Suppose you found in your mail a postcard picturing four happy-go-lucky children, beach-blond hair tousled, romping in a shady park. Above the fair foursome, the card reads "Radical Good Times for Kids. Like, Intensely Cool. Even for a Church."
Yes, of course you'd read the fine print on the back of the card.
The question, of course, is whether the pitch would intrigue you enough to pay the sender a visit. Or would you think the pitch a turn-off, its approach a tad too New Age?
The sender of the card, and others featuring smiling, young adults sipping cool drinks and handsome young couples relaxing in a park, is the non-denominational Valley Brook Community Church.
Currently operating out of rented office space in a corporate park in Columbia, Valley Brook has found a niche among the area's growing population of young, educated adults seeking spiritual fulfillment outside traditional Christian faiths.
"We're a market-driven church. We consider ourselves non-threatening, not non-traditional," says Rob Lamp, executive pastor of Valley Brook. "We tell people who aren't familiar with us that we're contemporary, relevant and friendly."
Which means, don't expect fire and brimstone from this pulpit.
"We don't focus on sin and guilt," says Mr. Lamp. "Our focus is helping people build strong relationships in families and among friends and hearing God's message in a relevant, unthreatening way."
You won't find altars, crosses, crucifixes, candles or vestment-clad clergy at Valley Brook.
Those attending the church's Sunday services at Howard Community College and at a high school near Silver Spring are treated to a blend of contemporary spiritual songs, scripture readings and brief skits aimed at dramatizing the conflicts of daily life.
Valley Brook is among a growing number of Christian churches nationwide attempting to draw baby-boomers put off by the faiths of their youth. Their aim: Reach the wavering flock with a decidedly up-tempo, secular appeal.
Valley Brook is modeled, in part, on one of the best known of these churches in the United States today -- Willow Creek, a non-denominational "mega-church" outside Chicago that draws 4,500 to Sunday services at its massive auditorium.
Says Mr. Lamp, "People today aren't looking to be beaten over the head with a scriptural message. They want a community of people which shares their belief in God and is willing to understand the conflicts they are faced with. We are a community of seekers."
Valley Brook's theme may seem avant-garde, but one thing is clear: enough Howard and Montgomery county residents are attracted by the nontraditional character of the church and its focus on delivering teachings of Christianity in contemporary language, music and drama, to have its founders planning a larger church.
The seed for the church was a small campus Bible study group at the University of Maryland in the early 1980s. Valley Brook today boasts a membership of more than 500.
Its pastors hope to break ground by this summer on a $1 million, 20,000-square-foot building that would include a 600-seat auditorium, which they call a "gym-atorium." It would be used for basketball and other indoor sports, as well as musical events and church services. So far, members have donated $650,000 for the facility that will be built on Hall Shop Road south of Columbia.
In addition to Sunday services, Valley Brook offers a wide range of ministry programs, including one for children, called "Discovery Years;" one for teens, called "Solid Rock;" and one aimed at single adults, called "Prime Time."
Valley Brook administrators are forever asking members what they like about services and ministries, and what they don't like. Survey cards are handed out at most functions.
They've found people definitely like the musical offerings, says Mr. Lamp. The church has a strong sampling of talented musicians, eager to showcase their talents on Sundays.
The church's focus on music and drama as powerful media for reaching people is highlighted in its annual Christmas holiday show, which ran Dec. 11-12 in Silver Spring and Dec. 17-19 in the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College.
The extravaganza, which featured about 130 singers, actors, musicians and stage hands -- all drawn from the church's membership -- drew more than 3,000. It took six months to plan and produce, and had an upbeat and nostalgic TV holiday-variety show theme.
Contemporary music, much of it composed by Valley Brook members, plays a key role in the church's three Sunday services -- two in Columbia and one in Silver Spring -- at which teachings of Christianity are presented in a way Valley Brook's five full-time pastors hope speaks to the "market" of young, educated couples and singles.
Recent issues or "themes" of drama and music at Valley Brook's services include single parenting, drug use by kids and work stress.