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New Style of Worship Brings New Spirit to Mainline Church

MAUMEE, Ohio (AP) - The pews have been replaced by upholstered chairs at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. The altar is now an expansive stage that accommodates drummers, keyboard players and guitarists. ( [email protected] ) May 15, 2006 10:23 AM EDT

MAUMEE, Ohio (AP) - The pews have been replaced by upholstered chairs at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. The altar is now an expansive stage that accommodates drummers, keyboard players and guitarists.

And the most popular spots in the building are seats on two leather couches that make the church's entryway feel more like a hip coffee shop.

St. Paul's rocks with dancing, clapping and music in contemporary services offered in addition to its traditional style of worship.

"We needed to offer something different because people were leaving to find churches where they could express more joy or celebration," said the Rev. Roger Miller. "The church is just looking for a way to speak to the culture."

Many mainline Protestant denominations with leveling or declining attendance are considering or experimenting with new ways of worship, following the lead of non-denominational megachurches that are growing quickly with contemporary services that appeal to young people and families.

"Mainline churches are way behind in the ballgame because they were so steeped in their worship traditions," said Ronald Shifley, pastor at Spencerville United Church of Christ. "Down the road, churches will have to move to contemporary worship in some form or they'll cease to exist."

There is little structure in the services. Praise bands take the place of an organ or a choir. There's dancing instead of kneeling. Skits are acted out. Hymn books are missing. Scripture often still plays a role but in less formalized readings.

This style of worship is a big reason why Protestant megachurches have grown so much, with some drawing members away from traditional churches. Megachurches with a weekly attendance of at least 2,000 have doubled in five years to 1,210, according to a study from Leadership Network, a church-growth consulting firm in Dallas.

St. Paul's, which is in suburban Toledo, holds one contemporary service in a movie theater, getting edgier with skits, flashing lights and rock 'n' roll. They call it "church for people who don't go to church."

There's not a suit and tie among the crowd. About 150 people attend each week - more than the number at the 8 a.m. Sunday traditional service. Financially, it's almost reached a break even point.

People who might be uncomfortable going into a church have no problem going to a theater, said member Patti Rish. A few always wander in late.

"They don't come in with a quiet reverence," she said. "It's just like going to the movies."

Instead of popcorn and soda, churchgoers grab cups of chocolate silk coffee and jelly doughnuts. The service starts out with a skit about golfing and religion and moves into rock 'n' roll music with a heavy drum beat that brings nearly everyone out of their seats.

St. Paul's added its first contemporary service 11 years ago. Attendance on Sunday mornings had flattened out to a little over 400, and Miller was worried that the church would soon see a decline.

He also thought Sundays were becoming a little stale. "I remember saying to myself 'I'm just tired of this. It's the same old, same old,'" he said.

The results were dramatic.

Attendance increased every year - it grew by 63 percent in the first six years. Many attendees were families with different religious backgrounds. "We had a lot of mixed marriages that ended up settling here," Miller said.

Rish, who grew up Roman Catholic, began attending St. Paul's just before the initial changes. "When I stripped away the tradition, I was able to make a better connection with God," she said.

The growth allowed the church to begin a $2.6 million renovation and addition that included new Sunday school rooms, a new kitchen and an updated sanctuary.

The transition, however, can be traumatic. Churches often lose at least a few longtime members and risk alienating a large part of their congregations.

"People are creatures of habit and messing with their worship service reaches pretty close to the core of their faith," said Bill Rindy, a pastor at First Lutheran Church in Fargo, N.D. "You're on holy ground and need to be aware of that."

His church offers both styles of worship, which has "helped us avoid the worship wars," Rindy said.

St. Paul's has lost about 50 members, mainly because of the worship changes and sanctuary renovation.

The remaining members divided into the "frozen chosen" who attended the traditional service and the "Christian light" who preferred the new style.

Dave Metzger, director of evangelism, said the church became two totally different congregations.

But that's started to change.

Some members who attend the early traditional service now linger afterward and have coffee with the contemporary crowd. Some are crossing over to attend both services.

Forey Kosch, a member of St. Paul's for 50 years, said there is more excitement at the church. People are starting to get to know each other. "My generation, they went to church because mom and dad made them," he said.

One's position in the church is no longer determined by income, he said on a Sunday morning, just after greeting a man wearing a leather jacket and blue jeans. "There was a time you didn't dare wear that," he said.

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