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Putting the pulpits where the people are

Welcome to Marinelli's, a cozy tavern in suburban Detroit that's bustling with purple-shirted waiters, pasta-eating parents, and pony-tailed kids. Tonight's specials are stacked ham-and-cheese sandwiches, grilled marlin, and - get this - a Roman Catholic priest lecturing on sexuality and theology.

A priest in a restaurant-and-bar hangout talking about sex?

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Actually, it's part of a new lecture-and-discussion series called "Theology on Tap," sponsored by a local parish. And it's a sign of the changing times in American religion.

Many churches today are beset by shrinking congregations, yet they're buoyed by the hope of tapping into the much-celebrated spiritually hungering masses - especially the young people among them. To connect with these "seekers," they're casting aside venerable worship traditions and redressing the gospel in more accessible, more relevant - and critics say watered-down - regalia.

"They're throwing out the husk of old-time church culture" to get down to the kernels of spiritual truth, says Donald Miller, head of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The trend is seen in everything from modern music popping up in otherwise-staid services to megachurches' glitzy productions of Bible stories. As in the Theology on Tap series, it's also evident in churches holding services in unusual places.

In West Memphis, Ark., for instance, preacher David Wright and a clutch of followers haul a 32-foot-long trailer-turned-church to three area truck stops every Sunday. With a guitar player strumming away - "We're praying for a keyboardist," Pastor Wright says - they welcome anyone into their mobile sanctuary for an old-fashioned revival.

Preaching the old-fashioned way

"We preach old-time religion," he says. "We don't water down the Word of God."

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Worshippers include everyone from truckers to prostitutes. Sometimes there's just one. Sometimes there are 20. "But we've saved 300 souls" in recent months, he says.

In the lake-resort town of Lakemont, Ga., there's a summertime tradition called "boat church." Every Sunday, vacationers anchor their boats near an old barge, from which a local Methodist church holds services - complete with a life-jacket-clad choir and a battery-powered sound system blaring out the sermon.

In a lilting Southern drawl, the Rev. Kirk Bozeman explains the rationale for his waterborne ministry: "Jesus didn't stay in Bethlehem and say, 'Y'all come see me.' " And, he says, "If we don't do something, we're not going to end up training anybody in the life of church."

Indeed, just 16.9 percent of American adults attend church every week, according to the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

That's down from 22 percent in 1990 and 29 percent in 1972. So if people won't go to church, the thinking goes, church will go to them.

Back at Theology on Tap, about 65 people munch their meals as the smooth-voiced Rev. John West tackles everything from premarital sex to homosexuality. Meanwhile, on one wall, two pro baseball teams go head-to-head on a muted big-screen TV.

Fr. West is unmistakably clear about the church's position on the issues: no premarital sex, no homosexuality, and more. But there's not even a hint of fire-and-brimstone preaching here.

His soft-toned approach includes statements such as: "The Catholic Church does not impose [morality] but offers an interpretation from its tradition." Or when talking about the prohibition against premarital sex, he acknowledges that for many this is a "difficult teaching." He urges those questioning it to discuss their choices with people they respect in the community.

West's approach to morality is common in today's churches, says USC's Dr. Miller. "These are institutions with strict moral standards, but they're taking people right where they are." In fact, he says, "there's a lot of tolerance of the fact that people come to faith with many complex life histories."

But the message is clear, he says: They must live up to the church's standards "to have a new life in Christ - or whatever the punchline is."

There are critics who worry that in the rush to recruit new members, discipline and sacrifice will be lost. Yet several people at Theology on Tap - which is aimed at twenty- and thirtysomethings - say that after a few years of riotous living, they're ready for structure and standards.

Cathleen Ross, a thirtysomething who works at a local library, grew up Catholic but drifted away. She's single and says that without a husband or kids she's "just looking for a reason to get up when that alarm goes off.... And I certainly don't want it to be my job!" If church can help provide that, she's ready to be an active member.

Religion relevant to today's lives

Indeed, Theology on Tap - which started in Chicago and has been copied by several Midwestern parishes - aims to make centuries-old teaching relevant to the lives and issues of the day. A Christmastime series will address materialism and the holiday culture.

"How does the gospel impact my decision to support ... East Timor or the cleaning up of inner-city Detroit? These are the questions we must answer," says Rev. Ken Kaucheck, who sponsors the sessions through his church, St. Anastasia. To survive, he says, "religion has to speak in the signs and symbols of the times."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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