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4 Faces of Christianity's Future

Religion

An interactive exhibit at Biola University explores challenges that churches face in attracting younger worshipers.

February 15, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

A prominent poster near the entrance of Biola University's new exhibition on the future of Christianity advertises 10 reasons to dislike your church. Among them: "It's comfortable in its misery and is looking for company." "It's all about the money." "It's concerned with look and not action."

It's not exactly Martin Luther tacking up his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, but the list does reflect the continuing struggle pastors have in attracting and shepherding a post-baby boomer flock.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Church pastor -- An article in Saturday's California section about a Biola University exhibit on ways for churches to attract younger worshipers misidentified Doug Haag as the pastor at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton. He is one of several pastors at that church.

The interactive "Recovery of Ritual" exhibit, which will be on display through the end of the month, is the result of a joint research project by two Southern California professors, Biola's Richard Flory and USC's Donald Miller.

For the last year, the two scholars have chronicled the various attempts -- ranging from the reactionary to the visionary -- to make Christianity relevant to what has been labeled postmodern America. It is a world where truth is seen as malleable, and cynicism about institutions, including churches, is often considered a virtue, making it difficult to impart faith to new generations.

"In the past, we could have a convert in an hour," said Doug Haag, the pastor of First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, who attended the exhibition's opening night and was impressed enough to return the next day with five of his pastors. "Now, people want to see an authentic community first."

The professors said they plan to turn their findings into a book by the end of the year. They also hope to produce an interactive CD and Web site to keep the information current.

"This show tells you Christianity is alive and thriving and able to respond to the culture," said Donald E. Miller, executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. "These people don't care about buildings. They care about the faith."

Four basic approaches to attracting post-baby boomer church crowds are loosely organized in the corners of the modest gallery.

The only section displayed with derision is called "Reactors," described in the exhibit notes as people using "nostalgic efforts that focus on the recovery of reason, seeking to roll back the clock on our postmodern culture."

The centerpiece of this section is a small television that shows talking-head shots of academics and pastors defending Christianity through the use of Scripture. Chugging around the TV in an endless loop is a small electric train with "Facts" as its engine, "Faith" as the second car and "Feeling" as the caboose.

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Hammering Away

On the wall are political cartoons from the 1920s, magazines from the 1950s and current books, all giving the same message: The only hope for Christianity against modern culture is hammering away at biblical truths.

Not everyone understands the exhibition's disdain for that approach, which includes a display of outdated tracts or pamphlets on how to become a Christian. A recent visitor returned to the gallery offering updated versions.

"It's really in the eye of the beholder," Miller said.

The other three categories in the free exhibit are less judgmental.

The "Imitators" section shows examples of how churches and pastors hijack portions of popular culture and inject a Christian message.

Examples include a video of "Harvest Monday Nights With Greg Laurie," a show modeled on MTV and hosted by the founder of the Harvest Crusade. There's also a photo essay of the hip coffeehouse and bookstore at the Mariners Church in Irvine -- a Christian version of Borders.

"This is about the consumption of religion," said Flory, an associate professor of sociology who teamed with Miller to edit a book in 2000 titled "GenX Religion."

A third corner is labeled "Reappropriate." It chronicles, in video, photos and text, the thirst for orthodoxy -- the candles, incense, liturgy and vestments -- among some members of the younger generations. This group has embraced established orthodox churches.

"These are usually highly educated people who are intrigued by the church's sense of history," Miller said. "They are seeking anchorage in a tradition in this postmodern world."

The final corner is reserved for the "Innovators," a movement made up almost entirely of lay people attempting new ways to develop a church.

The initial focus is on forming intimate communities and, like those in orthodox churches, finding ways to reconnect the body to worship services.

This can mean anything from lighting candles and burning incense to painting and dancing during services.

For the "Innovators," bricks and mortar don't matter, and large is bad. The faithful can meet anywhere, from coffeehouses to bars.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this group, which includes the Bridge Communities in Ventura and Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach, is their view that churches are living organisms that experience birth, life and death.

"The idea is, you need to reinvent the church to be adaptable to contemporary culture," Miller said.

The exhibit tried to mimic the innovators by having an annex where visitors could paint pictures on three easels marked "Mystery," "Grace," and "Paradox." The work is videotaped, with fresh canvases installed every few days.

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Personal Message

On a recent trip to the gallery, USC freshman Jenny John immediately grabbed a brush and painted in red "USC Loves Biola" on the canvas resting on the "Paradox" easel.

"I love it," John said. "Every time you go into an art gallery, it's always hands off and stand behind the line. Here, you get involved."

Jason Whalen, who ministers to post-college adults at the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, said Christianity's future will probably be a blend of approaches displayed at Biola, minus the "Reactors."

"It's all about the search for authenticity," Whalen said. "Be what you say you are."

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