The house band started a service one recent Sunday at the Life in Deep Ellum church in Dallas. (Allison V. Smith for The New York Times)
The mural painted on the side of a building in the Deep Ellum warehouse district here is intentionally vague, simply showing a faceless man in a suit holding an umbrella over the words "Life in Deep Ellum." Inside there are the trappings of a revitalization project, including an art gallery, a yoga studio and a business incubator, sharing the building with a coffee shop and a performance space.
But it is, in fact, a church.
Life in Deep Ellum is part of a wave of experimentation around the country by evangelicals to reinvent "church" in an increasingly secular culture, and it comes as the megachurch boom of recent decades, with stadium seating for huge crowds, Jumbotrons and smoke machines, faces strong headwinds. A national decline in church attendance, the struggling economy and the challenges of marketing to millennials have all led to the need for new approaches.
"It's unsettling for a movement that's lasted 2,000 years to now find that, 'Oh, some of the things we always assumed would connect with the community aren't connecting with everyone in the community in the way they used to,' " said Warren Bird, the director of research for the Leadership Network, a firm that tracks church trends.
According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30. Even so, nearly 80 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they believe in God, and close to half say they pray at least once a month.
The "spiritual but not religious" category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call "post-Christian."
So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words "church" and "church service" in favor of terms like "spiritual communities" and "gatherings," with services that do not stick to any script.
One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm for the coming service.
"For us, it's all about being interactive," said Paul Wirth, Relevant's founder and lead pastor.
Although the number of evangelical churches in the United States declined for many years, the trend reversed in 2006, with more new churches opening each year since, according to the Leadership Network's most recent surveys. This wave of "church planting" has been highest among nondenominational pastors, free to experiment outside traditional hierarchies.
"I hear a lot of pastors say, 'I'm not just trying to be creative and avant-garde, I think this is maybe the last chance for me,' " said Doug Pagitt, the founder of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis.
Mr. Pagitt has written several books on church innovations, many of which were first developed in the "emergent" church movement of the last decade or among "missional" churches whose practices focus on life outside the church.
Many of their innovations are being adopted by an increasing number of pastors in the mainstream.
For new leaders coming out of seminary, "the cool thing is church planting," Mr. Bird said. "The uncool thing is to go into the established church. Why that has taken over may speak to the entrepreneurialism and innovation that today's generation represents."
That generation includes Mark Batterson, the 43-year-old pastor of National Community Church in Washington.
"If the kingdom of God had departments, we'd want to work in research and development," Mr. Batterson said.
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SOURCE: The New York Times