Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 2

A Growing Number Of People Are Seeking God Not In Traditional Churches But In Modern Venues That Feature Rock Bands, Video Screens—And The Message That Scripture Should Be Taken Literally

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Wave Church, VIrginia Beach
Wave Church

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
~ 1 Corinthians 13:13


When you hear the word “church,” what comes to mind?

For me it sparks memories of specific sights and sounds: towering steeples and ringing bells, stained-glass windows and well-worn pews, priests in elaborate vestments and parishioners kneeling reverently before majestic altars. And then, of course, there’s the music: robed choirs lifting their voices to soaring heights as they sing well-known hymns—some dating back centuries—accompanied by massive pipe organs.

These are things that have drawn me back to church again and again over the last 50 years, even in periods of profound doubt about the tenets of Christianity and the existence of God. The very fact that the language, the music, the rituals and the environment are so different from anything I encounter in the secular world is what brings me a feeling of transcendence.

For millions of other Americans, however, all of this is a turn-off—and for years, traditional churches have been losing members as a result. A growing number of people have abandoned religion altogether. For many others, though, the answer lies not in abandonment of Christianity but in a new kind of church—one that seeks to eliminate those very elements that I adore.

This new reality became all the more vivid for me on a warm, bright Sunday morning in September when I visited Wave Church on Great Neck Road in Virginia Beach. When I drove into the large parking lot it struck me that the building looked more like something you’d find in a suburban office park than anything resembling a religious sanctuary. This feeling was reinforced when I entered the expansive lobby. Two people in aqua-colored Wave T-shirts wished me a good morning and told me that if I had any questions I could inquire at the information desk. Inside, people of all ages were milling about, chatting in small groups, waiting in line at the coffee bar or browsing in the book kiosk.

I lingered for a few moments then entered the main auditorium, took a seat and looked around. High on the wall in the rear was a countdown clock showing how many minutes and seconds remained before the service would begin. Up front, meanwhile, various people were busy checking sound equipment while four huge video screens flashed announcements of various kinds.

Then, at precisely 11, the band—featuring electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and an electronic keyboard—began to play, accompanying several talented singers in an up-tempo, pop-infused worship song. A ballad followed, then two more, before a word was spoken.

Steve and Sharon Kelly, who’ve pastored Wave for the last 15 years, weren’t in attendance that Sunday; they were on a mission trip in Uganda. In their place, Josh Kelly, one of the “campus pastors,” walked on stage with a handheld microphone, greeted the crowd and, after making a few light-hearted remarks, announced that he wanted to read some testimonials from church members who’d had their lives changed by new or renewed commitments to Jesus: a couple that had overcome marital problems, a man who was facing serious illness and another person who was struggling to overcome drug addiction.

Then he called the crowd’s attention to the central video screen to watch a “church news” program. It was as slickly produced as anything you might see on a major television network.

After another song, Kelly announced with great fanfare that today’s sermon—inspired by the Netflix series Stranger Things—would be delivered by fellow pastor Joe Riddle. On two of the screens to each side of the stage there appeared the title of the sermon in professionally designed graphics: “Heaven and Hell.”

Pastor Joe Riddle, Wave Church Virginia Beach, Christianity, religion
Pastor Joe Riddle

“We believe in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell,” Riddle proclaimed in an energetic yet conversational tone, before adding that he also believed without doubt in the existence of the Devil, angels and demons.

The good news, he added, is that no one needs to go to Hell.

“Hell is a choice,” he said, moving toward the audience and gesturing expressively with his hands. God loves us, but he does not force us to love him in return. That, he added, would not be love—it would be the “moral equivalent of rape of His creation. He wants us to make the decision.”

To underscore his point he momentarily took a break from speaking to show a clip from the film The Notebook—a scene in which Ryan Gosling is professing his love for Rachel McAdams but says he is willing to let her walk away if that’s what she chooses.

“What do you want?” he asks her.

The use of a clip from a popular film—not to mention the reference to a popular Netflix series—is a hallmark of the newer nondenominational churches. People I talked with said they like such churches because of their “relevance” and their easygoing accessibility. Among the hundreds of people in attendance on the day I visited, I didn’t see a single man dressed in a suit and tie. Polo shirts and khakis, on the other hand, were abundant, though many—women included—were dressed even more casually than that. And of course there are comfortable theater seats instead of pews.

This combination of the casual and the contemporary—with charismatic and dynamic preachers at the forefront—has attracted people in droves and resulted in the rise of the mega-church, with congregations in the many thousands.

Meanwhile, some younger pastors have started smaller churches in emulation of the more established ones.

James Davis is among them. Three years ago, he started The Rising, a church that meets each Sunday at the NorVa, the popular rock-music venue in downtown Norfolk.

Like an increasing number of Americans, the 34-year-old Norfolk native didn’t attend church as a child. But when Davis was 13, he told his parents that he wanted to start going.

“I’m not sure why,” he told me as we chatted over coffee recently. “It wasn’t as if I had some epiphany. Maybe it was because I knew other people who went and wondered why we didn’t.”

His parents were receptive and began taking him to different churches to try to find the right fit. It was a struggle.

“Every church that we went into,” he recalled, “felt as if we had taken a step back in time—into the 1950s or something—because of the culture they had created: there were the pews, the old music and sermons I didn’t care about. It was just irrelevant to us. None of it resonated.”

Davis thought about giving up on religion altogether, but something kept pulling him back to it.

“I had a strong sense that if there really is a God, and the Bible is true, then the decision I make about God is the most important decision I’ll ever make in my life. It will impact me here and now, and it will impact my eternity. So I started reading the Bible and looking at the evidence for Christianity and Jesus and the Resurrection. One of the things that really got to me was the story of the Resurrection and the response to it. I mean, there were people who saw something and were willing to give their lives for it.”

Feeling strongly that he didn’t want to be “just a nominal Christian,” he got involved with a youth ministry and quickly became one of its leaders. He soon began to feel that God was calling him to be a youth pastor, and the pull was so strong that he jettisoned plans to go to the University of Virginia in favor of Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, N.C., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible Studies.

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