In early 1999, stickers and flyers started appearing
on telephone poles and café billboards around
Minneapolis and St. Paul. Army green, orange and
black, they were a riot of mod design and faux graffiti,
with immoderate use of the word awesome.
They were plastered with slogans like "Interested
in God but not in religion?" and "Awesome
church without all the guilt." "Experience
the revolution!" The campaign was quintessential
viral marketing, a ground-up, street-level, buzz-generation
technique devised to reach younger and more skeptical
consumers, and it was the handiwork of a new church
called the Rock. Whoever they were, and whatever
they happened to believe, it was clear that these
people were dead serious about their image.
poll after poll continues to show that as many Americans
believe in God as ever, the way we as a culture
are putting that belief into action is changing.
Just as small-town hardware and general stores across
America have been run out of business by retail
giants like Home Depot and Wal-Mart, small, community-based
congregations are being steamrolled by the mighty
suburban megachurch. It turns out that the Rock
is the offshoot of just such a monster congregation,
Evergreen Community Church, which is located in
the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington (which, incidentally,
also provides a home to the world-famous, gargantuan
Mall of America). Self-consciously different from
the traditional churches from which it draws many
of its converts, Evergreen is not affiliated with
any particular denomination and has jettisoned old-fashioned
hymns and liturgies for contemporary jazz/pop music,
"meaningful" and "relevant"
messages and "friendly people," according
to its Web site (evergreencc.com—not evergreencc.org:
that, strangely enough, is a country club in Virginia).
What Evergreen has done for baby boomers, the Rock's
leaders hope to do for Generation X.
services are at six on Saturday evenings, instead
of Sunday morning, at an elementary school in the
Minneapolis neighborhood of Uptown. Experts will
tell you that Rule No. 1 in marketing to the twenty-something
demographic is to set up shop as close as possible
to the Gap, Urban Outfitters and Starbucks, and
around here that means Uptown. It's an area I live
smack in the middle of, and the Rock owns the neighborhood.
Since the Rock bills itself as an "awesome
church without all the guilt," services are
heavy on redemption, grace and love. There were
about two hundred people in attendance at each of
the services I witnessed. Nearly all of them were
white, the congregations were skewed heavily toward
the female (22-year-old single males take heed!)
and dress was uniformly casual: shorts, T-shirts,
jeans, etc. There were quite a few ball caps, a
nose ring here and there, a peppering of tattoos.
It could have been a Dave Matthews concert.
service began with the kind of musically and theologically
fluffy songs, generally referred to as praise music,
that churches are using these days to reach young
people. The sound was half Indigo Girls and half
Hootie and the Blowfish, and several teenagers up
front were really getting into it, locking arms,
swaying and nodding their heads. Next came some
announcements, and an admirably optional offertory
during which we were entertained by the most nonmusical,
utterly structureless bass solo one could ever hope
to hear. Nonetheless, the crowd went wild when it
was over, and then Pastor Greg Larson got up and
started in on his sermon.
come expecting to hear God filtered through the
language of pop psychology, portrayed as the Big
Down Comforter in the Sky, and that's what I got,
except largely for the God part. Larson managed
to eat up twenty-five minutes driving home the legitimate
point that we shouldn't be so caught up with success.
He urged us to be more willing to accept failure.
After all, someone as successful as Michael Jordan
in his best season missed half of all his shots,
and even the best baseball players strike out two
out of three at-bats. Part three in a four-week
series on "What to Do When You've Screwed Up,"
Larson's sermon was more Tony Robbins than Billy
that's not accidental. The theological vagueness
of Larson's sermon, and of the Rock's service in
general, is designed not to reveal the many wonders
of the faith, but simply to give college students
and single twenty-somethings "something that
makes sense, a way that they could interact with
people their age," Larson told me in a phone
interview. The people the Rock targets "think
church is boring," he added. "They can't
relate to the messages."
isn't that the fault of the message, then? "Not
at all, " he said. "I think the Bible
is the most relevant book that's ever been written."
For this crowd, he said, what's really important
is how you package it, which means that you offer
it up gradually. People who come to the Rock for
the first time are prepared to think about God,
but they can still be turned off by the accouterments
of traditional Christian services, things like Bible
readings and the liturgy. "If you're brand-new,
sometimes they can make you feel kinda dumb,"
he said. "We take people where they're at and
just give them little doses of Christianity,"
he added. "We're not hooking somebody up to
the fire hydrant. We just give them a glass of water,
and let them digest it a bit."
for the music and laid-back style of the service,
Larson called it "basically the kind of music
that we like to listen to anyway, whether it's Lenny
Kravitz or the Goo Goo Dolls." Meanwhile, his
group avoids potentially off-putting topics like
hell and sin so as not to scare anyone away. "Many
people in this community, if I can be frank, have
a Catholic background, and they think of a condemning
God," Larson said. Also, it's nice to be able
to wear your Birkenstocks to church.
behind all the casual methods and comforting messages
is Evergreen Community Church. Recent Evergreen
sermons have been preached on such touchy-feely
topics as "Overcoming a Dysfunctional Past,"
"Living with Broken Dreams" and "How
to Make Better Decisions," but answers come
only from a strict, fundamentalist reading of the
Bible. Behind the "fun" style is a strain
of Christian faith that takes the words in the Bible—every
word in the Bible—as its guide. These are
some pretty conservative Christians, with views
far to the right of the American mainstream, organ-free
service notwithstanding. Larson put it into simple
terms: "We believe that the Bible is inerrant."
old-fashioned biblical literalism and applying it
to today's morally relativist culture no doubt requires
some creative packaging. Evergreen's carefully constructed
image seems to be a big hit with baby boomers, but
that doesn't necessarily mean that the Rock will
have the same kind of success. After all, there
has never been a generation so skilled at separating
something of real value from a product built solely
on high-rent hype. Generation X is so used to being
given the hard sell—so attuned to the motive
behind every message—that the Rock's attempts
to get us in the door are as likely as not to be
viewed as the posturing they are.
it's a wonderful thing that everyone is welcome
at the Rock, and indeed, the highlight of the second
service I attended was a woman's genuinely touching
story of her past drinking, drugs, promiscuity and
abortions, and how much it meant that God—and
the members of Evergreen—loved her despite
her sins. It was a powerful message, and one that
all Christians relish—forgiveness in the face
of personal failure. The tricky part for the Rock
is trying to keep everyone feeling welcome while
not abandoning their conservative values, which
creates a situation that is, on some level, manipulative
and dishonest. I'm pretty sure that the Bible has
something to say about that.
House of Mercy
the Rock isn't the only group trying hard to reach
young people. The House of Mercy, located in a desolate
block on the edge of downtown St. Paul, is about
as opposite from the Rock as Tom Waits is from Matchbox
20. "A church like the Rock is trying to be
so hyper-relevant, like 'We're cool, we're the cutting
edge, we're hip-happening,' you know? 'We're the
Surge [cola] of church!'" says Mercy's Rev.
Russell Rathbun. "And we're trying to say,
'We're peculiar.... This is a crazy message.'"
Churches now are like alternative radio, he adds.
"Everybody's casting around, trying to be down
with the kids." Rathbun, along with fellow
Baptist ministers Mark Stenberg and Debbie Blue,
founded the House of Mercy a year ago, and if a
church could ever be "cool," I suppose
this would be it.
Rock works hard at being awesome, relevant and "real."
The House of Mercy, on the other hand, just lets
it happen. Services are conducted in an actual church,
and music comes from a three-piece country gospel
ensemble—about half Hank Williams and half
traditional hymns. Where the Rock is "definitely
not your parent's church," as they say (note
the apostrophe placement), the House of Mercy isn't
actually that far off from what you may have grown
House of Mercy's founders know how important it
is to, ahem, keep it real. "People are looking
for some kind of particular, authentic experience,"
says Rathbun. "Anybody can, like, go to the
Gap, and be cool. I mean, when we started out, we'd
see these people come in, and they just had the
hippest look going in the world. We thought maybe
they were even street punks. But then we realized
that these are all people from Bethel College, and
you can buy that look at the mall."
superficial differences aside, what really distinguishes
a church like the House of Mercy from the Rock and
its counterparts is the way it handles its message.
At the Rock, as Greg Larson freely admitted, you
get more of a self-help seminar than a church service.
But while Larson and his group are helping college
students and Gen Xers cope with their dysfunctional
pasts and make better decisions, and eventually
apply the Bible's wisdom to their problems, Rathbun
is in the pulpit agonizing over the same book's
very real complexities and contradictions.
House of Mercy doesn't shy away from the Bible's
least "awesome" parts or skip straight
to redemption and grace. Both services that I attended
found Rathbun and Stenberg tackling head on the
many difficult messages embedded in Jesus' parables.
Stenberg, the first week, preached against taking
the parable of the vineyard, in which God wreaks
vengeance on wicked tenants who kill first his servants,
and finally his son, as a justification for anti-Semitism.
And Rathbun, much to his adamant chagrin, found
himself stuck preaching on Matthew 22, in which
a king plans a wedding banquet for his son. After
receiving only a lukewarm response from his elite
invitees, the king has them murdered. Simple so
far, but after the king has declared the feast open
to any and all who will come, he flies off the handle
again. It seems that a guest lacks the proper attire,
so the king has him thrust into eternal darkness,
where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
matter how you parse it—and Rathbun gave it
a Herculean effort—this is the kind of parable
that makes Christians glad that they have other
material to work with. And it's also the kind of
parable that makes you understand why Greg Larson
and company prefer to offer up their message in
neat little bites. Which, from this Generation Xer's
perspective, only makes what the House of Mercy
is doing more admirable.
hand-wringing and head-scratching over just how
to reach this elusive "X" generation is
growing among mainstream church leaders. Bookshelves
overflow with tomes promising to tell readers what
makes Xers tick and explain this generation's baffling
language and semiotics. A classic example of these
efforts is Robert M. Nash, Jr.'s An 8-Track Church
in a CD World: The Modern Church in a Postmodern
World. A mainstream Baptist, Nash pulls no punches
when describing the atmosphere that mainstream Christians
are working in. The American religious landscape,
he says, is "a community fair with a limitless
blue-sky ceiling," whose shoppers can be summed