Building congregations around art galleries and cafes
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DALLAS -- The mural painted on the side of a building in this city's Deep Ellum warehouse district is intentionally vague, simply showing a faceless man in a suit holding an umbrella over the words "Life in Deep Ellum." Inside there are the trappings of a revitalization project, including an art gallery, a yoga studio and a business incubator, sharing the building with a coffee shop and a performance space.
But it is, in fact, a church.
Life in Deep Ellum is part of a wave of experimentation around the country by evangelicals to reinvent "church" in an increasingly secular culture, and it comes as the megachurch boom of recent decades, with stadium seating for huge crowds, Jumbotrons and smoke machines, faces strong headwinds. A national decline in church attendance, the struggling economy and the challenges of marketing to millennials have all led to the need for new approaches.
"It's unsettling for a movement that's lasted 2,000 years to now find that, 'Oh, some of the things we always assumed would connect with the community aren't connecting with everyone in the community in the way they used to,'" said Warren Bird, the director of research for the Leadership Network, a firm that tracks church trends.
According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30. Even so, nearly 80 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they believe in God, and close to half say they pray at least once a month.
The "spiritual but not religious" category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call "post-Christian."
So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words "church" and "church service" in favor of terms like "spiritual communities" and "gatherings," with services that do not stick to any script.
One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm for the coming service.
"For us, it's all about being interactive," said Paul Wirth, Relevant's founder and lead pastor.
Although the number of evangelical churches in the U.S. declined for many years, the trend reversed in 2006, with more new churches opening each year since, according to the Leadership Network's most recent surveys. This wave of "church planting" has been highest among nondenominational pastors, free to experiment outside traditional hierarchies.
"I hear a lot of pastors say, 'I'm not just trying to be creative and avant-garde, I think this is maybe the last chance for me,'" said Doug Pagitt, the founder of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis.
Mr. Pagitt has written several books on church innovations, many of which were first developed in the "emergent" church movement of the last decade or among "missional" churches whose practices focus on life outside the church.
Many of their innovations are being adopted by an increasing number of pastors in the mainstream.
For new leaders coming out of seminary, "the cool thing is church planting," Mr. Bird said. "The uncool thing is to go into the established church. Why that has taken over may speak to the entrepreneurialism and innovation that today's generation represents."
That generation includes Mark Batterson, the 43-year-old pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C.
"If the kingdom of God had departments, we'd want to work in research and development," Mr. Batterson said.
With 3,000 members, National Community Church is technically a megachurch, according to religion scholars, for whom any congregation over 2,000 qualifies. But with a high turnover rate of nearly 40 percent a year, its continued growth is a noteworthy feat.
Sunday services are held in six locations, mostly movie theaters, where the smell of Saturday night's popcorn hangs in the air as prerecorded sermons play on the big screen.
The church also runs a coffee shop called Ebenezers near Union Station, where its religious affiliation is hard to detect. Until it ran out of room, it used to hold services in the basement, drawing new members from the coffee drinkers who wandered downstairs to investigate the music.
For Mr. Batterson, the strategy has biblical roots.
"We felt like Jesus didn't hang out at the synagogue, he hung out at wells," he said. "Coffeehouses are postmodern wells. Let's not wait for people to come to us, let's go to them."
The church has fielded hundreds of requests from other pastors for insights about its approach, and it has plans to franchise Ebenezers, first in Charlotte, N.C.
These kinds of locations -- urban, multipurpose and with plenty of foot traffic -- are favored sites, in part because they are less expensive to operate than a sprawling suburban campus. Coffee shops, too, help generate revenue, as do space rentals.
Today, younger pastors are less willing to try to finance multimillion-dollar churches with debt. After the recession, there was a surge in church foreclosures, reaching record highs in 2010 and 2011. Since 2008, more than 300 church properties have been sold after defaulting on their loans, according to the CoStar Group, a real estate information firm.
Building professionals who work with churches say they have seen these shifts firsthand.
"Every generation wants their own thing," said Houston Clark, whose company designs spaces and audiovisual systems for churches nationwide. "Kids in their late 20s to midteens now, they really crave intimacy and authenticity. They want high-quality experiences, but don't necessarily want them in huge voluminous buildings."
Five years ago, Mr. Clark said, 90 percent of his business was installing expensive lighting and sound systems for megachurches that could hold up to 5,000. But today, 70 percent of his business is working on existing buildings, like warehouses, to renovate the interiors as multipurpose spaces for churches to operate.
It is a trend that even established megachurches, like Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, Texas, are studying. After paying off $5 million in debt on its 135,000-square-foot facility last year, the church is again seeking to expand. But instead of building another huge campus, church officials are looking at smaller satellite spaces that can operate seven days a week, with services like child care, shared office spaces and a community theater.
"That's a significant difference for us," said Paul Miller, the pastor of ministries for Bent Tree. "We're really building a community center, more than we are a worship center."
That strategy, blending religion with everyday activities, disarms people put off by traditional notions of church, said Scott Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
"It's pretty low risk to wander into a bar or movie theater or hotel," Mr. Thumma said. "It ends up delivering the message of relevance: We're just like you, we're struggling, we might have a beer together -- and our faith is also relevant."
First Published December 30, 2012 12:00 am