To fill pews, some churches try novel approaches Basketball and the Bible both beckon

June 20, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Rick and Caroline Kryger are young, have rewarding jobs and lots of interests outside work.

But one place you won't find the Ellicott City couple is in church.

"We believe in God and the importance of spirituality and values, but going to church isn't a priority," says Rick Kryger, an analyst for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Most of the churches seem to have a lot of rules about what you can and can't do. That's been a turn-off."

How to attract the Krygers -- and the huge bloc of Americans who express outright discontent or lack of enthusiasm for church affiliations -- is the challenge facing many denominations.

Churches throughout the Baltimore area have begun offering activities outside traditional worship services -- from pick-up basketball games, to klatches for singles, to lifestyle appreciation seminars for African-Americans. Several parishes have toned down or modified religious services, some to the point of doing away with religious dress, icons and rituals.

"[People] consistently tell us they stopped attending church altogether before coming here because their prior church experiences weren't relevant to the deep questions and needs of their life," says the Rev. Rob Lamp, a senior pastor at Valley Brook church in Columbia.

The interdenominational Christian church does not include any clearly religious fixtures at its services other than the Bible.

"[They] are very time-pressured, and they are consumer-oriented; they're constantly having to decided how to invest their time," Mr. Lamp says. "If something doesn't seem worth investing in, they don't bother, and that goes for church."

A 1990 nationwide survey conducted by the Glenmary Research Center, a Roman Catholic Church affiliate, supports Mr. Lamp's observation.

The survey estimates that about 55 percent of the population in the Baltimore area either doesn't attend any type of religious services or doesn't claim an affiliation to an organized religious community. That information was culled from 1,261 major-denomination churches in the Baltimore area.

The study estimated the national average at about 45 percent. Other studies of the "unchurched," as the religiously disaffected have come to be called, estimate that between 40 percent and 50 percent of Americans aren't involved with organized religious activities. The high point for religious affiliation occurred in 1952 when 72 percent of Americans claimed membership in a church or synagogue, according to the Gallup Organization.

"The cultural gap between churched and unchurched is expanding rapidly in [Howard County]. On Sunday mornings I don't see much of anyone getting in their cars and going off to church," says Allen Harris, founding pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church.

The same is true in Baltimore, says the Rev. Ed Miller, pastor of St. Bernadine's Roman Catholic Church in Edmondson Village.

"Our battle with the transcendent doesn't shake many people. They are busy just meeting the demands of their own lives," he says.

Melissa and John Paul, a young couple who moved from Ohio to Columbia four years ago, are among those who have gone on a spiritual shopping spree.

Put off by what they viewed as confining doctrines of their Presbyterian and Methodist upbringings, neither has attended church regularly since college. But during the last year they made the rounds to more than six area churches to sit in on services and meet parishioners.

"Even though we weren't attending church, I had these questions about my belief in God and a feeling I wanted a closer relationship to God," says Ms. Paul, 28, a meeting coordinator for Johns Hopkins University.

"We both had these spiritual needs that weren't being fulfilled," says Mr. Paul, 28, a Department of Defense computer engineer.

During the past two months they've settled into attending services at Valley Brook. They enjoy the contemporary atmosphere of the church and its emphasis on building social as well as spiritual relationships.

A theatrical flair

Valley Brook's two Sunday services have a distinctly theatrical flair. There is a heavy emphasis on live contemporary music, from fast-paced Christian rock numbers to upbeat gospel sets. Those attending services also see a blend of Scripture readings and skits aimed at dramatizing the conflicts of daily life. There are no altars, crosses, crucifixes, candles or vestment-clad clergy at Valley Brook.

Valley Brook also offers a wide range of ministry programs, including one for children, called Discovery Years; one for teen-agers, called Solid Rock; and one aimed at single adults, called Prime Time.

Valley Brook uses these "activity groups" as a way to build fellowship among members and offer the unchurched an avenue to get to know members without coming to Sunday services. Other churches are experimenting in an effort to woo people back to the fold.

Some examples:

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