by Paul Wilkes
Paul Wilkes wrote Excellent Protestant Congregations: The guide to the Best Places and Practices.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 4, 2001, pp. 12-16. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
A warehouse is a temporary place where you hold things. Stuff comes in and out. . . . Like churches should be, bringing people in, equipping them for life and sending them back into the world.
Paul Wilkes led the Parish/Congregation Study, which compiled a list of 300 excellent Protestant congregations and profiled nine of them in Excellent Protestant Congregations: The Guide to the Best Places and Practices. © 2001 by Paul Wilkes. The book, from which this article is excerpted, is being published this month by Westminster John Knox. Among the criteria used for selecting parishes: evidence of a joyful congregational spirit; innovative, thoughtful worship; scripture-based teaching and preaching; emphasis on a deep relationship with God; and attempts to boldly confront problems within the membership and the community. A complete list is available at www. pastoral summit.org.
It’s Friday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at the Grady Cole Center the band is already up to speed, with plenty of decibels, perfectly balanced acoustics and a throbbing beat. A crowd streams through the doors, mostly Gen Xers dressed in shorts and tank tops, button-down shirts, Talbot’s dresses and many variations in between. The scent of amaretto- or hazelnut-flavored coffee wafts through the air. Free designer traveling mugs are being handed out in the lobby. At each seat is another coffee "artifact" -- a paper coffee filter. What’s going on?
The pounding music blasting out from a rock band makes Pastor Todd Hahn, 31, think of a soaring cathedral. "Each week, we work hard to have something people can take home with them. No white noise. My people just won’t put up with it."
This is weekly worship at Warehouse 242. Hahn will eventually explain the coffee filters, telling his congregation that they are "grounds" through which God pours his graces. Grace can provide a refreshing drink for the outstretched cups of a generation thirsty for something beyond a latte. It is a new variation on Paul’s musings in I Corinthians, but Hahn knows how to connect with the Starbucks generation.
Warehouse 242 grew out of a Sunday school class at Charlotte’s Forest Hill Evangelical Presbyterian Church "that just seemed to take on a life of its own," Hahn tells me. "People were exchanging phone numbers, talking before and after class, getting together outside of class. It wasn’t a church, but people thought of it as their church. Forest Hill was more for baby boomers, but these people were younger and weren’t completely at home there. It was obvious something was happening, the Spirit was leading us, we just had to follow." That Sunday school class grew into a Saturday night service called satpm.com, and quickly drew hundreds of Gen Xers. Then Hahn, with the blessing and financial support of Forest Hill Church, started his own congregation.
Warehouse 242 is a strange name for a church, but as I page through the thin three-ring binder that contains the history of the year-old church, its genesis is clear. Names like "New Hope Community" or "Southend" were simply not going to work for a Gen X church in Charlotte’s Center City. At a marathon session someone suggested "Warehouse 242," and the name stuck. "A warehouse is a temporary place where you hold things. Stuff comes in and out. . . . Like churches should be, bringing people in, equipping them for life and sending them back into the world," says Hahn. Acts 2:42 ("they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship") provided the rest of the name.
When Hahn was a college student at the University of North Carolina in the mid-1980s, he met Jimmy Long, who later wrote a book about ministering to Generation X. Long predicted that Hahn would be part of a new generational ministry. "There’s something different about your generation," Long said.
Today, in the house that serves as the church’s temporary administration building, this pastor -- with penetrating blue eyes, red hair, faded jeans, earring and nervous energy -- talks about the generation that churches are eager to gather in, yet find elusive. "Everyone says Gen X people are uncommitted; it’s just that they need something real to be committed to." Hahn goes on:
These are children of divorce, many of whom have no church background. They are wary, mistrustful of institutions that have disappointed us all. They are fragmented. Skeptical of certainty. Life is terribly fragile and unpredictable. They long for deep relationships. They relate to individuals, to people, not some idea or ideal or institutional line. They want to see continuity, where they fit in in this confusing time. They want to give themselves to something beyond a sort of "white bread" world that they live in, but need to see that that "something" is tangible, that it will work. They process truth relationally, so if they see that a community . . . really does stand for something and will be there for them when things are going great and when they suck, then they’ll commit to it.
"These people are not antichurch," Hahn adds. "For many of them, the church isn’t on the screen, not part of their equation. We really do think of ourselves as missionaries to North American culture."
By 2003, Charlotte will be home to 317,000 Gen Xers. "And there is a real hunger in the postmodern culture to be rooted in something more than the contemporary. If you want Sunday school, Sunday night and midweek worship, Warehouse 242 won’t suit you. If you want a church that will go into every corner of your life, every day, here we are. People spend too much time in church; they need to take what church means into the world."
Warehouse 242 is a strange combination of orthodox and contemporary. There are no fancy bulletins for the service, no standing committees (only ministries). The music is usually not Handel. Yet Hahn uses terms like "the priesthood of believers." He may process with a Celtic cross and sing a rock version of the Agnus Dei. Phone calls are more rare than e-mails. Non-Christians are called the "normal" people, and lectio divina, the ancient monastic practice of praying the scriptures, is encouraged.
As an Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Warehouse 242 is by doctrine and practice somewhere between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is considered theologically liberal, and the Presbyterian Church in America, which broke off in the early 1970s to maintain a more traditionalist approach. EPC requires all churches to hold to "essential" tenets of the Christian faith, but allows each congregation freedom in forming opinions on "nonessential" matters, such as whether women can be elected as deacons and elders.
As a new model of church fashioned entirely for postmodern generations, Warehouse 242 has other differences. It does not have separate services for Christians and non-Christians because conversion is considered a continuing process, not something settled with an emotional altar call. "God brings people to him in different ways, at different paces," says Hahn.
"Warehouse 242 has been a wild trip, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world," says Chris Bradle, 26. "I never, ever, pictured church as this good." Bradle had wandered in and out of Christianity his whole life. He moved to Charlotte from upstate New York and went to satpm.com to meet people. A church member talked him into joining a mission trip to Nicaragua to construct a medical clinic.
The experience changed him forever. He made friends, and his interest was piqued as they talked about their ministry "teams." When he got back, he called Todd and asked to be involved in the core group. "I was welcomed with open arms. At the first core group meeting, I had no intention of doing marketing -- I do it all day long. But a lot of stuff happened quickly."
To launch this new church, the core group talked about a 20,000-piece mailing campaign, a typical move for starter churches. But after studying Acts 2, Bradle threw out conventional advertising strategies. "We changed from mass mailing to personal invitation," he says.
Members of the core community were given business cards imprinted with a map to the community center, the church address, phone number and Web site. They then invited their friends to the first Warehouse 242 meeting and handed them a card. No one knew how many would respond to this word-of-mouth advertising. The only other "advertising" is "prayer triplets," where members commit to praying for non-Christians they know.
To avoid unrealistic expectations, Hahn told the core community to expect no more than 150 people at the inaugural service. There was standing room only. Since then, attendance has been between 300 and 500 weekly. While many quickly growing churches deal with growth by starting new ministries to handle the influx of new members, Warehouse 242 leaders decided to focus on doing three things well: small groups, the Sunday worship service and community outreach.
Small groups, or C.Pax, are the core of Ware-house’s ministry. "Relationships are everything to postmodern people," says Stacy Pickerell, pastor of community. "That makes complete sense in Christian context. God himself exists in community. As people who follow him, we too need to exist in community. It’s not just reading the Bible together. It’s about living life together.
That "living life together" approach is readily apparent at Warehouse. The division between Christian and non-Christian that is obvious and encouraged elsewhere is de-emphasized at Warehouse. Instead of shying away from worldly culture, Warehouse encourages members to live Christian lives within the culture.
The goal is to funnel all members into a C.Pak, but often newcomers are not immediately interested in joining a small group. These people are asked to do something, even if it’s standing at the door and greeting people. The church also created "Hands on Warehouse," a group that meets an hour and half before the Sunday service to set up the chairs and sound equipment -- an easy way for people to get involved.
That was the way 20-something "Ned" found his way into Warehouse. Today Ned has a good job in sales, but before he found Warehouse 242, cocaine and crack were his sources of community and satisfaction. "I had run wild long enough, was seeing so many lives go to hell, didn’t want mine to go there, but couldn’t figure a way out," he tells me as we stand outside the Grady Cole Center. "This girl at work told me she’d visited this great place and I ought to try it. People were friendly, welcoming, none of this hand-you-a-program and give-you-a-smile stuff. They really wanted to know me. I never read the Bible before, now I’m working my way through John. I have friends; I help out here. This is the anchor for my life."
C.Pax are designed for maximum interaction between Christians and non-Christians. Warehouse will even disband a group that doesn’t have non-Christians -- "normal" people -- attending. The purpose of the groups is not to build a Christian stronghold against the world, but to open discussions to non-Christians, who often provide new perspectives, and to build relationships between Christians and non-Christians.
Warehouse also discourages small groups made of similar people, such as an all-singles group or a group based on similar interests. "I think the more similar people in churches and small groups are, the more safe and hunkered-down they become," Pickerell says. "I think one of the strengths of C.Pax is they’re diverse. This keeps them on the edge."
The mission of a C.Pak is to "live life" with non-Christians and grow and multiply, thus bringing more people, hopefully non-Christians, into the community. "Every C.Pak should multiply within six months," Pickerell says, "and we won’t let a C.Pak just go on and on. . . . People get really close and it’s terrible to break them up, but look at the new people we’re bringing in."
As non-Christians find acceptance at Warehouse, they begin asking questions. They tell their often sin-filled life stories to the small group, and are moved when members still want to be their friends. "Post-moderns want to know what they’re getting into," Pickerell says. "There’s an environment where honest questioning is really the norm and is really OK."
After two months of invitations from a Warehouse 242 member, a man went bowling with Pickerell’s C.Pak. He was divorced, depressed and not much interested in the Christian faith. "He had anticipated ‘bowling for Jesus,"’ Pickerell says. "But it was OK to smoke, and people were drinking beer. Two months later he gave his life to Christ."
Deb and Dennis Hopkins sold their suburban condo and moved to a primarily black neighborhood to put their beliefs on the line. Several other Warehouse couples are contemplating moving to the same neighborhood. At their C.Pak meeting, half the members were from a recently divided C.Pak. But this didn’t slow the discussion. Members talked about the Sunday sermon, but also about funny animal stories, the sex of the Hopkins’s baby and what to do when you want to invite homosexual friends to church.
When it came time to pray, a woman who knew only one other person in the group talked openly about her boyfriend, who wouldn’t commit to a serious relationship. Others followed up with questions, asking her about the situation. Deb and Dennis Hopkins talked about getting used to hearing gunshots in their neighborhood, and asked for people to continue praying for their new life there.
Many Warehouse members don’t live near family, and often move to Charlotte not knowing anyone. Jennifer Hibbard, 26, graduated from Davidson College in 1998 and moved to Charlotte hoping to get a job in social work. Instead, she found the satpm.com service and, on a whim, called Hahn about a job opening for a ministry assistant.
"What he was describing was nothing like I’d ever planned on pursuing. He asked for a two-year commitment." Yet Hibbard took the job and enrolled in a master’s program in social work. Her commitment with Warehouse is over, but she says she is not moving anywhere. "I have roots here because of Warehouse."
One of the tenets of postmodern theology is that postmodern people sense that the world is random. To counteract that perspective, Hahn teaches that the gospel is a narrative that connects all of history together, and that people’s lives have a place in that story. "There’s such a longing for sense of place," he says. "We want them to see themselves as something bigger than they feel."
"Older generations wanted content and Bible knowledge, preferring to be left to themselves to apply the teachings of the Bible to their lives," Hahn wrote in Gen Xers After God (coauthored with psychologist David Verhagen). "Boomers demanded practical application: ‘Does it work for me?’ Generation Xers are asking a fundamentally different question: ‘Does it matter?"’ In a recent sermon series on idols, Hahn focused on the idols of sex, work and appearance, and suggested they be put aside. "Idols mess up and distort our thinking. They distort our emotions. We long for things more than we should." He taught about finding delight in God rather than the things of the world. The sermon continued in out-of-church discussions, as members struggled to figure out their own idols. "People were making changes in their lives once they found out what their idols were."
Change is not an unusual outcome of life in the Warehouse community. Warehouse urges people to rearrange their priorities. After the sermon series on idols, for example, Bradle quit his job as a senior graphic designer in a prestigious advertising agency. "My job was too consuming," he says. He took over as head of Warehouse’s marketing team, trading a secure job for unemployment and uncertainty. Now he brings professional excellence to a higher priority: presenting the Warehouse 242 ideal to Charlotte.
Warehouse 242 has a ministry staff of five. The rest of the church’s work is done by volunteer ministry teams. The church’s publicity and Web site are handled by Bradle’s marketing team and is slick and professional-looking. This excellence is not left to the randomness of volunteerism: leadership at Warehouse is serious business. "We want to build a leadership culture," Hahn says. "To be the best-led church in North America, because if you’re well led, that results in the accomplishment of vision and ministry."
The pastoral team looks at where a member’s ministry gifts lie, then approaches him or her with a job. "People doubt their abilities, but that’s where we play a huge role," says Pickerell. People are often shocked when they are asked to lead some Warehouse 242 effort because "no one has ever told them that God has given them gifts."
Jenny Lewis, 25, moved to Charlotte to take a banking job. She was soon making enough money to buy a house. Then Pickerell asked Lewis to coffee and presented her with a preposterous job proposition: be their office assistant for less pay, less prestige -- and maybe, no house. "But I couldn’t stop thinking about it," Lewis said. "I really struggled with what that change was going to mean for me." She took the job even though she’s had to find a third roommate to help with the house mortgage.
New leaders are born weekly at Warehouse 242, and involved in service projects ranging from work with unwed mothers to work with men at a city shelter, or disabled kids or flood relief. The lives of hundreds of Gen Xers are filled with the charisma and the demands of a church they never anticipated finding.
In the Grady Cole Center, the Friday service has ended. The burlap backdrop, the stark metal pipe ("Metallica Cross") that is the stage’s focusing point, the screen that projected Power Point scriptural quotations and highlights from Hahn’s talk -- these will soon come down. Most of the coffee filters have been left on the seats. But in the week ahead, when those who were here tonight see a coffee filter in a favorite coffee shop or in the kitchen or at work, they will be reminded: What are the graces of God pouring through their lives? What drink are they offering to the world?