Wednesday, May 27, 2009

WSJ: An Upstart Church Movement Wrestles With Growing Older

From the Wall Street Journal.

GREENWICH, Conn. -- On a recent Saturday morning, musician Rob Mathes was in London's Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles recorded, working with rock band Dashboard Confessional. But he rushed back to the U.S. for what he sees as an equally important gig: playing Sunday morning services at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Conn.

The 44-year-old Mr. Mathes helped found the church to draw in young people with a new kind of service -- hipper, less formal, trying to reach people who had drifted away from church but still felt a spiritual need.

Last weekend, Trinity celebrated its 10th anniversary. Its parishioners, numbering 500 to 700 every Sunday, attend prayer groups and take communion. But they do so while a band plays original works as well as contemporary songs based on traditional hymns.

Now, Trinity is at a crossroads. Mr. Mathes's bandmate, Ian Cron, 48, is stepping down as lead pastor. At the same time, Mr. Mathes's outside career is growing -- he was the musical director for President Barack Obama's pre-inaugural celebration. The church hired recruiters to search for a new pastor. Neither of the two leading candidates is a musician.

Trinity's "season of change," as Mr. Mathes describes it, is emblematic of the struggle that many religious institutions face as they reach a certain age: how to reach a new generation while remaining relevant to the needs of the congregation. But at churches like Trinity, which identify as Christian but deliberately choose not to connect with any denomination, the transition is especially challenging. These churches were founded by people in rebellion against established institutions. Ten years down the road, they have become the establishment.

Messrs. Mathes and Cron played a role in a theological conversation broadly characterized as the "emerging church" movement. The concept started in Europe and then took off in the U.S. in the late 1990s. The churches were typically driven by people in their 20s and 30s, committed to social justice, questioning of traditional dogma and eager to embrace modern culture.

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Service at Trinity Church in Greenwich, CT. Female lead singer is Lynn Witty and the male lead singer is Ian Crohn also the founder of the church.
Joe Deruvo

Rob Mathes, left, and Lynn Witty sing at a service at Trinity Church.
Service at Trinity Church in Greenwich, CT. Female lead singer is Lynn Witty and the male lead singer is Ian Crohn also the founder of the church.
Service at Trinity Church in Greenwich, CT. Female lead singer is Lynn Witty and the male lead singer is Ian Crohn also the founder of the church.

The ideas had an outsize impact on mainline churches, says Ryan Bolger, an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., who has co-written a book about emerging churches. "I am at an aging Presbyterian church and we're rethinking our worship service," says Mr. Bolger. "This questioning is because of this renewal movement."

Yet despite their influence on mainstream affiliations, emerging churches are struggling with questions about their own role.

Brian D. McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland and one of the leaders in the emerging church movement, says he stepped down as church pastor three years ago to write books, travel and lecture to other churches. "We see Christian faith as less of an institution and more of a kind of quest," he says.

Tony Jones, who until recently was the national coordinator for Emergent Village, a loose affiliation of emerging churches, says the restlessness comes from being "spiritual entrepreneurs," people who don't want "a big bureaucracy, a big organization or a big budget."

Trinity's founding in 1999 grew out of a spiritual crisis experienced by the two founders, friends since childhood. Mr. Cron came from an evangelical background but says he became increasingly disillusioned with the movement's alignment with the political right. Mr. Mathes grew up in Greenwich attending church but stopped in college because "church didn't speak to me," he says. He played in nightclubs with his band, Rob Mathes and His Boy Elroy. But he says he realized that his most powerful songs were about a constant wrestling with "faith and doubt."

In 1997, Messrs. Mathes and Cron ended up at Stanwich Congregational Church in Greenwich, an independent Protestant church. "We were losing young people," says Neely Towe, who stepped down as pastor in 2007 after 20 years. "We wanted to find a way to reach them in their own medium." The men set traditional hymns to contemporary beats and also wrote original songs. They began playing at a special evening worship service. As their following grew, the group decided to leave Stanwich and found Trinity in 1999.

There are no hymnals or religious books at Trinity, which meets in a drab middle-school auditorium. Scripture, prayers and lyrics to the songs flash on three big screens.

Rick Lyons, who heads Trinity's pastor search committee, says the search process forced the church to wrestle with its identity. One outcome has been a greater focus on issues that dominate the congregation's daily lives, such as marriage and employment.

At this year's Palm Sunday service, Trinity member Christopher Morin, 38, told the congregation he had lost his job. He urged people to join a support group he was starting at the church to pray, swap leads and share résumés.

Mr. Cron says Trinity was at a size and an age where "it needed a new set of eyes," to see new things. "You don't want to become ossified," he says. "You have to keep thinking freshly on how to do church."

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