Upstart Churches Chart New Directions in Protestantism

The first of this two-part series examines the explosive growth of America's independent churches, a broad and influential group that defies convention in their services

In an important shift in American religious life, diverse new Christian churches are appearing on the American landscape. They've arrived in the past five to 10 years, and there's probably one - or more - in your town.

It might be a "megachurch" that attracts thousands to a high-tech Sunday meeting at an upscale "campus." It could be a former Bible study group of "modern charismatics" that has expanded into an empty warehouse. Or it could be a mainstream church - Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran - that dropped its former identity and started a "contemporary evangelical" style of worship.

What the upstarts share is a lack of denominational identity - and an approach to worship that is informal, stressing flexibility and expressiveness. These "independent" churches exist in dozens of loose and growing networks, and are making deep inroads into the struggling Protestant mainstream, drawing from its 80 million population, and changing its worship services and even its theology and beliefs.

In the coming century, these upstarts - more than half are small churches, between 50 and 300 attendees - may become new denominations, some experts say. Others note the commercial strategies of some new groups - not all - are deepening a trend in religion to treat churches as business franchises and seekers of faith as consumers.

"How does a faith remain prophetic once it takes the market route?" asks Paul Kennedy of Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. "That's the real dilemma."

What can't be ignored is the upstarts' rise and influence. "The untold story of American Protestantism is the growth and proliferation of independent churches," says Don Miller, a University of Southern California scholar of new Christian strains of worship. "These are middle-class churches that represent the mainstream of American society."

* On Sunday, in a San Mateo, Calif., day-care center, a rock band jams on a song titled, "He Is Awesome." This is a Vineyard "planting" started two years ago with five families. It now has 47 members, most of whom outwardly fit a "yuppie" category of job and education level - but who put down their gourmet coffee and stand and sway when the band begins. After 30 minutes of singing, with tears and some rapture, Charles Brown, the minister, comes out of the group and starts his sermon while holding his baby son. "We want to peel away the secular and profane, and feel the resident Holy Spirit in us all," he says.

* A struggling church in a Silicon Valley bedroom community dropped its Baptist identity. It added a rock band, focused on a "positive, hopeful" message, and grew from 20 to 140 members. But the switch took a theological toll: Before the pastor can mention sin or the problem of corruptibility, he must check with his governing board. Sin is a taboo topic - a "negative" that could turn off visitors.

* On Saturday night at Santa Cruz Bible, a local megachurch, they have skits, a 10-member band, child care, French vanilla decaf, two video screens, baptisms, friendly hosts, and a five-step plan to feel God's grace. During one skit, a make-believe "Barbara Walters" interviews "Jesus" about his mission - as 500 people look on in a cavernous "multipurpose worship center."

The feel of all three churches is "contemporary." All three are anchored by popular music that differs mainly in decibel and intensity. Attendees often tote notepads and Bibles. They buy and swap tapes of sermons from around the US. Some attend retreats, Bible groups, or joint workshops arranged with local mainstream churches - and participate in secular church activities ranging from sightseeing trips to classes on personal finance.

"I feel something different here ... a real love," is a typical response when members are asked why they come to the church.

Three approaches

Yet despite similarities, independents have, roughly speaking, developed three different approaches:

Some focus on the worship service itself. Vineyard churches, for example, emphasize powerful music, much of which they have composed, and a high degree of movement and participation in the service, along with prayers for the Holy Spirit to transform the seeker while in church.

Others focus on introducing Christianity to a secular culture. The Willow Creek Association, a group of independents spawned by the success of the Rev. Bill Hybels's 12,000 member church outside Chicago, puts emphasis on making accessible the Gospels to the "unchurched"- baby boomers, for the most part, who had largely ignored matters of faith.

Still others stress deeper teaching of Scriptures. The Calvary Chapel movement, for example, aims to make the Bible more relevant to the everyday life of Christians.

Few independents visited by the Monitor were loyal to any one set of hymn books, doctrines, service patterns, or ordination of ministers or pastors. "Experimentation" was the buzzword.

Santa Cruz Bible, for example, uses skits from Willow Creek, music from the Vineyard, and hosts denominational speakers, often Methodists or Presbyterians, who are felt to be "strong in the spirit."

"This was a denominational church that was dying," says its pastor, Chip Ingram, of the former Disciples of Christ church that grew from 75 members in the 1980s to 2,400 attendees today. "We pulled out the pews, got in touch with the culture, and put in an expressive service. I would describe us as 'eclectic.' "

In the ferment of US religious history, such upstarts are not new. Methodists and Disciples of Christ, for example, were the upstarts during the first half of the 19th century. The "excitements" of Methodist camp meetings were popular - as Calvinism's hold on Americans faith ebbed. In the 20th century, the Assemblies of God grew from 50,000 in the 1920s to 1.7 million today.

Scholars call today's new rise a "postdenominational church." Participants term it a "new apostolic reformation." Church consultants describe new "purpose-driven" or "seeker-sensitive" churches.

Whatever the term, some experts say the upstarts are reshaping church affiliations and even denominations. "They are in the early stages, growing rapidly," says Roger Finke, a church historian at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "They are making people look at things in a new way. Their influence on the mainstream, just like that of the Promise Keepers movement, is enormous."

"The independent, non-denominational churches are in a position to become successors to the mainline denominations," says Kimon Sargeant at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., an expert on the Willow Creek Association. "But we are talking about a new mainline made up of baby boomers."

Demographics and careful study of the habits and tastes of baby boomers, particularly in churches like Willow Creek, play an enormous role in shaping the style and attractiveness of megachurches. Critics worry such packaging can distract from the Gospel message.

Actual upstart numbers are unclear. Their spontaneous sprawl among the 300,000 US congregations is hard to track. They form as offshoots, or out of the embers of traditional churches. Since 1992, the Willow Creek Association, for example, has grown from 160 churches to some 1,400. The Vineyard and Calvary Chapel movements now number 1,000 US congregations with an annual growth rate of 10 percent.

But not all has gone well. "Everyone's focusing on the front door of these churches," says Michael Regele, a church demographer in Orange County, Calif., "But if you look closely, a lot of people are going out the back door."

Fair weather churches?

Perhaps a more important question asked of upstarts is "what kind of church?" are they forming. Some pastors say these are "fair weather" churches that are still untested. They argue it is one thing to market to the tastes of a singular demographic bulge, even one that feels genuine spiritual hunger. But it is quite another to wash the feet of a diverse membership over a period of years.

"Genuine leadership in the church is not a matter of finding out what everyone wants ... and articulating it," says theologian David Wells, author of "God in the Wasteland." Rather, "it is a matter of teaching and explaining what has not been so well grasped, where the demands of God's truth and the habits of the culture pull in opposite directions."

But some upstarts are "countercultural." They don't simply "mirror" the popular drift of mainstream culture in their spiritual message or worship. Some Vineyard churches, for example, use the language of business or sports to convey a message. Yet as charismatics, they are clear to visitors that "they aren't for everybody," as one pastor put it.

Other independents are expressly designed for baby boomers who do not want a long-term commitment to a church, to deal with the human baggage often seen as part of membership, or to battle what may seem like arcane spiritual questions. The governance of such churches often mirrors that of a corporation. Many of the upstarts are not democratically run, and members don't vote.

"It's corporate in the sense that the church executives are shaping the way the religion is going," says Dr. Kennedy of Gordon-Conwell. "They pretty much just do what they are going to do, and you are either with them or you are not."

"What is not yet clear is whether these churches are operating as venders of services," says George Hunsberger of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich. "That model has a long history in the US. But it is fundamentally different than a body of people sent on a mission, what I take as a Biblical model."

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