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Thursday, January 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

'Emerging churches' drawing young flock

Seattle Times staff reporter

'Does the Future Have a Church?'


A conference on that topic will be held tomorrow and Saturday at Bethany Presbyterian Church, 1818 Queen Anne Ave. N. $75 per person; $60 for students. For more information: www.msainfo.org or 206-524-2112.

• IN A CITY and among a generation not known for church attendance, people in their 20s and 30s say neither traditional nor contemporary churches speak to them, so they're forming new types of worship centers.

The pizza at Piecora's New York Pizza & Pasta on Capitol Hill may or may not have been heavenly that Sunday morning, but the talk certainly was.

Over pepperoni and parmesan, the topic was God.

"If you had a book that expressed the intentions, the desires, the hopes of someone that you truly loved, would you read it or would you devour it?" Pastor Casey Cerretani, 31, asked his hungry flock. "You would devour it as if you were famished," he said. "And the Bible is exactly that book about that God we proclaim to love."

It was the weekly gathering of Seattle Urban Foursquare, a church formed last May that these days attracts about 50 people, mostly between the ages of 20 and 35, to its services at Piecora's.

That a church would meet in a pizza parlor, that it should grow so quickly in a city and among a generation that rank among the lowest in church attendance, is remarkable. What's noteworthy is that the number of such churches, and their membership, are growing.

They call themselves "emerging churches," dedicated to finding alternative ways of presenting the message of Christ — ways that they say are more in line with current culture. Many are being formed by, and attracting those, in their 20s and 30s.

Saying that neither traditional nor contemporary churches speak to them, they are forming their own type of church. Often these churches are relatively small, dedicated to fostering personal relationships among members and not setting the pastor above the members. They value experiential, intuitive experiences of God. They often are involved in social-justice issues and tend to be theologically conservative, emphasizing the earliest days of Christianity and the root meaning of stories in the Bible.

They meet anywhere — from churches to members' houses to restaurants and cafes. They often use creative means of conveying their message. Some combine traditional practices such as Gregorian chants with modern R&B music. Others may use works of art to talk about spirituality.

In the Seattle area, such churches include Seattle Urban Foursquare; Emmaus Road in Belltown, which has doubled in membership every year and a half since forming six years ago; Grace Church Seattle, which attracts about 230 people to its weekly services on Capitol Hill; Quest in Interbay, which just opened a 4,500-square-foot coffeehouse/community center; Ballard's Mars Hill Church, which is moving to a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in March; and the 110-member All Saints Church on Queen Anne.

Beginning tomorrow, a nonprofit group based in Seattle is hosting a conference aimed at bringing together leaders of this new church movement with leaders in mainline churches to learn from each other.

"I genuinely believe that God is raising up a new generation of 20- and 30-year-olds that are reinventing and bringing renewal to the church," said Tom Sine, of conference sponsor Mustard Seed Associates, which tries to come up with creative ways churches can respond to a changing culture. "It's a breath of fresh air for the church."

Jolie Lewis, 34, a member of All Saints Church on Queen Anne, had explored various churches and religions, from Protestant to Catholic to Buddhist, never staying at one more than a few months. She's been going to All Saints since the church started a year and a half ago.

"My other church experiences have been: You go maybe out of a sense of obligation. But this, I look really forward to in my week," Lewis said. "A person's relationship to God is a very personal thing. It's unique to be able to share an intimate relationship with a large group of people. This was one of the first groups of people I've met — church or not — where it's not awkward to do that."

In 1998, the Leadership Network, a church-resource group based in Dallas, estimated that 150 to 200 churches targeting young adults had been created since 1994. No one keeps exact statistics, but recently, the U.S. Center for World Mission has been cited as saying 5,000 churches focusing on alternative, postmodern worship have been planted in the United States.

Some experts say it's the next phase of development for Western churches. Traditional services flourished for nearly two centuries in America before contemporary-style mega-churches were founded mostly by baby boomers in the 1970s and '80s. Those church founders were, in part, rebelling against the layers of elaborate ritual found in traditional services.

Beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, members of so-called Generation X — very roughly defined as those born between 1961 and 1981 — began founding the emerging churches, believing both the traditional churches and the boomer-generation mega-churches had become too authoritarian and too entrenched in preserving the institutions.

Some thought traditional churches lacked flexibility and openness to new styles of worship; others thought contemporary churches lacked a mystical element or were too focused on membership size and glossy production values.

Seattle — with its largely unchurched but spiritual population — is conducive to such churches, said Edmund Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary.

There is no dominant church tradition on the West Coast, which makes people here more open to exploring ways of worship and forces church leaders to try new means of reaching out to the wider culture, Gibbs said.

Seattle's large number of young people involved in creative, multimedia and Internet endeavors also plays a role. Emerging churches' forms of worship are often multisensory and tend to emphasize the arts.

Mars Hill Church, commonly regarded as the most theologically conservative of the emerging churches locally, has become so successful that its 1,600 or so members are moving their main worship center this spring to a 40,000-square-foot warehouse — the former site of an Ernst Hardware store and Doc Freeman's marine-supply store.

On Sundays, members pack each of four services at the main Mars Hill center in Ballard. (The church also holds services in the University District and is starting a church in the Tukwila/Skyway area.)

The messages Pastor Mark Driscoll presents — on the gospel and how it applies to people's lives — aren't new. But they are delivered with the pacing of a stand-up comic, and interspersed with tales from his own life.

"It's way more Chris Rock than Puritan," Driscoll says of his preaching style. "That's just the way I am. When it comes down to culture, a lot of it comes down to humor and rhythm and pace."

Reaching people in their own way is important, these church leaders say.

Some people "can't get to the theology" by singing 16th-century German hymns, said the Rev. Karen Ward, pastor of the newly formed Church of the Apostles, which is affiliated with both the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches. Others don't find enough of a sense of awe and mystery in contemporary-style church services.

Ward hopes she combines the best of both worlds in her services, held Saturdays at 5 p.m. at St. John Lutheran Church in Phinney Ridge. She uses ancient liturgies and Bible readings, along with a live band. She'll mix rock music, opera music sometimes. She calls it a postmodern, or "ancient/future" approach.

"Everything the church has is in the treasure chest that we can use," Ward says.

Ultimately, Ward says, emerging churches are about asking: " 'What was it that caused the church to grow in the early days?' I think it was the authenticity of the way of life. It wasn't an institution at all then. It was people following in the path of Jesus' way of life.

"It's about getting back to the core of Christianity, but in a way that's accessible to today's postmodern world."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

Information in this article, originally published January 16, was corrected January 17. Church of the Apostles holds services at 5 p.m. Saturdays at St. John Lutheran Church in the Phinney Ridge area of Seattle. A previous version of this story on emerging churches incorrectly said its services are held Sunday evenings.

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