Church goes `un-churchy' in spreading `God's truth'

Mission: Bay Area seeks freedom `from the traditional trappings of religion' for its 1,400 members.

September 07, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

It's Sunday morning, and the 670-seat auditorium of Annapolis High School is crowded with men, women and children clapping their hands, stomping their feet and swaying to the sound of a six-member band.

The lead singer -- dressed in a fitted black T-shirt and khaki pants -- hits a high note on his electric guitar and encourages the audience to sing along.

I want you. I need you. I love you more than ever.

Hundreds of voices echo through the auditorium.

It might sound like a rock concert, but to Bay Area Community Church members, it's just another weekly worship service.

Mixing music, drama and visuals with energetic preaching has become the trademark of Bay Area Community, a nondenominational Christian church. It's a style many of its 1,400 members praise as "un-churchy" -- or, in the words of its mission statement, a style "free from the traditional trappings of religion that tend to chase [people] away."

"We try to take God's truth and communicate it in a way that's relevant to the next generation of churchgoers," said the Rev. Greg St. Cyr, senior pastor since 1997.

It's a style that seems to be working.

At its inception in 1987, the church was a congregation of 18. It now has outgrown its current home in Annapolis High School.

Next year, Bay Area Community Church will relocate from the school auditorium to a new, 70,000-square-foot facility in Crownsville.

Bay Area's success is an example of the growth of "mega-churches" -- large, active congregations, often led by charismatic ministers focused on a variety of social and outreach ministries. Maryland has about 30 churches with more than 1,000 members, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

However, St. Cyr is reluctant to define his congregation by its size or style.

"People often ask how large we want to be, but we focus more on being a healthy church and on doing what God wants us to do," said St. Cyr (pronounced Seer), 45, an energetic former missionary.

Still, St. Cyr said he had a congregation of 2,000 in mind when the church recently broke ground on its facility -- a $12 million development that will include a gymnasium, a bookstore, an auditorium, educational and administration wings and a fellowship area. Scheduled for completion in November next year, the facility will be Bay Area's first church of its own -- one paid for by members.

Since it was founded as an offshoot of another Maryland mega-church -- Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium -- Bay Area has worshiped in rented facilities. In recent years, burdened by the $100,000 annual cost of leasing Annapolis High every Sunday, St. Cyr said, he began searching in earnest for a place to build a church.

"Every Sunday, our service is a giant undertaking," said St. Cyr. "We've essentially got to transform a school into a church."

What's more, St. Cyr said, his greatest challenge has been overcoming what he calls the "psychology of permanence."

"In some people's minds, you are not a legitimate church if you are renting a facility," he said.

The new facility, St. Cyr said, will not have a sanctuary. Instead, the gym will serve as a community center during the week and as a place of worship Sundays.

It is the ministry -- or outreach programs -- of Bay Area Community Church that St. Cyr says make it a "church of irresistible influence."

Its many outreach programs include involvement in the Annapolis Boys and Girls Club; support for victims of domestic violence and Habitat for Humanity; and the sponsorship of Naval Academy midshipmen and students at St. John's College.

Although the church's ministry helps to attract new members, it is its casual, spirited services that seem to make the greatest impression on potential members.

"My whole family walked in here together one morning and when we heard the first song, all five of us looked at each other and said, `This is it, we're staying,'" said Suzi Pitts, the church's creative director.

In her job, Pitts meets several times a week with church leaders to discuss the coming services and fuse the sermon, music, drama and visual elements into a 75-minute service. Every week, Pitts said she helps seize on one theme and title for the sermon that's not too "churchy" and often ties in cultural events and trends -- one that will engage younger members.

Several teenagers who attended Sunday's service said the contemporary style of Bay Area keeps them coming back.

"It's much easier to stay awake here than other churches," said Michael Lane, 15, a student at Severna Park High School, dressed for church in cargo shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops.

"Yeah, you can come wearing whatever you want here, which is cool," said Lane's friend, Ben Heemstra, 14. "Some people even come barefoot."

Bill and Laurie Fritts of Severn are the parents of five children, ages 4 to 18. The couple said the services appeal to all their children.

"They talk to them on a level that they can relate to," said Laurie Fritts. "And they teach them the Gospel."

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