Upstart Churches Chart New Directions in Protestantism the First of This Two-Part Series Examines the Explosive Growth of America's Independent Churches, a Broad and Influential Group That Defies Convention in Their Services Series: Friday Night Worship at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in San Francisco Is Part of the Booming "Upstart" Churches, a Diverse Movement That Is Adept at Attracting Young Followers. ROBIN WEINER

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In an important shift in American religious life, diverse new Christian churches are appearing on the American landscape. They've arrived in the past five to 10 years, and there's probably one - or more - in your town.

It might be a "megachurch" that attracts thousands to a high-tech Sunday meeting at an upscale "campus." It could be a former Bible study group of "modern charismatics" that has expanded into an empty warehouse. Or it could be a mainstream church - Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran - that dropped its former identity and started a "contemporary evangelical" style of worship.

What the upstarts share is a lack of denominational identity - and an approach to worship that is informal, stressing flexibility and expressiveness. These "independent" churches exist in dozens of loose and growing networks, and are making deep inroads into the struggling Protestant mainstream, drawing from its 80 million population, and changing its worship services and even its theology and beliefs. In the coming century, these upstarts - more than half are small churches, between 50 and 300 attendees - may become new denominations, some experts say. Others note the commercial strategies of some new groups - not all - are deepening a trend in religion to treat churches as business franchises and seekers of faith as consumers. "How does a faith remain prophetic once it takes the market route?" asks Paul Kennedy of Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. "That's the real dilemma." What can't be ignored is the upstarts' rise and influence. "The untold story of American Protestantism is the growth and proliferation of independent churches," says Don Miller, a University of Southern California scholar of new Christian strains of worship. "These are middle-class churches that represent the mainstream of American society." * On Sunday, in a San Mateo, Calif., day-care center, a rock band jams on a song titled, "He Is Awesome." This is a Vineyard "planting" started two years ago with five families. It now has 47 members, most of whom outwardly fit a "yuppie" category of job and education level - but who put down their gourmet coffee and stand and sway when the band begins. After 30 minutes of singing, with tears and some rapture, Charles Brown, the minister, comes out of the group and starts his sermon while holding his baby son. "We want to peel away the secular and profane, and feel the resident Holy Spirit in us all," he says. * A struggling church in a Silicon Valley bedroom community dropped its Baptist identity. It added a rock band, focused on a "positive, hopeful" message, and grew from 20 to 140 members. But the switch took a theological toll: Before the pastor can mention sin or the problem of corruptibility, he must check with his governing board. Sin is a taboo topic - a "negative" that could turn off visitors. * On Saturday night at Santa Cruz Bible, a local megachurch, they have skits, a 10-member band, child care, French vanilla decaf, two video screens, baptisms, friendly hosts, and a five-step plan to feel God's grace. During one skit, a make-believe "Barbara Walters" interviews "Jesus" about his mission - as 500 people look on in a cavernous "multipurpose worship center." The feel of all three churches is "contemporary." All three are anchored by popular music that differs mainly in decibel and intensity. Attendees often tote notepads and Bibles. They buy and swap tapes of sermons from around the US. Some attend retreats, Bible groups, or joint workshops arranged with local mainstream churches - and participate in secular church activities ranging from sightseeing trips to classes on personal finance. "I feel something different here ... a real love," is a typical response when members are asked why they come to the church. Three approaches Yet despite similarities, independents have, roughly speaking, developed three different approaches: Some focus on the worship service itself. …