DALLAS The mural painted on the side of a building in the Deep Ellum warehouse district is intentionally vague a faceless man in a suit holds an umbrella over the words Life in Deep Ellum. Inside are the trappings of a revitalization project, including an art gallery, and a coffee shop.
But it is, in fact, a church.
Its part of a wave of experimentation around the country by evangelicals to reinvent church in an increasingly secular culture, and it comes as the megachurch boom of recent decades, with stadium seating for huge crowds, Jumbotrons and smoke machines, faces strong headwinds. A national decline in church attendance, the struggling economy and the challenges of marketing to millennials have all led to the need for new approaches.
Its unsettling for a movement thats lasted 2,000 years to now find that, Oh, some of the things we always assumed would connect with the community arent connecting with everyone in the community in the way they used to, said Warren Bird, director of research for the Leadership Network, a firm that tracks church trends.
According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30. Even so, nearly 68 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they believe in God, and 41 percent say they pray at least once a month.
The spiritual but not religious category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call post-Christian.
So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words church and church service in favor of terms like spiritual communities and gatherings, with services that do not stick to any script.
Churches that hold services in alternative sanctuaries are nothing new for Charlotte.
Over the years, movie theaters, community centers, high schools and even a renovated trucking terminal have been used as venues for church services often for young people turned off by the traditional steeples and pews.
Some churches in Charlotte have tried to marry the spiritual with the everyday-urban. Warehouse 242, housed in a warehouse-style building on Wilkinson Boulevard, also has an art gallery and not just for Christian art.
Although the number of evangelical churches in the U.S. declined for many years, the trend reversed in 2006, with more new churches opening each year since, according to the Leadership Network. This wave of church planting has been highest among nondenominational pastors, free to experiment outside traditional hierarchies.
For new leaders coming out of seminary, the cool thing is church planting, Bird said. That generation includes Mark Batterson, the 43-year-old pastor of National Community Church in Washington.
If the kingdom of God had departments, wed want to work in research and development, Batterson said.
With 3,000 members, National Community Church is technically a megachurch, according to religion scholars, for whom any congregation over 2,000 qualifies. But with a turnover rate of nearly 40 percent a year, its continued growth is a noteworthy feat.
Sunday services are held in six locations, mostly movie theaters.
Coffee and music
The church also runs a coffee shop called Ebenezers near Union Station, where its religious affiliation is hard to detect. Until it ran out of room, it held services in the basement, drawing new members from the coffee drinkers who wandered downstairs to investigate the music.
For Batterson, the strategy has biblical roots.
We felt like Jesus didnt hang out at the synagogue, he hung out at wells, he said. Coffeehouses are postmodern wells. Lets not wait for people to come to us. Lets go to them.
The church has fielded hundreds of requests from other pastors for insights about its approach. And it has plans to franchise Ebenezers.
The locale for the first one: uptown Charlotte.
David Docusen, pastor of Center City Church, said hes scouting various sites and hopes to open the coffee shop by the end of this year.
Itll be a for-profit coffee house that gives away all the profits, Docusen told the Observer.
Center City Church, a nearly 3-year-old Pentecostal church with 150 members, will own the Ebenezers and hold Sunday services there. Its members now worship at Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School.
The Charlotte church will set up a team to decide how to donate any profits from the coffee shop. Possible recipients: Local nonprofits, overseas missions and the citys homeless community.
Docusen, 33, said Charlottes Ebenezers will have a top of the line coffee shop and meeting place on its ground floor and a venue to rent for concerts and meetings on the second floor.
There are no plans to make the place overtly Christian, the pastor said, and the hope is that itll become a hangout for the community to meet and talk.
Still, Docusen said, he and his affiliates at National Community Church in Washington want to give another option to churches especially those in an urban context. Itll be at the crossroads of the faith and the marketplace We dont have to agree on matters of faith to be friends or to love and serve our community together.
As a model, he quoted ancient King David, who wrote in one of his Psalms that he wanted what was best for Jerusalem. Docusen said his church wants to enrich Charlotte.
Observer staff writer Tim Funk contributed.
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