From the gym to a movie theatre: Housing the ‘unchurched’

Ron Williams is the pastor of Church at the GYM in Sanford, Fla. As the Baptist church’s name implies, Williams’ … Continued

Ron Williams is the pastor of Church at the GYM in Sanford, Fla. As the Baptist church’s name implies, Williams’ congregation meets, well, in a gym.

Williams said the goal is to remove the “stained-glass barriers” for people who might not be comfortable in traditional church settings.

“I think all the trappings of traditional religion can make it difficult for people to start coming,” he said. “You can invite someone, and they will say, ‘I don’t have any clothes to wear to church.’”

To make people feel more comfortable, Williams wears jeans. In the warm Florida climate, some members wear shorts. Other clothing types, from urban wear to biker gear, also are welcome.

Sanford native Sandy Adcox, 38, had not been to church in 18 years before she attended Church at the GYM last March. She hasn’t missed a service since.

“I’ve never in my life felt more comfortable in a church,” she said. “It’s so warm and welcoming.”

Comfortable is becoming common as churches take advantage of new, nontraditional spaces in movie theaters, skating rinks, strip malls and old warehouses, among others.

Aaron Coe, vice president for mobilization for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North America Mission Board, cited several factors for the shift, including a move away from traditionalism and the economic advantages of leasing space instead of building a church.

“We’ve seen everything from art galleries to schools,” he said. “Schools and movie theaters are probably the most common. There is definitely a trend, and I think it’s one that’s here to stay.”

They may not have steeples or stained glass, but the nontraditional churches say they are finding success tapping into a segment of society that may otherwise have been lost. At these churches, attendees often are greeted with coffee and doughnuts. Rather than organs, church music is more likely to be the tune of guitars.

The Bridge in Flint, Mich., set up in a strip mall anchored by a grocery store. “We do a lot of things that are really different,” Pastor Steve Bentley said.

Perhaps the most different: The interdenominational church recently opened a tattoo parlor. “We want to be relevant to people’s lives,” Bentley said.

The church uses video clips to illustrate its messages on Sundays. “We break with tradition, but we don’t break with Scripture,” Bentley said. “It’s all about presenting the information in a different way.”

Church at the GYM is an outlet of Sanford’s Palmetto Avenue Baptist Church, which Williams described as a contemporary service that appeals to the baby boomer generation.

The new church is a more modern interpretation — an experiment that aims to encourage attendance among the under-40 crowd, he said. “We realized we weren’t reaching them,” Williams said. “We were losing a generation.”

A 2010 Gallup Poll found that church attendance was on a slight incline: 43.1 percent of Americans reported weekly or almost weekly attendance. Older people were the most likely to attend, while 18- to 29-year-olds were among the least active.

Coe said his organization has partnered with Southern Baptist churches across the U.S. and Canada in forming churches in nontraditional spaces.

“As evangelicals, we don’t believe the building is the church, the people are the church,” Coe said. “The building itself has taken on less importance.”

Even outside the regular Sunday services, the churches find ways to engage people on friendly grounds. Church at the GYM holds its baptisms in members’ pools — events that turn into big backyard barbecues.

“It’s exciting,” Williams said. “Everyone cheers like we’re at a basketball game.”

The Rev. Chuck Culpepper leads St. Alexis Episcopal Church in an old warehouse in downtown Jackson, Miss. In 2006, St. Alexis became the first church opened by the Episcopal Church in Mississippi since the 1960s.

“It began with an idea our bishop had,” Culpepper said, to appeal to “unchurched” young adults — those who have no church home and are unlikely to go to the more common big, old church.

The building they picked most recently housed a furniture store. The congregation renovated the structure, which was built in the 1920s, but the goal was to keep the industrial look — exposed brick, high ceilings.

“We didn’t want for it to look like a church,” Culpepper said.

St. Alexis parishioner Nic Torrence, 26, of Jackson said he came to the church with a friend a few years ago, not really knowing what to expect.

“It wasn’t anything like the other churches I had known,” he said. “What we do is different. It’s informal in a lot of ways, and it’s very welcoming.”

(Elizabeth Crisp writes for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. A version of this story first appeared in USA Today.)

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