Church can be 'cool'

Seattle congregation reaches out to unchurched generations
February 29, 2004

WHEN A COUPLE in their mid-30s approached the Rev. Karen Ward after a service at Church of the Apostles and said they were seekers, Ward immediately wrote them a list of three other area churches to investigate.

"They were shocked," she said. A week later, a $600 donation from the couple arrived in the mail. "I think it's because I didn't pressure them to join the church," she said. "They respected the fact that we were respecting their spirituality."

It's an unusual approach to evangelism, but Church of the Apostles is that kind of place. Located in the artsy, eclectic Seattle neighborhood of Fremont, Wash., "COTA" caters to those of Generation X and younger in one of the least-churched spots in the country.

The local Episcopal and Lutheran dioceses support the growing congregation, whose services include such familiar elements as celebrating Communion. But liturgies are much more casual, free-flowing and multimedia than in the typical Episcopal or Lutheran church.

"It's a very unpretentious, laid-back service. You're welcome to wear your jeans, bring your coffee," said member Ray McKechnie, who turns 28 this month. "It doesn't look like a church, so people who are intimidated by church types of architecture and paraphernalia probably won't see that, except for a couple of the icons that we have."

"We try to make it as comfortable for people as possible," he said.

"That's what I love about it. You can come as you are and meet God where you're at. Nothing is expected of you except [to] make some friends and have a good time and maybe even have the Spirit speak to your heart, if you're open to it."

The church operates in a former beauty parlor along the main drag. With 50 to 60 people attending weekly Saturday services, the church is outgrowing its space and next year hopes to lease a nearby no longer used Lutheran church that seats 200, said Ward, church founder, Lutheran minister and, at 39, second oldest in the congregation.

Members also are trying to raise $10,000 to open a cafe that would be open 8 a.m.-10 p.m. five days a week plus offer programs such as music and poetry readings. The goal is to make money to help cover the rent, but also to provide a comfortable setting to draw people to COTA who otherwise might never enter a church.

Eighty percent of Washington state and 90 percent of its residents younger than 40 are unchurched, Ward said. Some young people are two generations removed from churchgoing. "They have no frame of reference for what a church is really about," she said. "They think you're some kind of a cult or something."

COTA crafts liturgies and events that reflect the culture of the unde 40 crowd. It hosts movie nights, music nights and art exhibits. One woman examined an exhibit about body art and spirituality and said, "Wow, this is beautiful. Is this an gallery?" Ward recounted. "I said, `Well, in a way ...'"

"People know that they're spiritual," she said. "They just thi that spirituality is something that happens outside the church. We respect their spirituality and start where they are at."

COTA preaches a Christian message but understands "nonchurched spirituality," she explained. And people are more willing to listen to what you say about Jesus if you respect them and their culture — understanding, for example, that tatoos reflect their spirituality rather than brand them criminals.

Beau Richards, 25, likes the church's basic Christian message that doesn'tcondemn people who believe differently. Worship is "formal and reverent" without being "restrictive," he said. "A lot of the complaints that I have with sort of organized religion is things that this church doesn't really adhere to: specifically, identifying that everyone else is incorrect because you feel that you believe correctly."

Raised in a conservative Baptist tradition, he attended various churches over the years but quit going regularly in college and afterward never found place that felt like it was "geared" him, he said.

COTA is. "I like small environment so I can feel like I know everybody, said. "Everybody's friendly, and everyone's very encouraging of people who show up who haven't been there before."

A writer, Prichard planned to shar his talents to help create a multime Stations of the Cross that will be available in time for Holy Week.

"It's becoming a large production, involving 14 visual artists, 12 musicians, a composer and eight theatric readers, said Ryan Marsh, 25, liturgy director. "A prerecorded compact disc ambient music and dramatic story wil accompany the 14 stations, leading people along the prayer path." The program will take about 45 minutes, said.

Raised in the evangelical traditio Marsh has sampled everything from Orthodox to Anglican to pentecostal worship. Working as property manager at a Nazarene church, he began meet with friends who "were all just reall committed, really passionate Christia but none of us attended any kind of organized church." Drawing on what they found most meaningful in differ traditions, they created a "common prayers" service.

At COTA, he said, he tries to creat liturgies that reflect the community. feel like my job is to facilitate the of all these people and the offering their gifts."

He also helps create large-scale " holy days parties," which attract hundreds of the curious and devout.

For last year's Easter vigil, calle "Rise," DJs and bands played throughout the evening, artists gave interpr tions of resurrection themes, and readings were displayed on the walls Worshippers gathered for Eucharist a to celebrate their baptisms. For thos not baptized, Marsh said, the event "framed so people could participate the Holy Spirit lead them."

A four-hour Day of the Dead party featured bands, DJs, a labyrinth and juice bar, McKechnie recalled. It wa to take a tradition celebrating life present it "in the context of ... be Christians and what that life means what abundant life means, specifical and try to apply it in a context for people who don't necessarily want to to church."

Many people left before the short midnight Communion, "but there were a lot of people that also stayed, wh was really great," he said.

The church's message is of welcome not pressure, Ward said.

"We're not concerned about membership. We're concerned about people's spiritual search, because we're on a spiritual search," she said. The U2 I Still Haven't Found What I'm Look For, she concluded, could be the the song for Generation X.

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