Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Christianity in the New Millennium: The struggle to stay relevant in a "post-Christian" age

Heather Sullivan Zydek

  • Print this page
  • Email this page
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Bookmark and Share

Champaign, Illinois -- On Sunday morning in Savoy, small advertisements are posted along Route 45, just south of neighboring Champaign. "Cool music," one says. "Interesting message," "great coffee," and "casual atmosphere," follow in the sequence of signs. They lead to the nondenominational Grace Community Church, where a larger sign welcomes visitors to "Sunday Morning Grace."Yet at the site, a church is nowhere to be found. There is no steeple; there are no stained glass windows or crosses. Rather, Grace, a small, three-year-old start-up church, meets in the Regent Ballroom, a corporate conference center behind the Savoy 16 movie theater.

At 10:30, the lights dim inside the main room. Rows of chairs face a stage. A worship band plays a slow-paced rock instrumental. Sunday's service has begun.

After the song, Pastor Dave Hensleigh shows a video clip on a large screen over the stage of the late football hero Walter Payton scoring a touchdown. He relates the clip to today's message: the foundations of living a Christian life. Like Payton charging toward the end zone, Christians must strive toward the end goal -- spending eternity with Jesus in heaven.

On stage, the band plays contemporary songs as the overhead screen shows lyrics on a background picture of the Milky Way galaxy. A middle-aged man in a sports jacket, jeans and cowboy boots lifts his right arm during one song, passionately reaching out as if to catch some essence of spirit emitted from the music. Others in the mostly white, largely baby-boomer crowd rock back and forth to the beat, singing and clapping. After a short Christian drama enacted by a younger church member, Pastor Hensleigh begins his sermon.

Casually dressed guests sip coffee and jot down an occasional note as they sit back in their chairs. After the sermon, Hensleigh's wife thanks the congregation for coming. The audience erupts in applause.Church is over. The 80 in people in attendance mingle in the aisles.A few miles north in Champaign, incense wafts through the air of Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church as parishioners in their Sunday best chant hymns a cappella. The mostly Greek-American congregation repeats prayers according to the Sunday liturgy in their routinely mystical worship, deeply connected to nearly 2,000 years of dogma and doctrine.

During worship, the priest, Father George Pyle, stands behind icon-painted panels separating the altar from the congregation, carefully preparing for the week's Eucharist celebration.

In nearby Urbana, on the campus of the University of Illinois, the Wesley United Methodist Church's second service begins. The week's special service, featuring a unique musical selection, begins with a trumpet duet to a classical piece written by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi.

The music-centered service, held in Wesley's lofty cathedral on Green Street, is led by three pastors, dressed in priestly robes: Senior Co-Pastors Tom and Sharon Neufer Emswiler, and Associate Pastor Annalise Fonza. The semi-traditional liturgy features a mix of hymns sung by the congregation, readings from the Bible, and a duel-sermon preached by the Neufer Emswilers. The service ends with a contemporary musical medley entitled "Reveille 2000," composed by church member John O'Connor. A choir, two percussionists, a pianist and a five-piece brass section perform the medley.

After the service, the congregation is invited to refreshments in the Watseka lounge, where an exhibit of Christian art is on display.

And on Main Street in downtown Urbana, excitement mounts at Canaan Baptist's early morning service as Preacher B. J. Tatum reaches the climax of his animated sermon on the crucifixion of Jesus."Jesus is the king of the Jews!" he bellows into the microphone, dancing around behind a lectern on a small altar decorated only with a plain wooden cross. He wipes his sweat-covered face with a handkerchief. In the heat of the reverend's preaching passion, the 80 people in the almost entirely black congregation go wild."Preach it, teacher, preach it! Amen!" several parishioners respond vigorously with each new idea the pastor presents in his sermon. Some rise to their feet, clapping. Even the pianist and organist join in during the intense moment, pounding out excited, jazzy music to fit the mood.

Grace Community, Three Hierarchs, Wesley United Methodist and Canaan Baptist are four of nearly 200 Christian churches in Champaign County and thousands in the nation united by a common bond: celebrating and worshipping Jesus Christ. But for the most part, the similarities end there, as culturally and doctrinally these and many other churches differ dramatically.

What does it mean to be a Christian in America? Where is Christianity at in the year 2000 -- and where is it going?

Finding answers to these questions has been the focus of many recent religious debates and discussions, as Christians look back on 2,000 years of existence and look forward to life in a new millennium in an increasingly pluralistic, post-Christian culture.

The "Post-Christian" Era

America, captured and conquered primarily by Christian explorers and missionaries more than 350 years ago, can no longer claim that it is exclusively a "Christian nation," as the number of non-Christian religious and nonreligious in America continues to rise.

In 1900, 97 percent of the population was Christian, compared to people of other faiths at 2 percent, and atheists or nonreligious at 1 percent, according to the Global Evangelization Movement, publisher of the World Christian Encyclopaedia.

Now, in 2000, 85 percent of the population is Christian. Ten percent call themselves atheists or nonreligious, and the remaining 5 percent belong to other religions.

The religious climate among members of the so-called "Generation X" and the following generation, the "Net-Gens" (those raised with the Internet) is changing as well, as they grow increasingly disillusioned with mainstream Christianity and organized religion as a whole. A July 1999 Gallup Poll revealed that 70 percent of people aged 18 to 29 believe that religion is losing its influence in American life. A study by Barna Research found that roughly 7 percent of the adult population - approximately 14 million people - describe themselves as atheists or agnostic. "America has more atheists and agnostics than Mormons, Jews, or Muslims," the study reported. Of the nonbelievers, 51 percent are baby busters (GenX), compared with 31 percent of baby boomers and 17 percent of senior citizens.

"I don't believe in any specific religion," said Chris Ciulla, a 22-year-old employee of an alternative clothing store in Champaign and an aspiring musician. Ciulla's parents, he said, had "their own kind of self-made religion" and raised him without church. He does not consider himself to be religious and says he's not sure if he believes in God; he considers himself to be agnostic.

"You don't know what happens to you when you die - if anything happens," he said. "Like everyone, I believe in a higher power, but I don't know what kind of power - if it's more like God or like Star Wars - like a force," he said.

Ciulla, who wears his grandmother's crucifix around his neck "for sentimental value," says his means of spiritual expression is mainly through music.

"You feel a oneness with the music," he said. "You feel a part of it." But one thing is certain in Ciulla's mind - he will never be a Christian. "I don't like believing in someone else or something else to take care of me," he said.

Ciulla's co-worker, Heather Satterthwaite, is also agnostic. Her father, an atheist, and her mother, an agnostic, raised her without any religion, although she occasionally attended a Mennonite church with her grandparents as a child.

Now, at 23, she says she finds Christianity interesting, but doesn't take it seriously. She does, however, believe in "some greater power." But the only way she would ever become a Christian, she said, is if God spoke to her directly.

"I want to see a sign," Satterthwaite said.

Along with the rising number of professing atheists, agnostics and nonreligious in the country is the significant number of "unchurched" Christians. According to a March 2000 Gallup poll, approximately two in five adults (44%) are unchurched -- they do not belong to any church or have not attended regular services within the last six months. Unchurched people, the study reported, are more likely to be between 18 and 29 years of age (49 percent) and male (50 percent). According to a study by Barna Research, two out of three unchurched people call themselves Christian.

The large number of American Christians not attending church is one mainstay of the late 20th and possibly the early 21st century. Another is the number of Christians leaving mainline Protestant denominations. Many fear that America's most historically popular denominations are waning in their appeal. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2000, compiled by the National Council of Churches of Christ, reports, "For more than a decade, the once reliable hegemony of 'mainline' Protestant churches has been recognized as an artifact belonging to an earlier age of American religious life."

Membership, for example, declined in 1999 in the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). The United Methodist Church, in particular, has seen membership regress consistently since 1996, losing about a half percent in membership each year. In 1999, for example, it lost over 38,000 members. The Southern Baptist Convention lost 162,158 members in 1999 (the Roman Catholic Church, Assemblies of God and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints all had membership increases yearly since 1996).

Some believe that the high levels of nonreligious and unchurched, along with the decreasing memberships of mainline Protestant churches, indicate that Christianity is in a state of crisis - and that Americans now live in a post-Christian or even an anti-Christian culture. As a result, pastors across denominations with dwindling congregations are puzzling over how to win converts and bring revival back to the faith. Theologians are predicting second comings and reformations of all sorts, from radical socio-political reformations within the church to cultural transformations of churches and church bodies.

"Christianity is now culturally as well as socially and religiously disestablished," wrote Leonard Sweet in the book SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in the New Millennium Culture. "Your computer spell check proves it. Before I could write this book, I had to program the spell check of Windows 95 because it does not know the books of the Bible, or recognize Bible names."

"Our country - America - used to be a Christianized culture," said Rev. Roger Ross, pastor at New Horizon United Methodist church in Champaign. According to Ross, there is a strong level of spirituality in American culture, but simultaneously a strong undercurrent of anti-Christian sentiment, Ross said. Many people view the 2000-year-old faith as a "rigid, legalistic, moralistic code that no longer applies to real life, and is only for people that are brainwashed into that from an early age, or little old ladies," he said. The church in America, he said, is suffering through an image crisis among the unchurched."Many people have been inoculated with a false impression of the church, and that inoculation has kept them from being able to get the real thing - from being able to experience a real spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ," Ross said.

Church Splits and Second Comings

As the American Christian Church faces life in a new millennium, there is a mixture of predictions and prophecies from many theologians. Some call for a second reformation of the church in response to the changing times.

In 1517, Catholic priest Martin Luther triggered what became the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 theses on what he saw as the corruption of Catholicism to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Like Luther, Robert Funk, theologian and founder of the Jesus Seminar, advocates a "Coming Radical Reformation" of the church that he hopes will rescue it from years of corrupt beliefs and misguided practices. Funk has proposed his own "21 Theses" of an entirely different flavor, hoping to start a spiritual reformation in the new millennium.

"The God of the metaphysical age is dead," Funk states in his theses. He calls for Christians to stop praying in the traditional sense (instead turning to meditation as a form of prayer), reject the notion of special creation of the species and deny the virgin birth of Jesus, as well as his resurrection.

Funk's ideas may not be palatable to more conservative Christians, but he is not alone in calling for a revolution of ideas in Western Christianity. Episcopalian Bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong, author of the book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, posted a similar list of theses on his web site. Like Funk, Spong proposes in his "12 theses" that Christians stop believing in "the Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation," the virgin birth, and the resurrection, as these beliefs are scientifically impossible.On his web site, Spong invites others to engage in dialog with him about his ideas for the future, as did Luther nearly 500 years ago. Spong, Funk and others advocate this reformation as a way of salvaging Christianity after hundreds of years of change in the secular world. From Galileo to Darwin to Freud, Spong says that new insights from scientific thinkers have continued to challenge the basic precepts of Christianity formed in the first century A.D.

Rev. Steven Charleston, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, believes that the ideas of Spong, Funk and the likes are relatively marginal - the intellectualization of religion usually only has a limited impact, he said. In the long run, it takes a very long time to become substantial enough to affect the society at large.

Charleston sees the future "coming reformation" dividing Christians into two camps unrelated to denomination. In one camp are progressive Christians, those who critically interpret the Bible and link it to social justice issues in the everyday world around them. These Christians are more likely to ordain women and include homosexuals in worship than other Christians of the past and present.

In the other camp are "folks on the more conservative side" - they believe the Bible can't be critically interpreted, because it is the inerrant word of God. They are more concerned with evangelizing than with social issues. They stick to traditional interpretation of certain scriptures of the Bible.

As a part of this "fracturing of the Church," denominations will split and new alliances will be formed, Charleston predicted. As a whole, the Church will be seen as more inclusive, and there will be a rise in churches that are more community-centered. With an increasing reliance on technology, people will feel more isolated - but the church will still provide contact with other human beings.

Christianity, Charleston believes, will especially appeal to those now in their late teens and twenties. These youths are returning to social activism and altruism - they want to change the world.

Many youth of the "MTV Generation" have rejected Christianity based on stereotypes of Christian hypocrisy. But beneath the surface, Charleston said, there are many young people discovering that Christianity "is one of the most liberating, revolutionary religions that have ever existed."

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the likes of Spong and Funk are those not preaching and predicting intellectual reformation of the basic tenets of Christianity, but calling for all-out revolution - a "second coming" of the church, concerned more with church culture than theology and doctrine. This cultural and spiritual revolution advocates that Christians mold the Church to fit the needs of increasingly computer and multi-media-oriented, unchurched generations.

Pastor and author Bill Easum founded 21st Century Strategies consulting firm in 1993 as a way of helping churches make the transition from the modern age to the postmodern one. Leonard Sweet, as well, has joined Easum and others in renovating the Church landscape, third-millennium style. All over the country, the work and teachings of Easum, Sweet and others is spreading like wildfire, as Christian leaders look for ways to revive the ailing Church.

Postmodernism and Christianity

Amidst the ongoing consideration of various church resuscitation methods, one of the hottest catch phrases among pastors is the so-called "postmodern movement." Many feel will this movement will either save or, if left to its own devices, destroy the church as we know it.

The word postmodern has been buzzing in academic circles in recent years, and is now buzzing in Christian leadership circles as well. We live in a postmodern era, many say, and theologians point to this as being at the center of importance in determining how to rescue the church from being defeated by an increasingly "anti-Christian" society.

Postmodernism is a movement in art, literature and philosophy that began in reaction to the philosophy and practices of modernism. The modern era, which some say began in 1451 with the invention of the Gutenberg press, is a period marked by rationalism, order and uniformity. The movement spun off a number of reactions, eventually leading to the death of modernity and the birth of postmodernism.If the modern era was symbolized by the printing press, the postmodern era is symbolized by the computer. According to Leonard Sweet, the world is making a transition from book to screen, from being word based to being image based.

In church, "the screen is the stained glass window for postmoderns," Sweet said in a recent interview. The postmodern church isn't afraid of the electronic culture when it comes to delivery systems for learning about and worshipping God.

But postmodernism is not entirely about computers and technology. Ironically, one of the oldest Christian traditions is winning the battle against religious disinterest in the changing times: the Orthodox Church. "Eastern Orthodox ... have won in terms of worship style," he said. "Eastern Orthodoxy is one of the most multi-sensory worship experiences you can have."

Most mainline churches worship God through the ears, with few, if any visuals. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, uses heavy incense to appeal to the sense of smell; communion bread and wine to appeal to the sense of taste; hymns and chants to appeal to the ears. Colorful painted icons cover the altar, walls, and even ceilings of the worship area.

"Part of what we're seeing in the culture is the phenomenon of opposite things," Sweet said.With the electronic age that so many younger people thrive in, there comes a greater need for "real, live, up-close and personal," Sweet said. "So worship doesn't need to go high tech, as long as it's live." Ancient traditions like Eastern Orthodoxy will thrive in the postmodern age, he predicts.

The churches that are not thriving and will not thrive, on the other hand, are the "middles": mainline Protestant churches.

"All middles are in trouble," Sweet said. "Middle class, middle managers, mainline Protestants. The future is bringing the ends together. Mainline Protestantism is in deep trouble."

According to Sweet, things have only started to go wrong within Christianity in the last 100 years. In the 20th century, Americans sold out to modernity - and likewise, American churches sold out to a modern way of worship. When the culture began to shift 30 years ago, churches, particularly mainline protestant ones, got stuck in the modern era.

Sweet suggests that it is also possible that churches may get stuck in the postmodern era, if they aren't careful. They can avoid this by staying "in touch with the culture but in tune with the spirit, in sync with God's spirit which is what stays the same, but in touch with the culture, which is always changing."According to Bill Easum, postmodernism is a fine art that most churches have yet to master, let alone discover. Easum, 61, began consulting after the United Methodist church he pastored grew to be one of the largest churches in Texas; at that point, people began asking him how he did it. This eventually led to the creation of Easum Bandy and Associates (EBA), a church-growth consulting firm.

Easum believes the Church as a whole is not in a state of crisis, but mainline Christianity is in the midst of a critical dilemma. Three-Fourths of mainline churches over the next 25 years, he predicts, will probably go out of existence. But, for every mainline church that disappears, three to five churches will have been started - postmodern churches, with no denominational affiliation.

GenX "postmodern" churches and boomer "bridge" churches

There are two main branches of the postmodern movement, Easum says: true postmodern churches and what he calls "bridge" churches. The movement as a whole start in the 1960s with bridge churches -- churches that broke from the modern, mainline style of the past and began experimenting with contemporary styles of worship. These churches flourished over the last 30 years, but Easum says many are showing signs of plateauing and even declining, as the baby boomers they once appealed to age.

The younger generations of Christians demand a revamped style of worship to meet their needs, but few bridge churches leaders have accomplished this, as many are perplexed over how to win the hearts of Generation X and the Net Gens.

The few truly postmodern churches that exist in America today are radically different from the established churches and bridge churches - they are what people like Easum call the "ancient-future church." These churches blend ancient creeds, songs and liturgies with a very postmodern, multimedia-oriented, graphic in-your-face brand of worship - eclectic, artistic, earthy, authentic. Services are not as structured as they are in traditional churches, and there is more interactivity between leaders and participants.

Think Greek Orthodoxy meets the Vineyard at a coffeehouse rock show. These churches are mystical, with a "smells and bells" approach long forgotten in the modern era, when the most popular churches consisted of four white walls and a pulpit. They are graphic and colorful, but without "rote liturgy" or structure. The messages combine the edgy cynicism of the genXers with a meditative quality that has become stylish in the postmodern age. Most members of such church communities are in their 20s and 30s, although the postmodern mentality can be found across generations.

Theologically, these churches might lean toward the conservative side, but not on the same issues as the bridge churches, Easum said. A bridge church, for example, might have taken a strong stand against homosexuality and abortion. This type of activity is scarce among postmodern churches, where community is a more important issue than ethics or doctrine. In a bridge church, gender is still an issue. In a postmodern church, more and more women are in leadership roles. A postmodern church is more concerned with trust, authenticity, and honesty. People are invited to come as they are.

People don't join a church anymore because it's Methodist or Baptist, Easum said. They find a church that suits their individual tastes and needs. And most importantly, they find what they need to be made whole.While many cultural critics are call this era "post Christian", Easum believes we are entering into a "pre-Christian" era. "We're at a time, like the first century, when many religions are struggling for a place in the sun," he said, "and where institutionalized religion doesn't mean anything whatsoever."

Fifty years from now, most of the present denominations will be gone, having merged or split so many times that nobody will recognize them -- and new denominations will emerge.

Spirit Garage church in Minneapolis, Minnesota is one of the few churches Bill Easum considers postmodern. "The church with the really big door" was opened in the late 1990s in an attempt to reach out to the unchurched in their neighborhood -- Uptown, Minneapolis.

"Everything is kept very very casual, so I think they just find us a little more open," said Tim Olin, a 35-year-old former Catholic and leader at Spirit Garage. Church meets in a building used as a theater during the week. Services start with music from a live rock and blues band that plays a variety of songs, including some originals and some covers. Once, Olin said, the band covered a Beatles song lyrically rearranged to include a Christian message. Rev. Pam Fickenscher, an ordained Lutheran minister, occasionally uses incense and candles in worship, and sometimes dramas are performed during services.

Fickenscher gives a sermon each week and always has communion, but otherwise, the hour-long service is different every week. Around 135 people attend, with most members in their late 20s and early 30s. Spirit Garage, though pastored by a Lutheran minister and affiliated with the Lutheran church, is considered nondenominational. Olin said the church will probably not grow huge -- although they have had an increase of membership since they started with around 20 people two years ago. They aim to keep things "cozy". Most members of Spirit Garage are people who were unhappy with their former churches and haven't been back to any church since, Olin said. That is, until they find Spirit Garage.

Rev. Roger Ross of New Horizon United Methodist Church in Champaign believes his church is postmodern. The church, which the 40-year-old Methodist minister started in March of 1995, began as a way to reach a new generation of people - the "unchurched" between the ages of 20 and 40. Currently, New Horizon sees about 300 people each week.

New Horizon's overall approach is distinct from more modernist United Methodist churches -- the community chose from the beginning to focus on returning to the roots of the early Methodist church. In the 18th century, the denomination's founding father John Wesley broke from the Church of England's traditions by meeting the people where they were, instead of making people come to him.

"He used contemporary music of the culture and put gospel words to it," Ross said. "He used plain language for plain people instead of using theological terminology ... so that it would be accessible to them. That's the focus we have at New Horizon."

At New Horizon's 9 a.m. service on Sunday, church meets in a plain building that looks more like a gymnasium than nearby Wesley United Methodist's sanctuary with its towering gray steeple. Inside, parishioners sit in chairs, rather than pews, clapping along with the live music of a contemporary worship band. The concrete walls of the auditorium are covered with children's drawings, and on the wall behind the stage is a large piece of abstract Christian art. A video screen hangs over the plant-covered stage. Coffee is offered at the back of the room.

The service itself has a basketball theme, relating to the NCAA's "final four" games going on simultaneously. Each speaker holds a basketball while on stage; during the "sharing of the peace", church members give each other high fives. Rev. Ross gives a sermon on generosity, for which he shows a related clip from the movie "It Could Happen to You," starring Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda.

After his sermon, Ross leads the parishioners in the Lord's Prayer, and then invites each person to partake in this week's communion. Finally, the church service draws to a close with a prayer; people then move out of their seats and mingle in the worship space as contemporary music plays over a loudspeaker.

The average age of parishioners at New Horizon is 28, Ross said. Approximately 75 percent of members classify themselves as previously unchurched. Ross said many members went to Sunday school as children, but "didn't get it," dropped out of church for 10 or 20 years and then one day came to New Horizon looking for "something more." People are attracted to the church because of its emphasis on multimedia and visual communication of the Gospel. This, along with their emphasis on small groups and the "power of community," is what makes them postmodern, Ross said.

At Grace community church in Savoy, Rev. Dave Hensleigh, 50, strives to incorporate progressive, postmodern techniques into his church. While Bill Easum might suggest that Grace is still in some ways a bridge church, with its mostly baby boomer parishioners and contemporary style of music, Hensleigh, inspired by the preachings of Leonard Sweet and the like, continues to seek out ways to reach out to unchurched postmoderns.

In many churches over the last thirty years, stages have replaced altars; worship bands with drum sets and electric guitars have replaced organ-led choirs. Even the pastor's pulpit is designed to be a multi-media showcase, with visual displays on big screens featuring PowerPoint presentations that run during sermons.Churches like Grace recognize that America is a nation most spiritually in-tune in the sanctuary of the TV room, most in awe viewing the newest released films and most spirit-filled praising favorite teams at sporting events. Pastors like Hensleigh have taken Americans' obsession with entertainment and turned it into a way to evangelize, bringing the message of Christ to the people.

"It's not that we're contemporary - every church in town is contemporary," Hensleigh said. "That's not the unique thing at all. The unique thing is that we have changed the bottom line on our Sunday service so that we are going to do whatever is necessary to open the door to the person that doesn't have a church home and is seeking God in some way."

This is why, Hensleigh said, their Sunday church service is designed first and foremost to be welcoming and comfortable to the unchurched.

That buzz-phrase -- "seeker friendly" -- is a quality that most churches today lust after. Hensley sees a continuum of "seeker orientation"; one side is seeker hostile -- for example, a church that is totally uninviting to outsiders. Churches that fall in the middle are "seeker sensitive" (this is where most evangelical churches fall); and finally, the other side is "seeker targeted" or "seeker focused" -- churches that succeed in being inviting to those who are uncomfortable in a church setting.

Hensleigh believes Grace is seeker-focused because of the parish's non-traditional worship setting. The service is casual and entertainment-oriented, with no obligation to join.

Another hallmark of postmodern churches -- marketing savvy -- has been tackled by Grace. The church spent a significant portion of its budget on a fairly visible advertising campaign. One of their most visible advertisements was a billboard displaying the face of an attractive young woman, a coffee mug held to her lips. Next to her face was the word "finding." Grace Community Church's logo was printed at the bottom. According to Hensleigh, it is because of this billboard and other ads that "everyone in Champaign-Urbana knows about Grace."

Hensleigh's advertising team also devised a few radio advertisements -- one amusing spot features a dialog between a son and a mother about church. Spencer, the son, is on his way to Grace Community Church one Sunday morning. "You're going dressed like that?" asks an older, clearly "out-of-it" mother. "Jeans are fine at Grace, Mama," Spencer responds. She asks him if there is an organ, a choir, a homily, or a collection at his church. "Grace is cool, Mama. They have today's music, the message is interesting and practical," he responds.

At the end of the ad, Spencer's mother comments, "I don't get it. This is not the way church is supposed to be, Spencer." He replies, "Exactly, Mama."

"We've got to be out there in the marketplace," Hensleigh said about the campaign. His advertising budget is currently at about $2,000 monthly - about 15 to 20 percent of the entire church budget. The billboards go for about $500 a month, and the radio spots are about $15-$20 each for 60 seconds of airplay. They are currently advertising on five local stations, all secular. They use direct mail as well.

Advertising is effective in a small community like Champaign-Urbana, and Hensleigh believes the expense is worth it. Every week people walk through the doors after hearing or seeing a Grace ad, he said.

But despite the advertising and their seeker-targeted worship approach, the church has not grown as much as Hensleigh might like. "We're kind of flat right now, frankly," he said. "We see a lot of people walk in and walk out right now. We just haven't caught a lot of momentum." Around 100 people attend Grace each Sunday.

Overall, Hensleigh doesn't want to plan too far into the Grace's future. The church will have to reinvent itself every 12 to 18 months, and traditional churches, he said, have the wrong idea if they are not constantly changing to accommodate the cultural needs of believers and nonbelievers alike.

"It's been proven that that approach doesn't work," he said. The church that stays true to the teachings of the Bible will stay current, and will make an effort to reach out and communicate to people.

The traditional approach didn't work for 22-year-old Ani Yazedjian, a graduate student at the University of Illinois and an active member of Grace. Yazedjian was born in Egypt and raised in the Apostolic Armenian Orthodox church. She moved to the U.S. at the age of 8 and attended a few different Protestant churches. When she came to Illinois for graduate school in August of 1997, she began attending Grace.

"It was the coolest thing," she said, immediately falling in love with Grace; Yazedjian decided after her first visit that it was the church for her. She liked Hensleigh's teaching style and the casual atmosphere, and was impressed by the genuine friendliness of Grace's members.

Yazedjian also appreciates Grace's authenticity. Pastor Hensleigh will sometimes tell the congregation about his personal struggles - depression, for example -- and then discuss what Christianity teaches about such things. Yazedjian said she respects Hensleigh's honesty.

Yazedjian thinks the future of American Christianity looks "pretty scary." "If [the church] doesn't change the way they're doing things, I think it's going to suffer," she said. "People our age don't want to be part of a church where it's the same for 50 years.

"I think people our age are looking for the truth and I think they are interested in truth but they don't want a formula," she added. "I think they want to think for themselves."

The Traditional Approach

The "seeker friendly" model may be attracting unchurched Christians back to Christianity, but interestingly, many traditionally liturgical churches are also seeing growth. Parishes like Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church in Champaign worship as has been done since the Christian church was still in its infancy. And unlike those who support the "seeker friendly" approach, Orthodox Christians typically do not feel the need to follow cultural trends to attract new members -- the otherworldliness of the ancient church stands outside of culture, and they believe that this alone will attract those who seek after the Truth.

Father George Pyle, pastor of Three Hierarchs Church, is disturbed by the entertainment-minded worship he sees in the range of contemporary and postmodern churches. "That is a very interesting and sad equation," Pyle said, "that in order for the church to be relevant it should be contemporary."

While he might enjoy an occasional seeker-friendly service as wholesome Christian entertainment, he does not consider such services to be worship. "I think that they're trying to reach people that aren't attending [church], and that is good," Pyle said. "I think that they make us think about the gospel in different ways, and that is good. My question is, how far do you go? Where are the boundaries?"

As for Orthodoxy, he said, there is no effort to contemporize the church. "I think there are certain elements that are nonnegotiable," he said.

Pyle believes that there are ways to make the Gospel relevant to people of each generation without sacrificing the structure of the liturgy and ancient forms of worship. One way to do so during the liturgy each week is to preach a sermon that relates to people's lives.

Pyle, who leads an active student ministry on the U of I campus, believes that the "otherworldly," traditional approach will continue to appeal to people of each generation. "I think one thing young people want [is] something genuine and real," he said.

At the Newman Foundation Catholic center on Armory Street in Champaign, the mass and liturgy may be more traditional than churches like Grace, but the foundation's approach is postmodern in many ways. Working primarily with students on the campus of the University of Illinois, the foundation offers a variety of small groups, a trademark of contemporary and postmodern churches. They also have social justice outreaches of various kinds, along with retreats and college courses on Christian topics.

"Our church is very traditional here," said Father Stuart Swetland, director of the Newman Foundation, home to St. John's Catholic Chapel. The chapel was built in traditional style with stained glass windows, marble floors, pews and an organ - and according to Swetland, this traditional style hasn't lost its sense of appeal in the postmodern age. "What we're finding is the students like the sacramentals here," he said.

But at the same time, the music and worship styles of each mass match the tastes of different types of worshipers. Each mass has its own style of music, ranging from contemporary gospel to Latin chanting to rock and folk.

"I don't think there's any one approach that attracts people," Swetland said. "There's not one way for people to experience Jesus." The foundation has released three CDs of its music, and is currently at work on three more.

While the Newman Foundation's approach may be somewhat unique, it is not uncommon in the Catholic faith, as several Catholic churches around the country are experimenting with blends of traditional liturgy and nontraditional music, all the while emphasizing community.

"We're trying to radiate Jesus Christ in word and Sacrament to the community," he said. "We show forth the mystery of Jesus Christ. It isn't just a matter of intellect. We have to convert the whole person."

The Newman Foundation christened 41 new members in 1999. On the campus of the University of Illinois, there are about 10,000 baptized Catholics, and on any given weekend, approximately 3,000 to 4,000 people come to St. John's for one of six masses. Overall, the foundation has a very high level of church attendance, according to Swetland. Even the Chapel's daily services see around 100 students in worship.

But is the Catholic Church postmodern? "We're a church that is in a postmodern era," said Swetland. "I believe our Church is and has to be timeless because it is connected to Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever."

Because of this, Swetland said the Catholic Church itself will not change. The purpose of the Church, he said, is to take the best out of every age and then to place that at the service of the Gospel. Swetland, 40, was raised Lutheran and converted to Catholicism as a young adult. He was particularly attracted to Catholicism because of the life and work of Pope John Paul II. Though Swetland says he is a very traditional pope, he "totally understands the modern world."

Swetland believes the church to be in a state of crisis, but only when the word's full meaning is considered. In Chinese, the word crisis is made up of two characters: the character for danger and the character for opportunity. In this sense, he believes the church at present and looking into the future faces danger, but in that danger lies an opportunity to reintroduce the Gospel of Christ to the postmodern age.

"I think it's a great opportunity for us," he said. "I'm very hopeful because I always believe the truth wins out in the end."

Heather Sullivan Zydek is a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer; she is a regular columnist for TheHandmaiden, a quarterly Orthodox Christian women's journal published by Conciliar Press. She lives in Champaign, Illinois.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the e-zine "American Wasteland".

Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

Article link: