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Charlotte part of alternative evangelical worship trend

By Amy O’Leary
New York Times

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  • New venues in Charlotte

    Evangelical churches are opening in nontraditional spaces to attract young audiences across the country. But the idea caught on in Charlotte years ago. The goal: reverse the trend of an increasingly secular culture.



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.

It’s 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.

“It’s unsettling for a movement that’s lasted 2,000 years to now find that, ‘Oh, some of the things we always assumed would connect with the community aren’t 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.

‘Church planting’

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, we’d 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 didn’t hang out at the synagogue, he hung out at wells,” he said. “Coffeehouses are postmodern wells. Let’s not wait for people to come to us. Let’s 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 he’s scouting various sites and hopes to open the coffee shop by the end of this year.

“It’ll 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 city’s homeless community.

Docusen, 33, said Charlotte’s 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 it’ll 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. It’ll be at the crossroads of the faith and the marketplace …We don’t 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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