RELIGION

Saving the boomers

Churches shun tradition to attract young adults

DIANE BRADY June 3 1991
RELIGION

Saving the boomers

Churches shun tradition to attract young adults

DIANE BRADY June 3 1991

Saving the boomers

Churches shun tradition to attract young adults

RELIGION

Jack Hurst,a 40-year-old sales executive who lives in Newmarket, Ont., says that for about 18 years he attended United Church services, and had one of his children baptized in the church, even though he found the services boring and irrelevant. Said Hurst, who also attended Anglican services: “I was getting nothing from shaking incense or readings from a book.” But Hurst says that last October, he discovered the Newmarket Alliance Church, a six-year-old evangelical church 50 km north of Toronto that features special lighting effects and rock music during its Sunday services. Since then, Hurst and his family have regularly attended Alliance Church services, and Hurst’s wife, Rita, has joined a group of mothers who go to the church for sessions that combine Bible-based discussions of women’s issues with aerobics classes and craft demonstrations. Said Hurst: “This is entertaining and relevant day-to-day stuff.” Indeed, across North America thousands of young adults are making similar discoveries, as churches offer a wide range of services in order to lure members of the baby boom generation back into their pews.

Leaders of the new-style churches say that they are increasingly adopting a marketing approach to religion because traditional practices were driving potential parishioners away. “Churches have to get into the entertainment business,” said Rev. David Brandon, the 41year-old senior pastor at the Alliance Church, where attendance has climbed to 500 since it opened its doors in a converted industrial mall in 1985. He added: “We’re dealing with a television generation that has a short attention span and doesn’t like to waste time.” Brandon said that rock music, live theatre and other attractions offered by his church seem to win favor with parishioners where the older, traditional approach failed. Brandon says that his church gives members a signed guarantee that promises: “We won’t bore you, we will always be relevant; we won’t pressure you, we won’t ask you for money.”

During the past decade, attendance at Canada’s mainstream churches has shown a steady decline. According to a 1990 Gallup poll, 27 per cent of Canadians had attended a church or synagogue in the week before the poll was taken, down from 35 per cent in 1980 and 56 per cent in 1960. Now, officials of some of the churches offering a more diversified package of religion and other services say that membership is booming. Indeed, some of the huge, socalled mega-churches that have sprung up in the United States during the past decade claim

congregations of as many as 20,000 regular members.

The success of the new-style churches has put pressure on other, mainstream institutions to provide a wider range of functions than in the past, including day care, sports and nonreligious educational facilities. Some critics say that such innovations replace preaching with marketing and cheapen the overall religious message. “We are seeing a lot of consumer Christians,” said Rev. Dwight Soleski, pastor at Elim Pentecostal church in Drumheller, Alta., about 150 km northeast of Calgary. Soleski says that his church shuns such innovations as day care centres and rock music. And he speaks dismissively of the belief among some church leaders that “if you don’t have a good choir and baby room, they just go down the street.”

Among the most successful of the new mega-churches is the sprawling, 64-year-old Second Baptist Church in Houston, which advertises itself as providing a “Fellowship of excitement.” The most recent additions to the church building, erected in 1986, cost $39 million. A new, 6,200-seat auditorium is the centre of a complex that covers 42 acres and includes a bowling alley, a 175-seat movie theatre, a pool hall and several athletic courts. Church officials say that in 1978, when Second Baptist began updating its approach to religion,

it had only about 300 regular churchgoers. Now, they say that the church has about 17,000 regular members, more than half of whom are under the age of 40.

At Second Baptist, churchgoers can join one of 36 basketball teams run by the church, take part in a so-called Master’s Blast workout in the church’s glass-walled fitness centre and soak afterwards in one of two Jacuzzis. As well, members can see Broadway-style musical shows performed by various church choirs, including Hooray for Hollywood, a salute to the movie industry combined with a religious service, which will run for three performances this summer. The church also stages an annual wrestling event in which staff members compete, and runs a 90-seat restaurant that offers low-calorie dishes for “saints” and richer items for “sinners.” Lisa Milne, Second Baptist’s program co-ordinator, says that the church tries to offer “a lot of hooks and hope that people nibble at something. You’ve got to be good to keep them coming.”

Second Baptist is one of dozens of U.S. churches that have radically increased their attendance in the past few years. Others include the Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego County, Calif., which claims 3,300 members, and Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, 111., which attracts 15,000 people to its Sunday services. Members of mega-churches say that the appeal lies in the diversity of activities. “There’s always some-

thing fun going on,” said Cathleen Currie, a 29year-old Houston systems analyst and member of Second Baptist. “Aerobics or ball games are followed by prayer, so that everything has a deeper purpose.”

An increasing number of church leaders say that the new approaches are particularly successful in attracting young parishioners. The

new approach, said Rev. Glenn Teal, senior pastor of Saskatoon’s Lakeview Free Methodist Church, “shows young professionals that we’re not ivory-tower Christians.” Teal said that Lakeview began revamping its services about three years ago by installing colored lights near the church’s altar, encouraging members to act out “funny and touching vignettes” during worship, and introducing middle-of-theroad pop music. “Baby boomers are the first generation that has never changed its musical tastes,” said Teal, referring to the young adults who were bom between 1946 and 1964. “You can’t give them an old hymn when they listen to the Rolling Stones.” Said Stephen Shore, a 34-year-old store manager who joined the Lakeview church two years ago: “The people are warm and you get open spaces, padded pews and a really professional look.”

Some churches and other religious organizations have begun to apply innovative approaches outside the confines of the church itself. Fair Glen Youth Camp, for one, which is operated near Beaverton, Ont., by Associated Gospel Churches of Canada, last year staged a Saturday Ramp Camp at which young skateboard enthusiasts learned new tricks from experts after learning about parts of the Bible. The organizers modelled the camp on the popular “skate churches” that have

sprung up in California during the past decade.

The goal of many church reformers is to find ways of attracting people who do not regularly attend church, without abandoning their underlying commitment to religion. In Toronto, the 85-year-old Evangelistic Centre, which is operated by the Pentecostal Holiness Church, offers its 75 church members a gymnasium for sports activities, a nursery for children and field trips for young people. Said Rev. Walter Gamble, pastor of the Evangelistic Centre: “We correctly shed traditional customs to increase interest. But we hold on to the moral and spiritual values.”

To keep abreast of changing religious tastes, some members of the clergy say that they are altering the tone of their sermons by removing archaic language, introducing modem themes and making the image of God less judgmental. “The old fire-and-brimstone sermons are a thing of the past,” said Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, which has experienced a decline in membership to about 850,000 in 1989 from about one million in 1975. “The church now realizes that membership isn’t automatic.” Added Rev. Robert Johnston, a family counsellor at Eastern Pentecostal Bible College in Peterborough, Ont.: “Sermons have to address popular issues like ecology, politics and sexuality. People won’t come out for a dull lecture.”

Still, some critics of the trend towards secularized worship and non-religious functions for churches say that the single-minded drive to increase membership risks making religion less, instead of more, relevant in modem society. “Churches are packaging themselves as products that try to be all things to all people,” said Reginald Bibby, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta who specializes in analysing religious trends. “In the process, many are selling out on their message.” Other analysts contend that the introduction of a broadened range of services

_ often fails to win converts. Janet

Goodwin, a Saint John, N.B.-based social issues researcher who co-ordinated a provincewide survey of churchbased day care programs in New Brunswick last year, said that her study found that people who were attracted to churches by non-religious enticements rarely became serious members of the congregations. Said Goodwin: “Non-church members might use the services, but they rarely join the church.”

Still, advocates of multi-service churches say that their techniques bring baby boomers through the door where the traditional approach failed. And the growing interest in those churches is taking the fire out of critics’ protests. Said Teal: “If we condemn the consumer mentality, we won’t even get a hearing.” Clearly, many young North Americans want churches to play a different time— preferably one that has a good beat.

DIANE BRADY