FLORIDA: Christ church dedicates $12 million center for contemporary worship

November 23, 2008

When attendance at a single weekly worship service grows tenfold in less than a decade, that's wonderful -- and challenging.

Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, just south of Jacksonville, met that challenge by raising $12 million to build a new parish center with a 380-seat space dedicated to contemporary worship. The services feature modern music performed by a guitar-keyboard-drums trio, casual clothing for clergy and servers, moveable chairs instead of pews and large video screens displaying images, lyrics and the Rite II liturgy.

When Christ Church first offered a contemporary service in the early 1990s, 20 to 30 people attended. Ten years later, the church's fastest-growing service -- and the one attracting the most new members -- was the contemporary one, with 250 regular attendees crowded into a small, outdated parish hall.

The contemporary service's popularity complemented the church's six other weekend services held in its 650-seat traditional church building and smaller chapel. Founded in 1951 by fewer than 50 people, Christ Church now has approximately 5,900 members and the nation's second highest average Sunday attendance -- 1,500. Its range of worship styles respond to the variety of needs among its members.

The traditional church building, constructed when the congregation was founded, shares a 6 ½ acre campus with the contemporary worship center.

"People come to the Episcopal Church from different traditions," explained the Rev. Richard Westbury Jr., rector of Christ Church. In the contemporary service, "we are able to use the traditional Episcopal liturgy form and communicate it in new and exciting ways, employing different styles of music and using images."

For these worshippers, the entire congregation and the many community groups that use the church's facilities, a master planning committee came up with a vision: tear down the old parish hall and build a larger, two-story parish center with a fellowship hall on the first floor, a contemporary worship space upstairs and a two-level deck out back to satisfy county requirements for parking spaces.

Planning was followed by a capital campaign and a year of construction. The new center opened this fall -- on time and on budget. The contemporary worship space was designed by a committee of church members and clergy who visited similar spaces used by other denominations for inspiration.

The space features a modern audio and video system, moveable walls, flexible seating and a raised platform. In addition to Sunday services, the space also hosts a new, monthly youth-led service and special events, including plays, concerts and dances.

"We're part of what's going on now," said guitarist John Dickens, a member of the youth band that plays for the contemporary service, "rather than being in the next room." Previously, because of limited space, the band had been in an adjacent room.

"It's more relaxed, and you get to do things more freely," said Cameron Davis, a high school student who attends the service. Another student, Emily Lewis, added that "the contemporary aspect makes it more inviting, and all my friends are here."

Despite the service's informal style, contemporary worship "never had the dignity it has now" in its newly consecrated space, said the Rev. Robert Morris, associate rector of Christ Church. "It's easier to find the holiness."

In addition, new ways of extending Episcopal traditions into a more modern environment can be explored. "The worship can be contextually appropriate," said Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who led the dedication service for the new parish center on October 29. "You can design the space differently for a baptism or a funeral," she noted. "Perhaps the Easter Vigil starts with a fire in the middle of the room."

For Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard, of the Diocese of Florida, Christ Church's variety of services and music is "the mark of a very mature church." He called the new parish center "a model for the way a church campus can be built" and expects "to see people come from many places to see how this has been done."

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