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Keeping it real

RELIGION: Turned off by the programmatic thinking and watered-down preaching of many boomer churches, a new generation of evangelicals is forging a new breed of church

"DOUBT NIGHT" AT MARS HILL Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., promises an evening of brutal honesty and searching. Rob Bell, the church's 33-year-old teaching pastor, fields questions about anything related to Christianity and life. One night last December, a brave young woman put Pastor Bell on the spot: "I doubt that God will forgive my sins, when I can't forgive a babysitter who raped me repeatedly when I was 10 years old." And so it began. The young woman that evening raised the first of many deeply personal issues ranging from suicide to addictions.

Mars Hill started with a small group in 1999 and five years later claims more than 10,000 weekly attendees. Church leaders say such growth was not the result of a grand master plan. "Doubt Night" displays Mars Hill's emphasis: the Bible applied to real-life situations with a level of authenticity not previously found by a new generation of churchgoers.

This church is not an anomaly. The rise of young pastors like Mr. Bell and others of his generation represents "a new period in evangelical history," says Robert Webber, author of The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World.

Mr. Webber, a former Wheaton College professor, distinguishes between "traditional" evangelicals who came of age between 1950 and 1970, the program-based evangelicals of the 1975-2000 era, and a new generation of younger evangelicals beginning around 2000. The new leaders see themselves connected to a lost generation: Many young people flocking to these new churches are reacting against the perceived failures and shortcomings of the baby boomers -- their parents, by and large.

With baby boomers, observes Mr. Webber, "came the rise of crime, the inhabitability of the inner cities, the disruption of social institutions, the decline of marriages, the rise of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, the breakdown of values, the suspicion of institutions, the intensification of individualism, the demise of authority, and in general the collapse of modern society as we know it." Baby-boomer misadventures produced collateral damage: the broken and wounded hearts of Gen-Xers and Millennials (born after 1982).

This is "the first generation raised without parents and by the media, i.e., MTV, HBO, etc.," explains Ethan Burmeister, 31, pastor of Core Community in Omaha, Neb. "We are a latch-key, street-smart, materialistically saturated, authority-hating, media-induced generation."

Ron Wheeler, 27, pastor of The Gathering in Mt. Vernon, Wash., says, "Xers and Millennials are the recipients of the wealth that their boomer parents amassed. Children were usually spared no luxury. Having very often grown up in a dysfunctional home environment, young people learned quickly how to use the guilty conscience of parents to obtain material substitutes for real intimacy and stability. Ultimately, we are hedonists who, like most spoiled brats, hate the fact that nothing feels real and suffer from a lack of direction and purpose."

Younger evangelicals sensed they needed new ministry methods. "Pragmatic evangelical churches develop programs based on a target group and felt needs," says Bill Clem, 48, a church planter with Doxa in Seattle, Wash. "This really means a church is at the mercy of trends for programming, and that there is an extreme urgency to be tragically hip."

These pastors lament that commercialism and consumerism now dominate evangelicalism. It has become common, they say, for churches to engage in intensive marketing and targeting of people, in an attempt to act as vendors of religious goods and services, much like a Wal-Mart or Target. "We're just peddling spiritual goods and services instead," says The Gathering's Mr. Wheeler.

Eric Stanford, 40, writing for Next-Wave, an online discussion group of younger evangelicals, observes that baby-boomer churches tend to rely heavily on highly structured programs, but Xer-led churches put more emphasis on relationships. He says that boomer churches emphasize "excellence" in often professionalized church ministries but Xer churches emphasize "realness."

Younger evangelical leaders also do not limit their outreach to particular age groups, as Mr. Webber points out: "Younger evangelicals desire to be around their parents and grandparents, and their dislike of being separated into their own group runs counter to the advice given by church-growth movements that the way to start a church is to target generations."

Boomers and Xers may use the same words differently. Baby boomers who hear the word community often think in terms of programs, such as small-group ministries, which may mean a group of 10 or so random people who don't know each other -- meeting once a week, maybe, to sojourn through life together in two hours or less.

But for young evangelicals the word community reflects the need for deeper relationships. Many say that churches can't put random people together and expect honesty and transparency. Small groups are organic, emerging from relationships among people who spend time together -- almost like "family." "We are filling in a deficiency," Mr. Burmeister says. "The church has an opportunity to become a family to the family-less."

Young people, Mr. Wheeler says, long to learn from a person who is honest about his struggles and who passionately longs to be spiritually transformed -- "not a fakey pastor who wears a fake smile and pretends at a fake relationship with his wife."

The worship style of many younger evangelicals is also different than the show-time emphasis of professional-style choirs and instrumentalism at some churches. Aaron Niequist, 27, worship director at Mars Hill, says that what people "cry out for is honesty." People want to know "how I can be really broken and not have to get cleaned up in order to sing to God."

That might even involve singing a few old-time hymns. At Doxa in Seattle traditional hymns are used, even if the music is tweaked a bit for Gen-Xers. Advent was a "big deal" that invoked the ancient church and the congregation as well, says Mr. Clem. During last year's Advent, Doxa "used traditional Scripture readings from Old Testament, Gospel and Epistles, sang hymns and carols, and lit advent candles. There was even communion."

The biggest emphasis is on Bible teaching applied to real-life situations. The preaching and teaching of Gen-Xers in these churches is far from watered down or seeker sensitive. "We know the message of self-esteem is bankrupt," says Shaun Garman, 34, pastor of Red Sea Church in Portland, Oregon. "We know we are not the center of the universe." Rather than seeing a desire for feel-good messages, he sees people who are hungry "for someone to tell them the most subversively true message -- how bad they are and how great God is."

Longing for a place to come alive typifies the quest for a new way of ministry for this generation. Steve Mayer's journey landed him an internship at a small evangelistic church. His immersion into the Christianity of "evangelism only" prompted him to lead a team to Alaska to share the gospel with villagers. That trip forever changed his passion for ministry.

Among Native Americans, he saw the effects of alcoholism, suicide, depression, hopelessness, poverty, and broken families. Mr. Mayer realized that he had no answers for these situations. He had a programmed evangelistic method, but this was of little help in dealing with the situations before his eyes. "We thought we could just come in a week and change their lives" with things like VBS and other evangelistic programs, says Mr. Mayer.

So he broke all the rules of the program. He stayed out very late at night talking to people on the street, often alone, and often in co-ed contexts. He could not escape the feeling that he was selling prepackaged Christianity -- and he balked. The programmed Christianity he was taught was not in touch with the brokenness of the Native Americans he met.

For help, Mr. Mayer turned to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. From King he learned that Christianity should be passionate about souls and passionate about the "slums those souls reside in." Caring about souls and the real-life situations in which those souls move became authentic evangelism for Mr. Mayer. But where could he do that?

After being told by a seminary professor that many programmed-based churches wouldn't support his passion for addressing social issues, he left the world of "evangelism only" for Mars Hill. There he says he found a place where people cared about souls and life situations. "If you programmatically implement what it means to follow Jesus, you're missing it," says Mr. Mayer.

As an emerging leader at Mars Hill, Mr. Mayer recently accepted a part-time staff position in the Global Outreach office. In addition to his church work, Mr. Mayer leads a group of young adults studying justice issues and a men's group where, he says, "authenticity is simply a requirement." Mr. Mayer's passion for people and their various circumstances convinces him that in the end "you just can't think programmatically about this stuff."

It may be too early to make a sweeping generalization about where this movement is headed, but some may rightly ask: Are the concerns of the Gen-X leaders like these just a reaction? That is, in 20 years, when the children of younger evangelicals come of age and break away to start the next "new" movement, will they see the work of their parents as a healing force? Or will there be fresh brokenness to lament?

-- Anthony B. Bradley is a research associate at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.