Glenn Donithan hadn't been to church since he was 10.
He had long since dropped the Presbyterianism of his youth and drifted into a vague agnosticism. At a time when he was depressed over marital problems, Mr. Donithan was invited by a friend to Grace Fellowship, a 2,000-member church in Timonium.
"I was there five minutes and I started crying, and I knew that was the place. Sixteen months later, I haven't left," says Mr. Donithan, 33 and a computer analyst from Baltimore County.
Mr. Donithan is among the thousands of young adults and baby boomers who have rediscovered the Christian faith in large, nondenominational churches like Grace.
"There were no religious symbols and no 500-year-old hymns," says Mr. Donithan. "Just an auditorium. The congregation was younger, like me. The pastor wasn't up there in a white robe with tassels, and he didn't act like someone who has it all together -- he shared his own struggles. It was very real."
Within the last decade, conservative nondenominational churches have become the hottest thing within American Christendom, outstripping both the Roman Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant denominations in growth, according to Warren Bird, a researcher with the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth in California.
Although in Baltimore, Roman Catholics made up the largest single religious body in 1993 with more than 460,000 members, only about one-third of those members are found at Mass on a given Sunday, according to church statistics.
"The traditional church today is a 1950s church in music and dress," observes the Rev. Sandy Mason, the senior pastor at Grace. "The new generation says, 'I don't relate to that.' Our goal is to make Christianity real."
That means he doesn't want to turn people off with "religiosity," the minister says. "We don't want visitors uncomfortable with language and music that don't form Christianity, but what I call 'churchianity.' We're trying to get that out of the way so people can sit down and be with Jesus."
A faith that focuses on the basics of Christianity, presented with a pop culture twist, is finding a ready market among baby boomers, say religion researchers.
In addition to packaging a stripped-to-basics version of theology, the new churches reflect an informal, contemporary worship style. Denominational dogma gives way to a "seeker-friendly" environment; liturgy is replaced by worship bands with electric guitars. Walking into Grace is much like attending a cheerful rock concert -- loud music, dimmed lights, parishioners in bluejeans.
The boom in boomer churches is not without its opponents.
Critics, often within the evangelical camp that spawned the movement, accuse their brethren of pandering to the market, of treating the work of God like an auto assembly line.
Ministers speak of their congregations as their "customers." Dozens of books present step-by-step how-to guides. In the process, some theologians assert, the supernatural is getting squeezed out.
The slick presentation has watered down an orthodox faith to a fast-food theology where the emphasis is on self, not on God, say other critics.
Defenders of the movement, however, say that the theology of contemporary churches would be right at home in a Billy Graham crusade. Scratch the McChurch surface, they say, and you'll find that "old-time religion."
These new church-goers may not have walked a sawdust trail, but they talk as if they had.
"If you'd told me a year and a half ago I would be like this today, I would have thought you insane," Mr. Donithan says. "My friendships are deep -- we talk about real life, not just the Orioles. A relationship with Jesus Christ hasn't made all my problems go away, but he gives me a way to work through the stuff that happens in my life."
The model for most nontraditional churches is Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago. In 1975, Bill Hybels, a young minister fresh out of seminary, along with a group of Christians, asked suburban Chicagoans why they skipped church.
"Church is boring," they were told. "It's not relevant. They ask for my money."
In response, Mr. Hybels started what became the prototype megachurch (defined as any congregation exceeding 2,000 members), an "unchurchy" kind of gathering that features practical sermons, religious skits, contemporary music and minimal mention of money.
Last year, Willow Creek drew 14,000 people a weekend to its Saturday night and Sunday morning services.
Churches modeled on Willow Creek have found similar success. While mainstream churches continue to watch their memberships dwindle, an estimated 25,000 nondenominational churches continue to expand.
Every two weeks in the United States, another nondenominational church tops 2,000 attendance, writes mainline church consultant Lyle E. Schaller, a United Methodist minister.
This contrasts with 85 percent of mainstream churches, which average 200 or fewer people on a typical Sunday, says Mr. Bird.