BOSTON — Twenty years ago in Peoria, Ill., believers flocked to Grace Presbyterian. Conservative and evangelical, Grace opposed ordaining women as ministers and ardently defended creationism. Typical sermons like "Have you made your reservations for heaven?" brought up traditional themes of the afterlife.
Today Grace is waning. The growing church in Peoria is Northwoods Community, an evangelical "megachurch" with video screens, rock music, and an upbeat tempo. Sermons like the recent "All stressed up with nowhere to go," in which the minister used a cell phone as a prop, deal with daily problems.
The shift here, as in pews across the country, signals a new attitude by evangelicals toward popular culture. More than ever, experts say, evangelical churches are using formerly disavowed ways of the world to preach the Gospel - touching off an internal clash over the identity and direction of the church.
While evangelicals are not alone in their embrace of pop culture, scholars say their dramatic shift in attitude makes them a case study.
"Utilization of popular culture is a lightning rod, and new worship styles are the most divisive issue for evangelicals today," says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals in Wheaton, Ill. "A small but vocal group fears ... letting churches resemble TV shows. Still, the overwhelming direction is in favor of the use of popular culture. It's exciting and successful."
In the 1980s, a few large churches experimented with pop culture - that mix of popular music, film, fashion, and literature, and the marketing panache that promotes it. But using pop has become the evangelical norm today. Rather than condemning Elvis Presley, as evangelical leaders used to do, they now, in a sense, study the King.
Undeniably, churches that mirror popular culture in their services have met with huge success. Even critics admire the technical virtuosity at megachurches like Willow Creek outside Chicago, a 16,000-strong congregation that has spawned a whole genre of evangelical churches, of which Northwoods is one.
Yet the new approach also appalls some evangelicals, who say America's largest religious group is headed down the wrong path.
Certainly, for most of the century pop has been taboo for evangelicals, whose ranks form subsets of almost every mainline denomination in the US. Hollywood, electric music, and modern psychology, it was felt, were corrupting influences that could lead adherents astray. Moreover, if allowed to permeate worship, they could distort the spiritual message and ruin the church, many leaders warned.
But "a growing number of pastors no longer see the culture as 'the enemy,' " says Carol Childress of The Leadership Network in Dallas, a megachurch consultant. "These pastors are learning from culture how to apply the Gospel. Disney, Fortune, Kellogg's ... spend billions on market research to understand what people want from the culture. For the church not to be able to recognize these trends is a blind spot."
The changes aren't incubated at seminaries or Bible colleges. They are grassroots-born, coming from pastors and consultants who find marketing, entertainment, and a more upbeat approach to Scriptures to be a potent combination. "The message doesn't change, but the methods are changing to what is current," says Northwoods minister Steve Shaffer.
Lessons from Disney
Ministers today visit the Disney Institute of Management and read "Marketing the Church" by consultant George Barna. The new buzz in evangelical circles is about tailoring services for different generations. Sermons tend to say more about building self-esteem than about overcoming sin. Church bookstores sell evangelical fiction ranging from dimestore romances for the born-again to Tom Clancy-like apocalyptic thrillers with a Christian twist.
But serious questions are gradually arising. Surprisingly, the main opponents are not the old guard but a new breed of young theologians and scholars, who warn that the price of success may be loss of the core Christian identity and scriptural authority.
"In our search for relevance we are dancing on the abyss of irrelevance," says the Rev. John Seel of the Post-Modernity Project in Charlottesville, Va. "The problem with engaging popular culture is that it can be done without transcendence and without faith. One can fill the churches, deliver a message related to the Gospel, and yet leave no room for God - for the still, small voice."
The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a group of theologians in Philadelphia, says the new ways are eroding learning in the church. An ACE survey shows that 71 percent of the Christian bookseller community (people who write, publish, and sell Christian books) could not name half of the Ten Commandments.
Advocates, however, point to crowded churches and say the critics are jealous, elitist, or out-of-touch. "Some people want the greatest hits of the 1730s to be read at church," says Bob Buford, author of "Half Time," a popular evangelical book on rediscovering faith. "They think that will help people get excited about worshiping. But it isn't working. What's working is speaking in the vernacular of the culture."
"The entities today that are shaping our culture are the storytellers. The post-modern world is a world of stories," says Ms. Childress. "Who better tells stories than Disney or [Steven] Spielberg? They have figured out what people are searching for. By tapping into that, like any good business person, I learn what the customer values. I don't want to become Disney or Spielberg. But I want to know what they know."
A 'market mentality'
As a result, more mainline churches around the country sport signs like one recently spotted in a leafy Philadelphia suburb: "Sunday Worship 9 a.m. - Rock Band."
"The market mentality is more endemic to the whole religious spectrum than most of us realize," says Robert Lynn, church historian and former Lilly Foundation officer. "The language of stewardship and obligation has given way ... to the corporate ideals of fund-raising and development."
But the fact is that pop culture has been the vernacular for a silent majority of young evangelicals since the 1960s, scholars say. "The Young Life clubs [of the '60s], which went for wild skits and rock 'n' roll, became in a sense the future," says Kimon Sargeant, author of a forthcoming book on Willow Creek. "That's what they did in their 20s. Now that they are in their 40s, their churches are like that."
Whether churches will sustain their new engagement with popular culture is the key question for many. "What I want to know is, Do megachurches have grandchildren?" says Dr. Seel.