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CHURCHES FACE CHALLENGING MISSION

Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church's contemporary service is held in its activities center.
Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church's contemporary service is held in its activities center.

Once a month, members of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church gather for a Sunday evening worship amid an atmosphere more akin to a concert than a traditional church service.

Worshippers can don shorts and blue jeans for the activity center service. Contemporary instruments like an electric guitar, drums and keyboard provide music, and folks are free to sit down with their coffee in hand.

The gospel message is the same as in other services, but the Rev. William Pender pumps it up with multimedia images like movie clips and other visual aids.

"I really like it -- it's very different from our morning worship service," said Anita Case, 32, who plays the guitar and sings in the contemporary praise band. "It was through that service that I actually started meeting people in the church."

The service -- an addition to three weekly Sunday morning gatherings -- is part of the church's effort to create a welcoming atmosphere to people in their 20s and 30s, who are disproportionately absent from many churches, and to those who may be seeking Christianity but are unfamiliar with church customs. The service also serves as an alternative to traditional worship, and attracts a mixed-age crowd of 100 to 150, from teens to retirees.

Like Oakland Avenue, many churches across York County and the nation are searching for ways to reach people who don't attend church, especially younger ones. Many are trying to create services that connect better with younger people or those who are unfamiliar with church traditions. Others, particularly newer churches like Rock Hill's Freedom Temple, are adopting more holistic models of church life.

Pender -- who studied contemporary services during a sabbatical last summer -- is well aware of an issue some consider a crisis in American churches. Gallup polls show church membership is declining, with younger people less likely to pray or attend church than their elders.

Letting go of faith

A 2007 survey by The Barna Group, which does national research on Christian issues, found that one of every three U.S. adults is "unchurched" -- meaning they have not attended a religious service of any kind in six months.

But Barna also found many of these people nevertheless identify with Christianity. Two-thirds of the "unchurched" said they consider themselves Christian; 44 percent said they've made a commitment to Christ that is important in their life.

Disengagement from the church is especially common among younger people. Barna found 61 percent of 20somethings are disconnected from the church, even though they had been active in their teens. Only one-fifth remain active and another fifth were never reached by a community of faith to begin with.

Even churches in the South's Bible Belt -- which has always boasted a larger church-going population than, say, the West or the Northeast -- are seeing a change.

"Probably 30 years ago in the South, if somebody moved to town, they were looking for a church," said the Rev. John Pruitt, pastor of Rock Hill's First Presbyterian Church. "Now, churches are having to look for the people, and that's been a major paradigm shift."

These concerns have many churches reconsidering the way they present the gospel message -- with trendier music and more casual dress. Some are also trying new ways to reach outside the church and to help those within connect with each other.

Pender said many contemporary services are modeled after the experience of music concerts. And, though he maintains there's a need to translate Christian teachings into a language people can relate to, he knows there can be a danger in that.

"You gotta be careful that you don't go into it for the glitz, the entertainment, the wow value of it," Pender said. "On the other hand, you can't just say, 'We've always done it this way and we're not going to change.'"

Less effective?

Ed Stetzer, a Nashville church researcher and author of a new book, "Comeback Churches," and other books on faith issues, calls the troubles many churches face a crisis. He estimates as many as 70 percent are at a plateau or declining in membership.

Churches and their congregations "just haven't noticed that the church has gotten less effective and more distant in its culture, less engaged in reaching people for Christ," Stetzer said. "Everybody is kind of bemoaning the fact, but nobody is answering the questions, what do we do about it?"

Stetzer maintains that one of the most crucial elements of a vital church is members who deliberately reach out to others. "If you're not intentionally teaching your people to reach out, it becomes very difficult for new people to come in and fit in."

There are still many examples of traditional churches that are enjoying growth. First Baptist Church of Rock Hill moved to a larger location on Dave Lyle Boulevard in 2004. It is adding a $4.6 million, 27,500-square-foot youth complex, gym and offices. Downtown Rock Hill's St. John's United Methodist Church is finishing a $6 million, 40,000-square-foot addition for children and youth to open this fall.

Stetzer, who has studied growing churches, said important elements include strong leadership, prayer, children's and youth ministries, missions and evangelism, small groups and sometimes changes in the church organizational structure.

But Mike O'Dell, director of missions with the York Baptist Association, said many traditional churches are struggling with how to adapt their culture to be more inviting to newcomers.

He said some efforts include more small group Bible study gatherings, where people can form connections, and affinity groups for people with similar interests. Some groups gather in the more intimate setting of homes.

"Younger people, they're really wanting to connect, and they're wanting to connect on a deeper level," O'Dell said. "I think the reason for that is this younger generation is the first one where the majority were not raised in a nuclear family."

New crop of churches

But attracting new members without alienating existing ones can be a dilemma. Many experts say traditional churches are slow to change because they may face resistance by long-time members, who often control the purse strings. They say one of the easiest ways to grow a church is, in fact, to start a new one.

O'Dell said the need for change has prompted the growth of new, more contemporary churches that tend because of their methods to attract younger members.

One of those is North Rock Hill Church, started by the Rev. Chris Ruppe, 37. Ruppe was fueled by a passion to fill what he calls "a huge, gaping hole in the South with churches that were targeting younger families."

Ruppe's Baptist church, which began meeting in his home a decade ago and now gathers in an unusual-looking domed building on India Hook Road, draws 350 to 400 worshippers a week. It is building a new church on Mount Gallant Road.

The music is pop rockish, the upbeat services include video clips and other multimedia elements and Ruppe tries to make every message relevant to life today.

Ruppe said the Bible's relevance to today is an important question for many people. He argues that the gospel is relevant, and there are many ways to communicate that.

"Other churches think the solution is, we'll just start doing more modern stuff," Ruppe said. "It's not the solution. I think it's more important to be relevant, more than anything else -- to take what people hear on Sunday and apply it to their everyday lives."

Anne Watson and her husband, Rick, both 36, had attended several churches with their three children, now 12, 8 and 5. But the couple found most of them either too stodgy or too heavy handed, and their kids were bored.

For a time, they stayed away from church.

Last fall, the Rock Hill family started attending Ruppe's church and began to feel excited about their faith. They felt welcome. Their kids wanted to go to church.

"It's been sort of life-changing for us," Anne Watson said. "We've begun to talk about God in our home now, and say, 'What do you think Jesus would want you to do in that situation?' We've really learned a lot through this church, that God wants a relationship with us."

The church is built on a foundation of very small groups -- no more than a dozen people each -- who meet in homes to study the Bible and talk about their faith. Members care for each other, and lessons include clear applications to daily life, Ruppe said.

"This is Sunday school on steroids," Ruppe said, describing the small groups. "We are a heavily relationship-driven church. We feel like it's the primary responsibility of the (church) body to take care of each other. It's the family imagery."

Holistic approaches

Sports have become another avenue for some churches to reach out. One example is Westminster Presbyterian Church's popular ROAR youth sports program, created to build a bridge into the lives of young families. The program draws more than 1,000 families a year, some of whom join the church.

"Churches realize that if they're going to get outside the four walls and reach out to people, one effective way to do that is through sports," said the Rev. Dick Spatola, director of missions.

ROAR is a league that offers competition in soccer, basketball, baseball, cheerleading, girl's volleyball and flag football, while emphasizing a positive, Christian environment.

The Rev. Herb Crump, pastor of Rock Hill's Freedom Temple Ministries, maintains that thriving churches are those that meet many needs -- social, economic, education and spiritual.

"The churches that are not growing, both numerically and spiritually, are those that refuse to accept the holistic approach to ministry," Crump said.

With that aim in mind, Crump resigned from a local AME Zion church in October 2000 to start Freedom Temple. At first, 38 members met in a rented storefront.

Now the church draws more than 2,500 to its Main Street location. In addition to Christian worship on Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings, its programs include a counseling center, recreation, a Montessori preschool, bookstore, home buying seminars, social events, children's and youth programs and more.

"They're shopping for a place that will meet the needs of their entire family," Crump said. "You have to have programs in place beyond Sunday morning worship that will meet the needs of the senior citizen as well as adolescents and children."

Stephen Loney, 32, was drawn to Freedom Temple out of curiosity about the life-changing transformation he'd seen the church make in a friend. Loney had gone to another church, but "it wasn't challenging me to be more than a Sunday-goer."

He found the atmosphere at Freedom Temple totally different, and was moved to make some changes. He started taking notes during church -- something he'd never done before -- so he could reflect on them during the week.

"What struck me most was the pastor's word," said Loney. "A very simple word, but a powerful word. He brought it in a way that I can apply it -- how to make that word work in my life."

Loney met his wife, Yolanda, 34, at Freedom Temple, and both are now active in the church's adult fellowship groups. Their three boys, 16, 12 and 7, are involved, too.

The church, Loney said, has created a new direction in his life that didn't exist before. "It's been a total turnaround," he said. "Everywhere I go, I carry my ministry with me. My light shines."

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