Pulpit and pews optional
Area churches find meeting places in nontraditional buildings

DULUTH - By all accounts, Epic Faith church is not a run-of-the-mill house of worship.

For starters, it's not even a house. It's a country club, with tennis courts, a cafe, playgrounds and basketball courts. There is even a swimming pool, but no word yet on if it is, in fact, filled with holy water.

Almost two years ago, Epic Faith took up residence in the Olde Towne clubhouse in Duluth, after shedding its mammoth church home of 17 years and changing its name from Calvary Christian Fellowship to Epic Faith. Now, the church has dual roles, acting as a part-time house of worship, part-time recreational community center.

This multitasking use of space is becoming a trend in the world of worship, and churches opt for unorthodox locations - former grocery stores, strip mall spaces - for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it's to attract a non-church crowd. Other times, it's so a start-up church can save money or a growing congregation can have more space.

"There are a lot of reasons why a church would pick a nontraditional location," said Stephanie Wolfe, spokeswoman for Epic Faith. "It's hard to point to just one. As a church grows and changes, different needs arise, and that oftentimes means leaning on God to provide new homes. I've noticed that a lot of churches are drawn to alternative locations for their home."

Several area churches are giving a new meaning to the term "Sunday School," including Disciple's Path, which meets in the cafeteria of Freeman's Mill Elementary School.

Revolution Church in Atlanta is located in a photography studio that, come Sunday, is morphed into a house of the Lord.

And New Mercies Christian Church in Lilburn meets in a refurbished Ingles shopping center. After moving to the location in May, church leaders swiftly replaced boxes of cereal and aisles of produce with Bibles and fruits of the spirit.

These nontraditional settings are actually helping to draw more and more people into church, especially that sought-after 18- to 35-year-old age bracket, said Stuart Damron, pastor at Revolution Church.

Church for misfits

Damron said his church caters to the alternative, young church-going crowd, and Revolution prides itself on being a church for people who don't like church. Which mostly means the pierced, tattooed and otherwise punky kids "who don't feel like they fit in a traditional church setting," Damron said.

The Revolution worship center/photo studio is situated in a shady part of the city, near what is often referred to as the "crack street tunnel" on Krog Street. The parking lot is surrounded by a high, barbed-wire fence, and the front entrance is guarded by a thick, heavy metal door. Inside, the walls are more or less bare, with no windows but a large garage door in the rear. There are several cafe tables and chairs dotting the space, a few sofas in the center of the room and a refrigerator full of snacks in one corner. There is no pulpit, and there are no pews. But there are plenty of people, about 60 each week.

"The people who come to our church would never be comfortable in a building with altars and stained-glass windows," Damron said. "They want that connection with God, without all the show."

Epic Faith has a few more frills, but it's still lacking in the pulpit and pew department. In what Wolfe calls an "intimate" setting, about 150 padded chairs surround a centrally located white screen, where the preacher stands to give his sermon and take questions afterward. The atmosphere looks and feels more like a town hall meeting than a worship service, and that is exactly what Wolfe was going for.

"With our design, we can have the question-and-answer sessions after the lesson, so everyone becomes an active part of the service," she said. "You can't do that in a normal church setting. We have found that we attract a different breed of churchgoer, the people not looking for a traditional service. We get people who want to be an active part of the sermon."

On the other end of the scale, New Mercies has luxuries and space to spare. The church's 1,000-square-foot campus is spread along Five Forks Trickum Road.

From the outside, New Mercies church looks like an abandoned building. But on the inside, the space is gleaming, open and about as orthodox as a church can get. Although, church member Dawnalisa Johnson is quick to note, the church is far from standard.

"On Sunday, we get down," she said. "It's not just a stand up, sit down church service."

In the gutted and remodeled remains of the Ingles grocery store warehouse, the worship center holds some 3,500 people - it takes about two hours to set up all the needed chairs. The church holds two services to fit the needs of its 7,000-member congregation, said the Rev. Jesse Curney.

Along the New Mercies strip, there is a bookstore, a nursery and a youth center. And there are drastic plans for expansion. The biggest problem: parking, as the parking lot only holds about 500 cars.

For Disciple's Path, the Lawrenceville church that meets in an elementary school, though, the challenges of a nontraditional location are more prominent.

The 30 members of this new church have to more or less assemble and then deconstruct the entire church before and after the service. That means everything from setting up sound equipment to creating a nursery - and then taking it all down.

"There are challenges, sure," said Tim Harbens, head pastor at Disciple's Path. "But I like to think the good outweighs the bad. We have a great relationship with the school, and we get to learn the needs of families in the school that we might not otherwise get a chance to help. We're a new, small church, and this is a great way for us to get started."

Unencumbered by tradition

The vast majority of churches with nontraditional structures are nondenominational. This brand of churches doesn't have the prerequisite criteria set by years of ritual and therefore is more open to new ideas, Curney said.

"If you're Baptist, Methodist, whatever, then you have the years of traditions to follow. But if you are not any denomination, you are free to mix it up and do what you see fit," Curney said.

Being housed in a more contemporary setting can alter the service experience, especially for those seeking tradition, Curney admits. An alternative church structure often points to an alternative church service, and that can be alienating to some. But that's exactly what others are after.

"It can be both positive and negative, being in a nontraditional building," Harbens said. "It will attract people who don't want, or are intimidated by, the traditional service, but it also detracts those people who do want that traditional setting. It's a matter of finding what's right for you."

Ultimately, area pastors said, it's not the church location, but the church congregation that makes up the worship experience. You don't need stained-glass windows and pews if you have members willing and ready to worship.

"It's the people that make up the church, not the building," Harbens said. "It shouldn't matter where you are worshiping, as long as the spirit is there. It can be distracting being in a non-church building, but if you can learn to get over that and focus on God, then really, you can worship anywhere."