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
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.
Yet despite similarities, independents have, roughly speaking,
developed three different approaches:
Some focus on the worship service itself. …