WDAY.com

WDAZ: Your Home Team

Published November 19, 2011, 01:10 AM

Megachurches Move Over, Here's Something Hipper

INVER GROVE HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) — The pastor preaches in designer jeans and skateboarding shoes. He tweets links to his blog and chats with churchgoers on Facebook.

By: Jessica Fleming, St. Paul Pioneer Press

INVER GROVE HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) — The pastor preaches in designer jeans and skateboarding shoes.

He tweets links to his blog and chats with churchgoers on Facebook.

As members walk into the movie theater or auditorium for services, the pastor and his wife are in the front row, singing along and pumping their fists to loud pop music, played by a live band featuring electric guitars.

Suburban megachurches, move over. There's a hipper game in town.

"We know a lot of people have left their mainline churches because it's boring," said Tory Farina, 31, lead pastor at High Point Church in Inver Grove Heights. "They felt they were forced to go. We want them to love it....Our Sunday services feel like a concert."

High Point, which currently meets in an Inver Grove Heights movie theater, is a small portion of an exploding religious movement in the Twin Cities and nationally.

More than 4,200 people recently attended services at four campuses of Apple Valley-based River Valley Church. It is the 17th-fastest-growing church in the nation, according to rankings compiled by Outreach Magazine.

Roseville-based Substance Church, started with help from River Valley, has gone from 30 college students in 2006 to almost 2,500 people attending worship services. And 70 percent of those people are younger than 30.

The churches are designed to reach the next generation, but their success is what's getting the attention of some more traditional church leadership.

"Religious leaders are very worried about how they're going to attract that generation," said Penny Edgell, sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. "Any group that gets that generation will have done something that will have transformed the American religious scene."

One in four members of the "millennial" generation, which includes people born after 1980, are unaffiliated with any particular faith, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center study.

That compares with 20 percent of Generation X members at the same age. The percentages were much lower for previous generations.

However, millennials still pray, possibly even at a higher rate than the previous generation. Forty-five percent of those under 30 surveyed by Pew said they prayed daily, compared with 40 percent of the same age range in the 1990s.

"Research shows this generation is interested in spiritual things," Edgell said. "They just don't seem to like organized religion."

That's why 11 years ago, six pastors in the southeast United States decided to help other, like-minded clergy start Christian churches that could draw a new generation. Since then, the group has helped "plant" more than 200 churches in the U.S., including High Point and Substance.

The churches generally follow a formula for service, which includes a contemporary rock band and a sermon that feels more like chatting with a buddy. The churches meet anywhere, usually leasing auditoriums or theaters from local performing-arts groups or colleges. They have slick websites, complete with highly produced videos, often set to rock music.

"One of our basic missions is attracting the un-churched," said Michael W. Smith, executive director of the Association of Related Churches. "We are creating a service where the un-churched can feel comfortable and hear a message they can relate to. Weekend messages are often centered on a topic rather than a verse of the Bible."

There's a buzzword among ARC members: "Relevant."

Their service is relevant, pastors say, referring to rock music. The message is relevant, with sermons that are peppered with funny videos, often made by an in-house creative arts team. Pastors preach about marriages, raising young children and the power of positive thinking, and young, energetic clergy use examples from their own lives.

Even the dress code is relevant. Worshippers show up in shorts, flip-flops, even ball caps.

But, ARC officials are quick to point out, their pastors are ordained with the Assemblies of God, a more traditional Pentecostal denomination.

The message still focuses on Christ.

"The doctrine is the same, but the method has changed," Substance church Pastor Peter Haas said. Substance has grown so quickly, its Saturday night service is basically Haas, 36, recording a video message to play at four of seven Sunday services.

"I physically could not preach at all the campuses," Haas said. "But the funny thing is, people love it. It's church outside of the box."

About a half-dozen ARC churches are now among the fastest-growing and largest congregations in the country, members say.

On a recent Sunday in the Inver Grove Heights AMC movie theater, Terry and Jessica Pearson welcome worshippers at High Point Church with handshakes and smiles.

The couple, aged 30 and 29 respectively, are stationed in front of three tall, tastefully designed screens that read "Find Your Place," 'Develop Your Faith," and "Live Your Potential."

Farina, the pastor, mills around the doughnut-munching, Caribou coffee-sipping crowd, outfitted with a slim, white microphone that fits behind his ear. Dressed in an untucked cowboy shirt with pearly buttons, carefully faded jeans and slick leather shoes, Farina is relaxed, making small-talk and mingling like he's at a house party.

His wife, Elizabeth Farina, a petite brunette, wears skinny jeans, brown knee-high boots, a teal cowl-neck top and gold medallion earrings. She, too, bustles from group to group, flashing a toothy smile. A few minutes after the appointed start time of the service, the pair enters the auditorium filled with members standing, dancing and crooning along with the band.

The Farinas take their place in the front row, punching the air with their fists and singing along as a guitarist plucks a turquoise-and-white Stratocaster alongside two keyboardists, another guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. The stage is outfitted with 10-foot white polka-dot screens. Not a crucifix or candle is in sight.

A few songs later, band members take their seats in the audience and announcements are made. Elizabeth Farina implores the crowd to help support the church's move to a new building in Eagan, likening giving to bargain shopping.

After a comedic video introduction, Tory Farina takes the stage and launches into a talk about toxic thoughts. He uses the popular book, "Eat This, Not That," to make his point, imploring his flock to "think this, not that."

About 125 audience members chuckle along, rapt with attention. He keeps it short, about 20 minutes, then encourages guests to pray with pastors stationed in the aisles. A few do.

Tearful members return to their seats, the band plays another song and that's it. The service is over.

"It means a lot more than going to anyplace we went before," Nancy Olson-Engebreth said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I just feel freer in service to really worship. It's a unique and refreshing outlook as to what church can be."

Olson-Engebreth said she and her husband, John Engebreth, previously attended traditional Christian churches. She explained why talking about High Point makes her so emotional:

"It's just, having always gone to church, but never having this feeling," she said. "It's different."

"But good different," her husband added.

Church "planting" isn't new. Baptists have been starting new, small local churches and letting them grow for decades.

In addition, the Emergent church movement began practicing alternative worship methods, including contemporary music and video sermons, before ARC came along.

ARC churches marry the two ideas, adding their own spin aimed specifically at millennials. But the group provides something more important than guidance: cash.

"We say, 'Let us help you on the front end,' " the ARC's Smith said. "It costs anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 to start a church. We help them with the goal of becoming a self-sustaining church. We resource them so they are not alone. They start off stronger."

About 93 percent of ARC churches are going strong five years after they began. Smith said the national average for a new church lasting five years is between 20 percent and 40 percent.

Once a church is self-sustaining, it is expected to give back to the organization to help start more churches.

Pastor Rob Ketterling started River Valley Church in Apple Valley 16 years ago with a Bible study group in his living room.

Ketterling, 46, joined ARC shortly after its inception.

"It was one of those things that guys like myself around the nation said: 'We were doing it the hard way. Let's give them a financial start,' " Ketterling said.

River Valley now has four campuses, and more than 4,000 people attend Sunday services.

Their rock band writes its own music and recently released a CD that hit the Billboard chart.

The church's growth, Ketterling said, is boundless.

Ketterling has guided Substance and High Point, giving them a solid start and remaining as an adviser. He recently helped two pastors start a church in Northfield, called Canvas.

But he's looking even further. A couple of pastors in Valencia, Spain, have been replicating the River Valley model for three years. River Valley, he said, recently made the decision to help fund the church.

"There will be a River Valley in Valencia, Spain," Ketterling said.

Two of River Valley's campuses are church buildings given to them by dying traditional congregations.

One, in Faribault, had 40 members when the church gave its million-dollar building to River Valley. The building now swells with 400 guests on Sunday mornings.

In Minnetrista, the church was down to 12 people. Now, 200 attend.

Ketterling said it wasn't surprising that the churches decided to give away their infrastructure.

"It's like, you're an organ donor," he said. "In the event that you're dying, you're willing to give everything you have so someone else can live."

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

Tags: