When Falmouth-based Christian rock band Children of God took the stage last Sunday evening at True Life Church Assemblies of God, it felt like a full-on rock concert.
Neon lights pulsed through the darkness while band members — three brothers and their cousin — head-banged to pulsating drums and a driving bass at volumes that literally shook the pews.
It was not your typical church service.
And that was the point.
Since September, the church's new God at the Edge, or GATE, program has brought in more than a dozen contemporary Christian and Christian rock bands to shake up its Sunday evening services.
The program sprang from what Pastor Randy Weeks called his efforts to "think outside the box," to find ways to target and attract an audience who might not attend a traditional church service.
"We'd seen our Sunday night services dwindle to about 60 percent of what Sunday mornings were," Weeks said. "I began to think, something has to change. It's time to do things a little differently maybe ... The typical church service has not changed in 50 years, and yet people's lives are so much quicker, faster today."
Since True Life began the GATE program, its Sunday evening attendance has doubled, Weeks said.
Although Christian bands have been the first groups eager to sign up to perform — GATE coordinator Yvonne Stone has groups booked through May — the plan is increasingly to have each Sunday GATE program offer a variety of performers, Weeks said. Evening lineups will include not only bands and solo singers but also short and single-person dramas that the church calls "human videos."
"This is an opportunity for local talents to minister with what God has given them talent for," Weeks said. "The sky's the limit to that. If someone can play the spoons for Jesus, then bring them on."
Children of God lead singer Adam Crozier said that the venue was a great way to offer "both youth and adults another way to come into the house" of God.
Variety of performers
In addition to COG's high-energy jam session, last Sunday's GATE program also featured short programs by church members Rachel Melcher, Lauren Weeks and Josh Harp. Weeks and Harp portrayed a married couple struggling with letting go of material and spiritual baggage and Melcher performed a dance to a song about Christ's crucifixion.
To get the evening started, the True Life Church Assemblies of God House Band led the 100 or so in attendance in spirited anthems whose lyrics reminded everyone why they were there: "I will bring praise, I will rejoice ... All of my life, in every season, you are still God, I have a reason to sing," the group sang. The entire congregation — elementary schoolchildren to seniors — was on its feet, singing along and waving hands in praise.
During the program, church member Dan Melcher offered his own testimony about finding Christ. Melcher and his family have attended the GATE program regularly since joining True Life in September.
"I think it's a great idea," Melcher said. "A certain percentage of the population will never go to church as we know it. Whereas, if you can offer something like this that's not your status quo, something different, then they can feel good about it."
By design, Weeks doesn't offer a sermon, preferring to allow lay church members such as Melcher to share the message of Christ's love each week instead. It's another way the GATE program differs from a traditional Sunday morning service.
"Empowering lay people is the answer," Weeks said. "People expect the preacher to get up and preach. But it's almost more impressive that other people are doing that" at GATE.
The name GATE came to Weeks with the help of his wife after a sleepless night envisioning the scope and direction of the new program. The term "the edge" appealed to him, both because the program aims to be cutting-edge and the fact that God often meets people when they are on the edge and need him most, he said.
Weeks hopes eventually to hold the GATE program at a venue other than the church — perhaps Triangle Park or the UK campus — at least once a month, he said, as a way of reaching a wider audience.
GATE coordinator Yvonne Stone has been amazed and humbled by how quickly the program has taken off. Many times bands have sent e-mail replies indicating their willingness to play — they are given just a "love offering" and dinner — immediately after she sends the request.
"One day I was so overwhelmed with emotion. It was so obvious to me what God was doing and how he was using me. I had to leave work. I went to pastor and just sobbed at his desk. I was so filled with joy," said Stone, a program specialist with the LFUCG Division of Engineering.
Trying to target those who currently have no church, True Life members have advertised the GATE program with fliers at Hamburg Pavilion, on the UK campus and at other locations, Stone said.
"We want people to come and not feel judged. To show them that you can have a good time praising God. They are still hearing the word. It may not be a sermon, but they're still getting the message," Stone said.
"The energy level is awesome," said church member Ryan Hix, who helps in the sound booth during the church's GATE programs. "We really do rock. It's a lot of jamming. And a lot of praise and worship."