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
(page 2 of 4)
Pastor James Davis
For the next six years, he worked as a pastor for a youth ministry, but in 2012 he decided that his calling was broader than that; he wanted to start his own church.
“When I say I felt like God was calling me,” Davis remarked, “it wasn’t like I saw God in the clouds, or I saw a picture of Mary in a piece of toast or something. It was just this prompting, this leaning, this feeling that this is what I was put on earth to do.”
As a first step, he and his wife went to a “church planting” assessment retreat, where leaders of established churches try to discern whether people who are exploring the idea are truly ready to act on it. They told Davis that they felt he was.
“I’d been afraid,” he admitted. “I thought, what if nobody comes? What if we don’t raise enough money? What if it fails? I also thought there had to be people who were better equipped than I was. I realize now that I was responding like Moses did when God called him. (Moses felt he wasn’t up to the task.) Finally, I decided that fear wasn’t a big enough enemy to bow down to. If God wanted someone else to do this he wouldn’t have put it on my heart. Sometimes things take place in your life that eject you from where you are so you can do something better—something you should be doing.”
When it came time to find a location, Davis considered Ghent because he knew he wanted to target a young audience. He soon discovered that every church in Ghent met in an old church building, and that was something he didn’t want to do.
“We wanted to be the sort of church who reached people who were far from God and see them raised to true life,” he said. “I couldn’t see them walking into an old church building.”
Finally, he settled on the NorVa, which was appealing both because it already had sound equipment, lights, a video screen and large stage but because, as a rock venue, it’s the last place people would expect to find a church.
The Rising at the NorVa
The Rising held its first service there on Sept. 14, 2014 and attracted more than 200 people, thanks to targeted mailings and radio ads on 96X.
The music—played by a band with electric guitars and drums—is a big part of the appeal, he believes.
“If you walk into most churches, you’ll hear music you never hear anywhere else. At our church we try not to be that way. Often the band will do a cover song from the radio. When people come to church, especially if they’ve been turned off by God, they typically come with a stereotype in their minds of what church is going to be and sort of sit there with their arms crossed. When they sit down and hear the music we have playing, hopefully it throws them off a little bit—and then when they hear a song they just heard earlier that morning on the radio, hopefully they’ll uncross their arms and hear the message.”
Among the people who find it appealing is Elizabeth Agbuya, a 34-year-old Virginia Beach resident.
“I was raised Catholic,” she told me recently. “We went to mass every Sunday throughout my childhood. I remember wanting to go up and eat the round bread. But I was too young. I also remember being really confused about the whole Jesus-God-Holy Spirit concept and the rituals of mass—sitting, standing, kneeling.”
Around the time she entered high school, her family’s church attendance waned. Nevertheless, because they kept going on Christmas and Easter at the very least, she maintained some connection with the Catholic Church.
A series of life crises, however, gradually made her realize that she wanted a different kind of religious experience. The first glimmer of this realization came not long after her older sister went off to college.
“We got a call that she’d been hospitalized after doing narcotics of some sort. She wasn’t an addict, but she had to leave school and come back home. I’ve never seen her in such a bad place.”
After enrolling at Old Dominion University and attending a court-ordered Narcotics Anonymous program, her sister started going to a church called New Life.
“She’s always been a huge influence for me, so one day I went with her. I remember thinking that I wanted a relationship with God. There was just this overwhelming joy and happiness that people seemed to feel in church.”
The experience also helped clarify in her mind ideas about Jesus, grace and forgiveness. “It helped me connect the dots,” she said. On the other hand, she recalled, she went through a phase in her late teens of partying a lot and “hanging around with dumb people.”
In her ongoing effort to find herself, that pattern repeated itself through a series of relationships, leaving college before graduation to accept an attractive job offer, and, at one point, becoming intensely focused on her body through yoga, running and Crossfit training. “That became a kind of religion for me,” she said.