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PALM LATITUDES

HOPE & GLORY : God and Country

November 06, 1994|Judy Raphael

It's Saturday night in Ojai and the boomers in boots are doing the electric slide to a Diamond Rio tune in a parking lot of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church. The pastor is dancing, too, decked out in Wrangler boots and Levis.

What's this? Lutherans loosening up?

"We are God's frozen chosen," laughs the pastor, Curt Christiansen, 34. "But Martin Luther said 500 years ago that the church needed to speak to the people. He translated Latin into German and borrowed tunes from pubs," he says, to draw people into church.

Fast forward five centuries. Organ music reigns and, as Christiansen notes, "most of my generation is not in church with me." He began to wonder if there was a connection.

So Christiansen, 34, inserted flyers in the Ojai paper last summer reading "If God were riding in your truck, He'd listen to country" and announcing "God's Country Goodtime Hour" with "line dancing following worship."

And they came, the bearded, ponytailed, granny-gowned sinners of New Age Ojai, to scarf up Tex Mex, buy T-shirts, or, like lapsed Episcopalian Geoff Howard, 39, "to check it out." Members listen to sermons whose topics include the pastor's '70 Ford pickup, and Christian sex (rated R for "relevance, respect and relationship," says Christiansen, "and more fun than it sounds"). After the service they dance to a band called--what else?-- the Honkytonk Angels.

Attendance has been steadily rising, says Pastor Curt, who is nonetheless continuing his search for ways to make church "less churchy." He's adding few new steps to the repertoire. After a recent sermon on "Dancing in God's Will," he encouraged his congregation to get up and waltz.

"People our age have such a hard time believing the church could be relevant," Christiansen says. "But it's our responsibility to try and communicate the message. It's a hard sell, but it's a good product. We got eternal life, we got joy and it's all free."

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