Exploring the Alternative Church

What happens when your religious upbringing no longer fits? Some area residents are reconsidering their spiritual options.

Leap of Faith

Ashley Brown was at work in August 2006 when she noticed a headline on MSNBC about a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Iraq. She immediately emailed her husband, Jeff, an Army sergeant who had been deployed as a crew chief for a medevac unit. He didn’t respond.

“I went home that day and pulled into the parking lot of my apartment complex and saw the government license plate,” Brown says. “I ran inside, as if I could escape the guy.”

Moments later a military official knocked on her door and told her what she already knew. She was a 24-year-old widow.

Brown’s parents offered to pray for her, but she brushed off their support. “I was like, okay, good for you, whatever,” says Brown, who was living in Dallas at the time and working as a receptionist for a software company. Her family had never gone to church when she was growing up. Sundays were “all about football.” Her parents had only become religious later in life.

Crushed with grief, Brown turned to drinking and drugs before seeking help from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), an Arlington-based nonprofit that maintains a national support network for families of the fallen. In January 2012, she accepted a job at TAPS and moved east. That’s when she found Grace—literally.

Specifically, she discovered Grace Community Church, an Arlington congregation of about 800 people that meets on Sundays at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Founded in 2000 by Pastor John Sye Jr. and his wife, Krista—both of whom grew up attending Arlington Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church on North Perishing Drive — Grace Church bills itself as a “church for people who don’t go to church.”

Brown says she was drawn to Grace’s come-as-you-are vibe, and felt like it was a safe environment where she could struggle with questions of faith and doubt without judgment. “They don’t try to pretty up faith or pretend like, ‘We have Jesus so everything is perfect,’ ” she says.

Impacted by the story of Jesus’ resurrection, Brown resolved to start a new life. Today, she volunteers at two charities and has given up alcohol and drugs. In October, she ran the Marine Corps Marathon 10K event in honor of her late husband.

LIKE THE HOUSEHOLD of Brown’s youth, our culture has grown more secular in recent decades. Whereas 70 percent of Americans in 1992 reported being a member of a church or synagogue, that number dropped to 59 percent in 2013, according to Gallup poll data. Moreover, some 13 million Americans now identify as atheist or agnostic, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. But God is far from dead.

In Northern Virginia, thousands still carve out time for prayer and fellowship—from the 180 Jewish families who make up the Conservative Congregation Etz Hayim on Arlington Boulevard, to the 2,000 parishioners who flock to Sunday services at The Falls Church Anglican, nearly three centuries after it was founded in 1732.

On Fridays, it’s not uncommon to see a turnout of more than 3,000 Muslims for prayer services at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church.

And with an average weekly attendance of 15,000, McLean Bible Church on Leesburg Pike—which maintains seven campuses in Northern Virginia and holds Monday services at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre—counts as one of the 25 largest evangelical megachurches in the nation, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.

Still, not all of those seeking God are sticking with the religious faiths or denominations they knew as kids.

Brad and Beth McDonald were both raised Catholic, but began exploring other options after they married. “The Catholic churches we attended seemed to emphasize the liturgical aspects, with too light a focus on other aspects of Christianity,” Beth explains. “We visited other churches that had an emphasis on the relational aspect of Christianity and that really appealed to us.”

Now in their mid-40s, the Tara-Leeway Heights couple attends National Community Church (NCC) in Ballston. NCC’s teachings are Bible-based, but its approach is unorthodox. Services are held in the Regal Ballston Common movie theater, the music is contemporary, and the casual dress code means that plenty of people show up on Sunday mornings in jeans.

The McDonalds say they appreciate how the church “teaches old truths in new and relevant ways.” And they like the fact that NCC has pastors who are married with children. “The pastors can understand married life in Washington, D.C.,” Brad says.

Sally Knuckles was raised Baptist, but was turned off by teachings on guilt and damnation. She left the church after her brother, a schizophrenic, committed suicide at age 24.

“That was the first big death I experienced,” says the Falls Church resident, who was 33 at the time. “I was bitter and angry and didn’t want [to be] a part of any God that allowed that to happen.”

That’s when Knuckles joined the Metaphysical Church, which holds the belief that communication with the dead is possible through mediums (people who have been trained to channel messages from spirits).

In the years that followed, Knuckles lost both of her parents to cancer, as well as her sister, who died of a stroke. Feeling alone, she became even more interested in trying to communicate with their spirits.

Now 63, Knuckles serves as senior pastor of the Arlington Metaphysical Chapel on Wilson Boulevard, which has about 120 members. She says the group has seen a 20 percent increase in participation in the past 18 months—a trend she attributes to people wanting spiritual connections without dogma.

The Metaphysical Chapel’s Sunday morning service doesn’t involve psychic communications (instead it might have piano music by Brahms, a homily on love and a silent meditation). But the evening service, called a “billet” service, is different. Participants are invited to write down the name of someone who has passed away, along with a question that may or may not pertain to the deceased. A medium then channels the spirits of those whose names have been written down.

NOT EVERYONE who leaves one religion feels compelled to join another. “When I was young, it seemed like everyone went to church,” says Ellen Campana, who grew up in Arlington’s Bluemont neighborhood. She served as an altar girl at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown and attended mass sporadically in college, but then stopped. “I was increasingly bothered by the church’s position on social issues,” explains the Arlington Heights resident. Campana now considers herself a non-faith person.

She is not alone. According to Gallup research, the percentage of Americans reporting their religious preference as “none” increased from 2 percent in 1948 to 15 percent in 2013. (Pew Research places the ranks of the “nones” closer to 20 percent.)

For Chris and Hilary Cronin, Sundays are sacred, although they don’t go to church. Instead, the Arlington couple reserves the day for family outings that get their three sons away from their iPads and video games.

One weekend, the Cronins participated in a service at the Shambhala Meditation Center in D.C.’s Cleveland Park, which follows a philosophy rooted in Buddhist principles. “I like to expose [the boys] to different customs and traditions,” says Hilary, 39, who was raised Lutheran but now describes herself as “nonpracticing.”

SCOTT MAURER WAS exposed to more than one set of religious beliefs as a kid. A child of divorced parents, he divided his formative years between a mom who dabbled in the Unitarian Universalist Church and a devout Jewish father who recited Hebrew prayers and kept a kosher kitchen.

By the time he entered college at Virginia Commonwealth University, however, Maurer says he had developed an “intense skepticism” about religion in general. “I thought Christians, in particular, were a bunch of judgmental, horrible anti-intellectual people,” he recalls. That is, until he took a class on world religions and began to read C.S. Lewis and other scholars of apologetics, a branch of theology devoted to the defense of Christianity.

After college, Maurer played guitar in a rock band and spent 10 years in the tech industry before deciding to become ordained. He remembers standing in his kitchen one day when he felt called to full-time ministry.

“I didn’t see a bright light or hear a voice or anything,” he says, describing it as more a combination of intuition and guidance from the Bible.

Now 47, he is pastor of the West City Fellowship that meets on Sundays at Theatre on the Run on South Four Mile Run Drive. It’s part of a 10-church expansion planned by Fair Oaks Church, a nondenominational church in Fairfax.

Maurer says he founded West City Fellowship in 2013 as a place for reconciliation—with God and with other people. “This area is so diverse. People have this natural hostility toward anyone who’s different,” he says. “God is glorified when the Gospel trumps all differences between diverse people.”

THOUGH NORTHER VIRGINIA a has become a veritable melting pot of faith-based subcultures—from the traditional “big three” (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) to myriad nondenominational alternatives, statistics suggest that religion is not the societal glue it once was. Last year, 76 percent of respondents in a nationwide Gallup survey said that religion, as a whole, is losing its influence on American life.

This may be particularly true of adults under 30, more than a third of whom are now religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 Pew study.

Some local faith leaders are attempting to reverse that trend by getting creative with their appeals to younger generations. “[Churches have] not done a good job of reaching out to Generation X and Millennials,” says the Rev. Brian Erickson, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church on Arlington Boulevard, which hosts wine-and-cheese parties targeting that demographic. “Many of these young adults are spiritually oriented and are trying to figure out what God is calling them to be and do with their lives,” he says. The approach seems to be gaining some traction. Of the 243 new members that Faith Lutheran welcomed in the last four years, Erickson says, 57 percent are young adults.

Mount Olivet United Methodist Church on North Glebe Road now posts videos of its services online in an effort to broaden its reach to the young and the tech-savvy. While the church is growing, both in terms of membership and weekly attendance, the Rev. Ed Walker says that 25- to 34-year-olds remain underrepresented in the pews. He’s hoping to further bridge the divide by hosting spiritual meetings in nontraditional locations around town, like coffeehouses.

Leaders of the 105-year-old Church at Clarendon are of a similar mindset. Though it’s located at the epicenter of what Niche.com dubbed one of the nation’s most desirable neighborhoods for Millennials, it’s still a “tough area to do church,” says Stephen Taylor, director of community ministry. To reach younger generations, the church has twice brought in a Christian DJ for an experimental worship service called “Church Remixed.” In October, it hosted an electronic dance party.

Swapping rock and club music for pipe organs and choirs isn’t a gimmick, Taylor says. The idea is to create an atmosphere that doesn’t feel foreign to people who didn’t grow up going to church. “There is a core message in faith, and you can put a different wrapping around it, but the core message has got to be there,” he says.

Another secular trend making its way into spiritual circles is the “festival” concept, which Gabriel Riera and Eric Forbis have harnessed with aplomb. They’re the co-founders of Buddha-
Fest, an annual festival held at Artisphere in Rosslyn that explores Buddhist teachings and principles through film, talks and meditation. (The fifth annual event in June drew thousands, with speakers including Dan Harris, co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline, on how he learned to control his panic attacks with meditation.)

“Most of the time we’re scattered. We’re doing one thing but thinking another,” Riera says. “The present moment is the most powerful moment we have.” He suggests taking five minutes a day to sit still and focus on the sensations you experience and the thoughts that arise in that stillness.

WHEN STEVE KING moved to Arlington in 1983 to become pastor of Cherrydale Baptist Church on Lorcom Lane, the church’s congregation had dwindled from 900 to 150 over a period of seven years.

Today, its ranks have rebounded to include 1,200 parishioners. King, 66, attributes the uptick in attendance to a consistent Gospel-centered focus, a clear mission, vision and good teamwork.

Lyon Village residents Angela and Jim McHale joined the church in 2013 after a long period of soul-searching. Though Angela, 36, was raised Catholic, and Jim, 48, grew up Episcopalian, the couple say they finally felt at home at Cherrydale Baptist, and that its teachings have imparted a wisdom that helps them navigate their crazy schedules and the challenge of raising three kids.

“You can feel very anonymous in this very populated area,” Angela says. “We live in a difficult world where a lot of bad and seemingly senseless things happen. [For me,] faith promises true hope, true joy and true peace.”

McLean residents Liz and Andy Jones (not their real names) have taken a different path. Liz, 48, describes herself as a “lapsed Catholic,” while Andy, 45, has Jewish roots but considers himself atheist. The fact that neither is particularly religious has mitigated any conflicts that might arise over faith-based traditions at home (for example, they celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, in a secular way, with their boys, ages 9 and 13). But the kids do occasionally ask about God.

“I tell them some people believe in God and some people don’t,” Liz says, “and whether they do is something they will have to discover for themselves as they get older.”
A question we all must consider as we find our place in the world.

Rise of the “Nones”

Nearly one in five U.S. adults today (about 46 million) are religiously unaffiliated, according to studies by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. But that’s not to say they aren’t spiritual in some way. Here are some interesting findings about so-called “nones.”

74% were raised with some religious affiliation

68% believe in God

58% feel a deep connection with nature and the Earth

37% call themselves “spiritual” but not “religious”

21% pray every day

Jenny Rough recently traveled with a tour group from Grace Community Church to Israel, where she rode a camel, visited the Mount of Beatitudes and developed an addiction to falafel.

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