Churches reach out with coffee and roller rinks

SonRise Community Church had been operating without a building for nearly a decade when Pastor Jeff Arington saw the perfect property: an old restaurant on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Churches reach out with coffee and roller rinks

Two years later the church still doesn't have a sanctuary or any pews -- it meets at the local high school -- but it does have a successful coffee shop in the property the Pastor found, where members and passersby alike sip cappuccinos in a trendy Christian atmosphere.

"I've always said the church is not about a building, not about physical structures, it's really about the people themselves," said Arington, whose 275-strong evangelical congregation still plans to build their own church one day.

On the other side of Cincinnati, Inspirational Baptist Church is also opening its doors to the public -- in an even bigger way. In addition to a new, larger church, leaders have unveiled a $21 million plan to develop a skating rink, sports center and pool, all open to outsiders.

"This is expressly for the community. There's not a lot of recreational opportunity for youth around here," said Bishop Victor Couzens, whose suburban African-American congregation has grown in the last five years from 300 to 1,700.

While many U.S. churches have a Starbucks or gymnasium in the building, a growing number of evangelicals are taking a different approach: rather than giving churchgoers good coffee or a sports league, they're offering coffee or roller-skating to the public -- and hoping newcomers will get to know God while they're there.

"Congregations are trying to find a way to tie people together, but also find ways to present the Christian message that isn't so direct or in-your-face, to present a side door into the life of the church," said Scott Thumma, a religious sociologist at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.

"The megachurch especially has really led the way in these kinds of strategies," he said. "What a lot of congregations want is to have multiple avenues open so that they can bypass the resistance people have when they hear the word 'church' or 'Jesus,' whether it is a coffee shop or a bowling alley."

And while attendance at mainline Catholic and Protestant churches has fallen, nondenominational and evangelical churches who present nontraditional faces have grown.

That's a point not lost on Pastor Arington, whose small church is vibrant despite the lack of an actual building, in contrast to some traditional churches that have closed their doors.

"There are a lot of great, beautiful churches all over the world that are now vacant," he said.

Nearly 77 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, and 45 percent say they attend church at least once a week, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. About 60 million are evangelical Christians, who emphasize biblically oriented faith, personal conversion and evangelism.

BASKETBALL AND SNACKS

On a recent Sunday night, 40 teenagers packed into the SonRise cafe and adjoining courtyard to listen to a Christian band, race through a scavenger hunt, play pick-up basketball, eat -- and take in a 10-minute sermon against sexual immorality and dishonesty by their youth pastor, Chad Ricker.

Ricker, a former Marine, barks at the youth to pay attention as he preaches the church's conservative Bible-based theology, but his is a fond ferocity.

"Maybe you've already messed up. God will forgive you," he tells the youth, preaching barefoot and in cargo shorts before his equally casual audience.

Ricker, 31, said the absence of a traditional church building hasn't hindered the church's mission at all.

"If students will come, I don't care where we are," he said. "This doesn't look anything like a church. Kids come here and it's nonthreatening. Some don't want to go to a church -- there's a stigma."

The kids are equally enthusiastic. While some helped found the church with their parents in 1998, others have latched onto the cafe's Protestant social scene only recently.

"I actually go to St. Anthony's (Catholic Church) on Sunday mornings with my family," said Adele Bruggeman, 16. But a friend invited her along to the youth service at the coffee shop, and Bruggeman hasn't looked back.

"I just started coming and I love the people. It's a great way to end the weekend and have fun," she said.

At Inspirational Baptist, where churchgoers overflow into the lobby during Sunday services to hear three hours of gospel music and passionate preaching by Bishop Couzens, members look forward to the outreach opportunities that will come when their new roller-skating rink and sportsplex is built.

"When you're in a community, you're trying to gather people whichever way you can, and sometimes you can disguise your message with extracurricular activities," said Tamela Booker, 34, an insurance worker and lifelong church member.

"We want to reach out to the community with God's message with things people can relate to, so they feel loved."


Reuters

Last Mod: 01 Eylül 2007, 17:56
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