Southern Californians work out religiously. Southern Californians worship the athletic human form.
Still, potential parishioners must feel a bit disoriented as they venture down the sweat-scented hallways of a racquetball club in Fullerton looking for the Rev. Jack Sims' new church.
Where they might expect a procession of choirboys, they get rows of panting aerobics enthusiasts and booming rock 'n' roll. The clank of weight machines replaces church bells.
By the time they have found the well-appointed meeting room, popped open a Heineken or Perrier and started grazing on the buffet of "designer" cookies and quiche, they must be convinced this is not the sort of church they were once dragged to by their ears.
But then, being different is the whole idea, Sims told the 45 people attending the first weekly meeting in April of the church he calls "Matthew's Party."
A minister ordained through the Evangelical Church Alliance in Bradley, Ill., and the marketing strategist behind Boomers Consulting (Boomers derives from Believers Outside Most Every Religious System), Sims says the "Jerry Falwell generation of churches" is about to face the "Pepsi generation" challenge.
And churches of the old school--those "founded before 1960"--aren't up to the test, Sims argued, as the sounds of heated racquetball competition drifted into the room Sims rents from the racquetball club for his weekly services.
Sims, who lives in Placentia, thinks a reformation of sorts is on the horizon, and besides working out the details of his own new church, through Boomers, he and his wife advise preachers--for a sliding fee that starts at $250 a day--on how to appeal to his generation's tastes.
'Boomers' Said to Avoid Church
Most of the 76 million Americans between ages 22 and 40, whom Sims calls "baby boomers," just don't like going to church, said Sims, 39.
As evidence, he offers a 1983 People magazine poll showing that the average "boomer" attends religious services only 6.2 times a year--less than half as often as the average American over 40. Twenty-eight percent of these younger folks don't attend church at all, the survey reported.
Yet a Gallup poll in the early '80s suggested that 99% of this same group has a religious preference or affiliation, and a full 40% say they are "born again" Christians, Sims said.
As Sims sees the situation, these people--about a third of the U.S. population--are not put off by theology but by the ritual and cultural trappings of church.
Old Wine in New Wineskins
"People don't have a problem with the content (of church services). It's the container. . . ." Sims said.
"Trying to reach the baby boom by using the same tired, conventional methods that most churches use is like trying to win the Kentucky Derby by throwing a racing saddle on a cow. . . . Churches are usually a decade or 15 years behind, anyway. Now that the baby boom has emerged onto the scene, and the culture has gone into hyperdrive, churches are really hurting."
Drawing on marketing classes he took in college and his 10 years as a college pastor and organizer with Campus Crusade for Christ, one of the world's largest evangelical organizations, Sims in 1976 began research and consulting work at what is now the Charles E. Fuller Institute for Evangelism and Church Growth in Pasadena.
The Fuller Institute, which has ties to the Fuller Theological Seminary, was a seminal force in the influential "Church Growth Movement" of the 1970s and '80s--an effort to bolster sagging church attendance. Pastors across the country--particularly in California--have taken to heart the institute's tips on how to attract new parishioners, said the Rev. John Crossley, associate professor of religion at USC.
"Beginning in the mid-'70s, church leaders began to feel like it was OK to use professional skills and to look at religious work in a professional manner," Sims said. Now "copywriters, media consultants, production specialists--most everything from the secular world--have a counterpart in religious America."
After leaving Fuller in 1978, Sims continued in the fields of church growth and Christian marketing, working with organizations such as Teen Challenge and mushrooming ministries such as the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which boasts of 140 churches nationwide and 7,000 people in its flagship Anaheim congregation.
In the early '80s, Sims co-founded a marketing group, which, he claims in his resume, "merged state-of-the-art technology with an understanding of the religious marketplace."
Last September, however, Sims grew tired of offering his expertise to churches he felt had little potential for attracting his generation. He left his old firm and launched Boomers Consulting, offering his advice exclusively to those churches he said "could adjust and stay current as McDonald's or Kentucky Fried" have done in the fast-food business.