NO spires. No crosses. No robes. No clerical collars. No hard pews. No kneelers. No biblical gobbledygook. No prayerly rote. No fire, no brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary eighteenth-century hymns. No forced solemnity. No Sunday finery. No collection plates.
The list has asterisks and exceptions, but its meaning is clear. Centuries of European tradition and Christian habit are deliberately being abandoned, clearing the way for new, contemporary forms of worship and belonging.
The Next Church, as the independent and entrepreneurial congregations that are adopting these new forms might collectively be called, is drawing lots of people, including many Americans with patchy or blank histories of churchgoing. It constitutes, its champions believe, a distinctly American reformation of church life, one that transcends denominations and the bounds of traditional churchly behavior. As such, it represents something more: a reconfiguration of secular communities, not just sacred ones.
Social institutions that once held civic life together--schools, families, governments, companies, neighborhoods, and even old-style churches--are not what they used to be (if ever they were what we imagined). The new congregations are reorganizing religious life to fill that void. The Next Church in its fully realized state can be the clearest approximation of community, and perhaps the most important civic structure, that a whole generation is likely to have known or likely to find anywhere in an impersonal, transient nation.
The churches are remarkable chiefly for their size. Many of these (mostly Protestant) congregations count thousands of people in attendance on a weekend--in some cases more than 10,000. For their hugeness they are often known, and often chagrined to be known, as megachurches. Among the other labels one hears are full-service churches, seven-day-a-week churches, pastoral churches, apostolic churches, "new tribe" churches, new paradigm churches, seeker-sensitive churches, shopping-mall churches. No two of these terms mean quite the same thing, but together, like the blind men with the elephant, they describe the beast rather well. These very large and dynamic congregations may at the moment number no more than 400, but they are the fastest-growing ones in the country. Half of all churchgoing Americans, to cite a figure treasured in the Next Church community, are attending only 12 percent of the nation's 400,000 churches. To look at it another way, half of American Protestant churches have fewer than seventy-five congregants.
Big congregations endow a church with critical mass, which makes possible sizable budgets and economic efficiencies (such as very low staffing ratios) and formidable volunteer pools, and thus the capacity to diversify almost infinitely in order to develop new "product lines" that meet the congregation's needs and involve members in unpaid service.
Still, to understand what the Next Church means, one cannot ignore hundreds more churches that are small to middling but willing and determined (or desperate) to think big--to be "intentional" about growing, to use an adjective commonly heard in their midst. For these churches this is not an abstract decision. The mainline denominations are bleeding. Their churches have more pew than flock, and unless they change, they have more history than future. Little congregations of fewer than a hundred at worship, in rural communities and inner cities, are shutting their doors at the rate of fifty a week, by one estimate.
The Next Church movement makes many traditional church leaders, and many active Christians, nervous, because it implies a rejection of the tried and the once-true and the somehow holy; it also suggests to many people an unseemly market-driven approach to building the Kingdom of Heaven. But its obvious success in building congregations and communities alike is making many believers out of skeptics.
For the past year I've been visiting these churches and talking to their pastors and members to understand what makes them work.
I APPROACHED Mariners Church, on a gentle hill above Newport Beach, California, through its parking lot. At the entrances to the asphalt expanse men and women in reflective orange jackets waved on a procession of hundreds of cars entering by twos the acres of parking places being vacated by the outflow from the earlier service. Mercifully, confusion did not reign.
The new architecture of faith is inconspicuous. The seven-year-old sanctuary of Mariners is an understated horizontal brick pile with barely a peak in its auditorium roof, let alone anything suggesting a spire. Walking from my car, I realized that no door to the church building was visible--a mischievous design considering that Mariners, like other churches of this ilk, has figurative doors that are uncountable. And on the side away from the parking lot are real glass ones constantly admitting people--these days 3,500 at four services every weekend, and many hundreds more during the week. The Next Church rarely sleeps.
The doors of Mariners open onto a tree-lined semicircular courtyard that was packed that Sunday morning with hundreds of people standing and talking together in the sunshine. A few, wearing name tags, approached and shook hands with everyone arriving; in the case of a stranger they gave a simple friendly greeting and no more. An orchestra played upbeat soft rock somewhere within, wafting melody and song to the outside. The dress was California casual. Children scurried everywhere. A cappuccino cart with parasol stood to one side, dispensing the secular sacrament. And along the periphery of the courtyard one shaded table after another announced the church's various "ministries," support groups, and fellowship opportunities--each a point of entry into the Mariners community.
To name a few open for inspection and inquiry that morning: a seminar on effective single parenting; twelve-step recovery meetings by category (alcohol, drugs, abuse) and freeway coordinates; a parents-of-adolescents meeting; a class for premarital couples; another for "homebuilders"; something called Bunko Night ("Tired of shopping? Low on funds?"); a "women in the workplace" brunch; a "fellowshippers" (seniors) meeting; a men's retreat ("Anchoring Deep"); women's Bible studies; a baseball league; a passel of Generation X activities; "grief support ministries"; worship music, drama, and dance; "discovering divorce dynamics"; a "belong class" for new members; and "life development" ("You will learn to know yourself and begin to see where God has a place of service for you. This is a can't miss class"). Needless to say, Mariners is also the home seven days a week of kid-oriented activity--a lot of it.
Wandering away from this bazaar, I climbed a few steps to another part of the grounds and happened upon a clutch of men and women, mostly in their twenties and thirties, standing together in shorts and T-shirts around a baptismal pool--actually a turquoise hot tub. A pastor in shirtsleeves called them one by one, and they came forward and declared to their attending friends and families, seated in folding chairs before them, "My name is ------, and I accept Jesus Christ as my savior" or "my personal savior." Then, one arm gripped by the pastor, each stepped down and into what, it became clear from their looks of surprise, was a very cold bath. Just as the baptist gave their heads a final push to total immersion, they would grab their noses. When they came up shivering and born again, their friends and family were applauding.
I made my way with hundreds of others to the sanctuary and found a seat along a carpeted aisle. I was in a handsome and dramatically sloped modern amphitheater. After some energetic songs of celebration, led by a sextet of male and female singers and a twelve-piece orchestra of saxophones, synthesizers, guitars, and drums (none of the songs composed before 1990, and all of them of club quality), the people of Mariners heard from a few of their number.
A tall and smartly dressed woman shared a little about her Bible-study experience, and the help she got from the Bible in accepting her husband instead of trying to change him. A couple talked about the new-members' class they had just completed. The wife explained that she had gone from saying "I go to Mariners Church" to "I belong to Mariners Church." The husband was asked how he and his wife had made "a small place out of this big place"--a fair and worrisome question that many newcomers wonder about. He spoke of finding "a sense of connectedness" in the small-group activities he had joined and a "new purpose in serving God in several ministries."