Coats of many colors Casual worship: Relaxed dress codes and informal services are among the changes some churches and synagogues are offering to attract members.

November 19, 1995|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Oh, ye of little faith, now you can praise the Lord -- in blue jeans and sweat shirts, on weekdays or at the mall.

These days, more and more churches around Baltimore and the nation are offering informal worship to attract new members who may be intimidated by traditional services or caught up in hectic lives. In the past year, many have begun featuring half-hour services, weekday gatherings and simple hymns -- sometimes accompanied by bongos.

In Harford County, an Episcopal church holds Tuesday services. In Anne Arundel County, an evangelical church meets at Harundale Mall. A synagogue on Greenspring Avenue has beginner services for adults. And jeans or shorts are perfectly acceptable at the Sunday family services at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church near Towson.

"The sole purpose is to get people in the doors who would not attend church," said James Pope, senior pastor of Glen Burnie's North Arundel Church, which meets at Harundale Mall in a come-as-you-are atmosphere.

"People need options," said the Rev. Stacey Nickerson, pastor of Idlewylde United Methodist Church, who started a 5:30 p.m. Saturday service recently.

"On Saturdays, people are running around all day. I thought they could stop by on their way home," added Ms. Nickerson, who has a 3-year-old son and is expecting another child in March.

She wore a denim maternity jumpsuit at a recent service, a family gathering that featured sing-along hymns to taped music, in a room usually used for preschool classes. Balloons replaced altar flowers, carpet squares and folding chairs were used instead of pews, and an office chair is the pulpit.

For Lisa and Hugh Gay of Idlewylde, part of the group of about a dozen worshipers, the 30-minute service suits them and their two children well. "It fits better in our time schedule. We can worship as a family," she said.

"And we don't have to wake up early," Danielle Gay, 12, added. But the best part is there is no dress code. "It takes the pretentiousness out of it," Mrs. Gay said.

Trend began in '60s

Ms. Nickerson said the trend toward more accessible services began in the late 1960s, when the Roman Catholic church began celebrating Mass in English and began allowing the faithful to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation on Saturdays. Now, momentum is gathering.

According to the Princeton Religion Research Center in Princeton, N.J., 42 percent of Americans are churchgoers. But only 30 percent of those under age 30 attend services.

So, many churches -- such as First English Lutheran Church in Baltimore -- have begun to target them with informal services.

"We have a great number of young people and young families in our area," said the Rev. Don Burggraf, pastor of First English Lutheran, on Charles and 39th streets. It will be instituting a contemporary worship service at 5 p.m. beginning today.

"It will be a more free-flowing service" with a one-page liturgy and a musician on keyboard and amplified guitar leading upbeat songs, Mr. Burggraf said.

He is following the initiative of Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson, which started a Sunday afternoon service a year ago to bring in new members, particularly Towson State University students.

"It's different. It's a good thing," Tiffany Augsburger, a 20-year-old junior, said at a recent service. "You don't have to get up early and there's musical variety."

Contemporary hymns that have simple refrains are a big part of )) the casual services.

"The major difference is the style of music," said Barbara Hanst, Ascension's parish associate. "It's like folk music of the '60s. It's also fairly easy music to learn. And that's our goal, to have it sing-able."

At the Towson church, participants sing with a soloist and musical ensemble that includes two guitarists, a keyboard player and occasionally a bongo player.

"What's nice is we're getting away from archaic boundaries," said Marian Briscuso, who helped to develop Ascension's contemporary service. "It's important to worship no matter what."

Weekday services

And, increasingly, that means offering weekday services.

"We wanted a time other than Sunday for those who would not or could not worship on Sunday," said the Rev. David Cooney, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in Cockeysville which holds a Monday evening casual service as well as regular, traditional Sunday services.

Many others also have added weekday services, including St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Abingdon with a Tuesday service and Trinity Assembly of God in Towson with a Wednesday session.

The pastors say that shift workers who work on Sundays and those who get up early every other day need alternatives to worship.

"I can understand people who say they want to stay home on Sundays," said Ms. Nickerson. "The world has changed."

Some wonder, though, whether contemporary services are the religious answer to cultural changes.

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