” said Luke Langston, who led Elevate, the now-defunct alternative ministry at First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg. “They’re very transient. People would come and really enjoy it, and then they would move or get involved in something else.”

For now, Langston, 34, travels with the remaining members of Elevate to a similar young adult-oriented service in South Tampa. In time, he hopes to bring Elevate back across the bay.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s still good to be able to say we as a church care about that generation,” he said.

Putting cool in church

Although alternative church leaders pride themselves on innovation, common elements exist in many ministries.

Most describe themselves as mission and community-oriented.

Inside the churches, worship leaders try to recreate the coffee house experience with low lighting, fresh java and opportunities for mingling. Pulpits are declasse. Alternative church pastors — who, incidentally, often shun that honorific along with reverend — prefer to give their sermons sitting on stools.

Edgy marketing abounds. Many ministries tout video-enhanced Web sites with streaming video and have their own pages.

Revolution, a ministry for 20-somethings in Brandon, meets on Monday nights. Instead of the traditional audience meet-and-greet during the service, the congregation pauses for coffee.

“We take five minutes,” said Bobby Triplett, who calls himself the church’s “lead guy.” “It’s something different, a way to connect with people.”

High Definition, the alternative service at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, offers theater-style seating and a cafe setup for worshippers who prefer a more relaxed atmosphere.

Worship leaders don’t pass a collection plate. Instead, the church’s members drop their tithes and offerings in unobtrusive collection boxes at their leisure. That way visitors don’t feel uncomfortable, church leaders said.

“We’re trying to break down the barriers” said High Definition pastor Tim Jennings, 47.

Despite its target audience, High Definition attracts people of all ages. James Stephany, 40, says the freedom of worship keeps him coming back.

“In a regular church service, you sing two or three hymns,” said Stephany, a father of four from Pinellas Park. “With High Definition, the music kind of flows … There’s just a more open-minded feel to worship God how you want.”

Wirth, who worked as a youth pastor for 15 years, got the idea for Relevant Church in May 2004 while sitting in Channelside’s Howl at the Moon bar. He wanted to recreate that atmosphere in a church where people would chat freely and greet each other by name.

“We’re a church for people who hate church, who have been completely disenchanted with church or maybe have never even thought about darkening the doors of the church,” said Wirth, 38.

Games with worship

Relevant now has 225 attendees at two Sunday services. Wirth always keeps his target audience in mind. Services start in the late morning, a deliberate attempt to appeal to sleepyheads. Relevant also skips the traditional altar call.

Instead, comment cards are offered on which people can make spiritual declarations or seek more information.

As the church attracts more young families, Wirth and his staff adapt adroitly. The tweens and teens go to Gameworks, where they have equal Bible study and play time. The ministry resonates with the children.

“I’ve been to some really good churches,” said 12-year-old Samantha Cox, fresh from playing an electronic dancing game at Gameworks. “This one is really cool.”

The church has begun to pull attendees from across the bay. Jacki Kraig, an office manager from Clearwater, visited Relevant for the first time Sunday.

“I loved it,” said Kraig, 30. “It was so different than the traditional church service. It was refreshing.”
Patrick Weston and his family joined because of the ministry’s relevant messages.

“They make it all fit today without a lot of the religiosity,” said Patrick Weston, 35. “I like the fact that it’s not religious.”

His wife, a lifelong Methodist, agrees. “This is not grandma’s church, and the music rocks,” Terri Weston said.

Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 21:17:36]

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