Strength in fewer numbers

National | Religion

Issue: "Iraq: Liberation Day 2004," April 10, 2004

Folding chairs are packed densely into the Costa Mesa Seniors Center, but gray hairs are difficult to find among the overflow crowd at Rock Harbor Church. A rugged cross dominates the T-shirt-clad musicians on stage blasting high-megawatt music to the youthful throng. "The cross on stage needed to look organic, like something worn and beaten," says Pete Shambrook, an avid surfer originally from Australia. At 40, he's the seasoned veteran among a team of pastors at Rock Harbor mostly in their 30s. "The cross really represents our church," he says. "It's rough, it doesn't have polished edges."

The cross on stage is one of five placed strategically around the room where worshippers receive the communion elements. "There will also be elders and pastors waiting to pray for you at the crosses," Mr. Shambrook says. "Watching people minister to each other in a service is just 'killer,'" he says. "It wrecks you, it's so beautiful."

Close to 3,000 fill four services on the weekend at Rock Harbor. "We would never call ourselves a Gen-X church," Mr. Shambrook says, while admitting 75 percent of the attendees are single and half are in college. "It's really a post-modern philosophy, but labels are unpalatable," he says. "Community has become the central focus of the church.

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"We go out of our way not to be slick," Mr. Shambrook says. "In fact, we're intentional about doing something that is not slick."

Just one hour north of Rock Harbor is the largest multiethnic Gen-X church in the country, referred to simply as "Mosaic." Started by author and futurist Erwin McManus, the church attracts over 50 nationalities to its experimental services -- where you're likely to see sculptors and painters engaged in their craft as well as short films made by the congregation. Some 80 percent of the congregation is single and the average age is 24.

While these larger examples of the Gen-X church are striking, some observers believe the trend in California is toward more intimate, participatory gatherings of young evangelicals, and away from anything resembling seeker churches.

"When Gen-Xers go to seeker churches like Saddleback where the service is well-rehearsed, they say 'that's not real, that's phony, because life is not that way,'" says professor Gary McIntosh of the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. "They still want quality, but they define it in terms of quality relationships," he says. "There is some thinking that there is a movement among the Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers toward smaller and medium-sized churches.

"There is a rejection of church growth and a desire for church health," Mr. McIntosh adds.

-- Mark Ellis is a writer in California


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