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Spring 2013 Students, Victoria Haynes

Contemporary churches break away from tradition to attract younger people

By Victoria Haynes

Loud, alternative music fills the main auditorium at Kearny High School, which alternates as Flood Church every Sunday. Young people are worshiping in the aisles with their hands raised — most wearing casual and trendy clothing. Flood Church is just one of many newer churches in San Diego County that use different techniques to appeal to a generation that has been leaving traditional services.

Existence church holds its services in a simple warehouse building in Miramar. Photo by Victoria Haynes.

Existence church holds its services in a simple warehouse building in Miramar. Photo by Victoria Haynes.

Many churches are moving away from formal sanctuaries with stained-glass windows and are leasing buildings such as gyms, movie theaters, old warehouses and even high school auditoriums. Many incorporate video clips during the service to illustrate the message and keep the congregation interested.

A survey by the Faith Communities, a multi-faith group of religious researchers and faith leaders, reveals that more churches are adopting contemporary worship services. Despite a national trend of young adults not attending regular church services, studies show these charismatic churches have experienced an increase in attendance, especially among college students.

Darren Iammarino, religious studies professor at San Diego State University, said the positive results outweigh the cons of a contemporary church model. He said the obvious risk of lively, informal church services is straying away from the original intended message.

“The line is somewhat subjective, but there does come a point where you run the risk that you do this as an activity just for fun, and the original intent is lost,” Iammarino said.

Iammarino said he thinks the popularity of this type of church has grown in the United States because people’s faith is strengthened when they surround themselves with hundreds of like-minded people.

Informal churches appeal to college students

Flood Church first began as a service exclusively for college students at College Avenue Baptist Church before it branched off and developed into its own entity. Adam Wright, college pastor at Flood, said he realizes the message needs to stay the same, but the methodology can change accordingly. He said the values held at Flood happen to connect with the demographic of young people. Wright said young families are a growing part of the church, but the majority is unmarried adults in their 20s.

Contemporary and unique elements in Flood’s service:

  • Dance performances
  • Loud, alternative music
  • Unique art & design pieces
  • Short creative videos
  • Interactive activities

Staff members say they believe these elements engage the audience while appealing to the surrounding culture. Churchgoers say these nontraditional activities make them feel more connected to God.

“It seems like there is a new openness to spiritual things and there is a lot of opportunity there for the gospel,” Wright said. “Our heart would be that we could engage with students.”

College student Megan Woodard shares what it is about Flood Church that keeps her coming back.

On average, approximately 1,800 gather at Flood Church each week, between its four services throughout the day. The overall setting of intimate, informal churches is dramatically different from the structure of most mega churches. The Rock Church, an evangelical church in San Diego, gathers an average attendance of 12,000 people between its five weekly services. It is one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the area.

The Rock Church, located in Point Loma, is set up much like a production with lights, props and other necessary equipment for the service. Photo by Victoria Haynes.

The Rock Church, located in Point Loma, is set up much like a production with lights, props and other necessary equipment for the service. Photo by Victoria Haynes.

SDSU senior Kevin Shreffler said he explored other churches in San Diego, including The Rock, but said he felt it was overwhelmingly big and impersonal. He started attending Existence Church in the fall semester of his freshman year and has become deeply involved with his church fellowship over the years.

“It seemed like everything the pastor said matched up with my life,” said Shreffler. “I really liked the atmosphere of it, the music and the location.”

Existence Church’s Miramar location has approximately 300 members attend each service on average. Shreffler described Existence as a laid back and informal church, and said he thinks the level of formality plays a role in terms of helping people feel more connected.

College students desire sense of belonging

One reason smaller churches are attractive to college students is because students are seeking a sense of connectedness, according to Iammarino. He said college is an ideal time for students to be open to religion because they are vulnerable upon entering college as it is a new chapter in their lives.

“Turning to church brings you friends, spiritual counseling, and it fills the gap to meet many new people quickly,” Iammarino said.

Many college students experiment with alcohol and drugs, which can leave them feeling depressed. Iammarino said the hope dimension provided by a church presents a huge draw since there are limited places people can turn to where they can find happiness and contentment.

College students who are members of the Greek community at San Diego State University find contentment from gathering weekly for Greek Intervarsity.

Fewer young adults attend church

Source: 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Source: 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In contrast to the large amounts of young adults who attend informal churches in San Diego, a report (pdf) by Pew Research shows a decline in religious affiliation among young adults over the last 40 years.

The report also includes a survey showing that young adults attend religious services less often than older age groups. Of the category for those between the ages of 18 and 29, 33 percent said they attend worship services at least once a week, compared with 41 percent of adults ages 30 and older.

Wright said he imagines this trend will change over the next few years as young adults seem to continually be more responsive and receptive to getting involved with the church.

“A lot of this generation is open to spirituality and faith, maybe even more so than in the past,” Wright said.

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