Lansing church mixes Bible, beer, to reach the leery
Lansing — This wasn't church. It was a bar, the Loft in downtown Lansing, on a Tuesday night.
But the tables had Bibles next to the beers and popcorn, and Kevin Brown, a pastor at Crossroads Church, was sitting behind a keyboard on the stage.
"We hope you didn't bring any of those non-Christian people tonight," he said to the dozen members of the audience. "Tonight is about getting all the kinks out."
The next hour would be a trial run, preparation and practice for how an evangelical congregation might do services without prayers or hymns or altar calls.
Because the Loft is on the second floor of a building on Michigan Avenue, Crossroads is calling the project The Upper Room. Because they want people to come whose relationship with church is tenuous or nonexistent, the pastors have promised to buy a drink for every first-timer.
The drink is a gesture of friendship, said Noah Filipiak, the 31-year-old founder of Crossroads.
"We think it communicates something to people that are very leery of church and very leery of the church being very judgmental about things," he said.
Two summers ago, Filipiak spent a three-month sabbatical from his small downtown congregation playing safety for the Capital City Stealth, Lansing's minor league football team. He invited other players to come to Sunday morning services.
"I feel like our church is 'cool,' you know," he said. "We serve coffee and pie, and we're laid back and you don't have to dress up, and the things that Christians normally think, 'Oh, people who don't go to church will come because we do these things.'"
Only the people he invited mostly didn't come and, when they did, they mostly didn't come back. It got him thinking about one of the perennial questions for pastors and church planters: What was it about church, even a casual church with pie, that kept them away?
"There are concentric circles of people," he said. "I think that your blue jeans and coffee and rock and roll band on Sunday morning church plant is reaching a certain concentric circle, and that demographic has now been pretty saturated."
He wanted to try to reach the next circle, those who might have "a seeker sort of interest, but they're just not going to go to church on a Sunday. They're skeptical of that. They're uncomfortable about that." He and other members of the church began asking questions of their non-church-going friends and acquaintances.
The fastest growing religious group in the United States is those who say they belong to no religious group at all. The unaffiliated, the "nones," as they're sometimes called, now make up about one in five Americans, one in every three younger than 30.
While some are atheists, most of them aren't. Two-thirds say they believe in God, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. One in five says is said to pray every day. Overwhelmingly, they say they aren't looking for a church.
The response, from a small number of experimentally minded evangelicals, has been to start churches that try to win them over by moving as far away from the traditional church mold as possible.
But the change in venue is just the beginning.
"We are not going to pray at The Upper Room ever, unless it's over a conversation and someone wants to pray," Filipiak told the audience at the October trial run.
There won't be religious songs either "because we've learned through talking with people that don't go to church that it's weird to sing to a God you don't believe in."
And so Crossroads pastor Curt Wright performed a Death Cab for Cutie song that night. Youth pastor David Singleton did a spoken word piece about a Christian proselytizing to a wealthy man who had rejected God.
John Yunker, a 36-year-old construction worker, stood near the back of the room, a member of Crossroads for most of its existence.
"I was struggling on and off with Christianity, grew up with it," he said. "When I started going to the church, it felt like it was actually geared toward me, not somebody who had been a Christian their entire life."