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Religion in the News

June 4, 1999

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ A dozen knee-slapping kids rap hip-hop style. Guitars, a bass and drums kick in. The young audience claps hands and swings to the pulsing beat.

A live concert? MTV? No, it’s worship service at the Grapevine Church in Cambridge, Mass.

While the melding of music and religion is nothing new, more and more churches are making an extra effort to draw young people by offering a mix of contemporary tunes, multimedia sermons and an informality they can relate to.

``The purpose is to reach out to GenXers who have left the church or haven’t been to church at all,″ said Grapevine’s Joseph Lee, who is known as Pastor Joe. ``We wanted our worship services to be appealing when they come.″

The trend of changing their tune spans churches across the country _ from the Crossroads Community Church in Cincinnati and the Sorgho Baptist Church in Owensboro, Ky., to St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in River Oaks, Texas.

Mixing entertaining and religion resonates with some.

Young Kim, 23, attending Sunday morning service at Grapevine, approvingly refers to the hip music as ``very different.″

``If the church were boring, I wouldn’t come,″ Kim adds.

But the more contemporary approach also has its critics. Lee said some elders have called the music ``satanic″ because of its heavy beat and rock ‘n’ roll style.

Steve Kwon, a first-year student at Tufts Medical School, gave the alternative service a try but was not sure he would return.

``To a younger audience it’s very effective,″ said Kwon, 22. ``To older, I don’t know.″

Pastors say declining church attendance over the last two decades is partly responsible for the shifting focus.

Among people 18 to 35, attendance has fallen 5.6 percent over the last five years, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The center’s Tom W. Smith cites several reasons.

Free from their parents for the first time, many young people stop practicing religion when they start college, Smith said. And in general people are waiting longer to marry or have children, both of which tend to bring people back to church, he said.

Chaplain Claudia Highbaugh of Harvard Divinity School said fewer young people set aside time for church on Sunday. Worship often competes with other activities in their lives, including jobs and athletics.

After introducing hip services that include praise time with catchy melodies and Scripture-based lyrics, some churches have seen their congregation grow.

One of these is the First Baptist Church in Houston, which two years ago squeezed a new service between two traditional services. It expected 300 to 400 worshippers, but it now averages between 1,500 and 2,000.

At Lord’s Gathering in Woburn, Mass., Clayton Reed _ also known as Pastor C _ dishes up a service that includes multimedia and lighting effects, which he says many young people prefer. He uses a computer connected to a projector that throws video clips and Bible passages on a screen as songs play.

``If you don’t go out of your way to speak to children and teens in a way they can hear, you’re going to lose them,″ said Reed, who sported sunglasses on his head. ``Why can’t church be so fun and cool that they just want to come?″

Another effort to make kids feel comfortable is the services’ typically more relaxed, informal atmosphere, in which pastors are called by their first names and dress is casual.

The words ``Solid Rock Cafe″ are painted in large bold letters on the walls, and a table soccer game stands in the middle of the room at Lord’s Gathering, making it feel more like a trendy club than a place of worship.

For Reed, youth service means connecting kids to an ``awesomely cool God.″ He said they can easily rattle off verses of Top 40 songs but often not a verse of Scripture.

``The bottom line is I want the eternal truth of God to get into people’s lives,″ he said. ``How do you do that? Through their culture.″

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