Lords of the New Church

OnePlace gives new meaning to the phrase, "Rock me, Jesus"

Members of local bands Desole, Goodbye Tomorrow, And the Hero Fails, and Good Morning Providence have all attended church services at OnePlace as well. The rock shows and art exhibitions also bring a lot of new people into the church, almost all of them between the ages of 18 and 35.

And they're in the perfect place to try to build around their community, says Adam Brooks, a longtime staff member at OnePlace who's working on his Master's of Divinity at Phoenix Seminary. "Jesus went where there was the most need, where he could make the most difference," Brooks says. "And that's what we're trying to do."

Brooks' professors at Phoenix Seminary are pretty conventional, but even Steve Tracy, the college's Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, appreciates what Brooks and his church are trying to do.

Israel Whittimore leads the OnePlace worship band.
Luke Holwerda
Israel Whittimore leads the OnePlace worship band.
Sunny Davis and Shelley Barnes of The Stiletto Formal perform with OnePlace's worship band.
Luke Holwerda
Sunny Davis and Shelley Barnes of The Stiletto Formal perform with OnePlace's worship band.

OnePlace landed in the right spot, Tracy says.

"If Jesus came today, he'd be in downtown Phoenix."

The genesis of OnePlace began early in the 21st century, at Calvary Chapel in north Phoenix, a nondenominational church where self-described "tech geek" Ben Rushlo and Michelle Roberts, a writer for the Associated Press, attended services.

After getting married, the young couple moved to San Francisco and joined Highway Community church, which specifically appeals to "Generation Xers" through programs like the "20/20 Singles Fellowship" and sermons that incorporate entertaining videos.

When Rushlo and Roberts moved back to the Valley in 2003, they decided to start a church that reflected the style they'd seen at Highway Community. "There was a void in Phoenix for a church that had a more cutting-edge philosophy about God, and a more liberal view of Christianity," Rushlo says.

So Rushlo and Roberts rented out the auditorium at Deer Valley High School -- where Adam Brooks works as a teacher -- and started holding services under the name OnePlace, with Michelle's brother Mark Roberts serving as minister. When the fledgling church began meeting at the auditorium, the atmosphere wasn't that different from the scene at OnePlace today: There was a rock band, a young congregation, and short, straightforward sermons.

Brooks, who's been a member of OnePlace since its inception, says there was also a lot of flak from traditional churches in the area.

"When we first started, there was a lot of opposition. There were a lot of people who talked a lot of stuff. They were like, Who are these people? They're trying to change things.'

"People were like, Oh, we can't do that, that's not a church. You guys are going to Hell,'" Brooks says. "The nicest way to put it is, we just silently gave them the middle finger and went on. We'll keep doing what we're doing."

Brooks adds that the congregation doubled in size when the church relocated downtown last November. And the crowd around OnePlace seems to grow larger with every First Friday, as word of mouth about the "alternative" rock/art church spreads.

OnePlace's approach to attracting new members to the church isn't new. It's called "seeker-friendly," "seeker-sensitive," or "market-driven ministry," depending on whom you ask. The idea behind it is that the modern seeker is turned off by the traditional church model that enforces rules and emphasizes repentance, so to attract new members to the church, a more modern, self-centered approach must be used, something that's a little more liberal and a lot more hip.

"We want people to feel like they can come here and not feel judged, not feel depressed, not feel talked about -- to feel safe. Deep down safe," Brooks says.

And judging by the hundreds of "seeker-friendly" churches springing up across the country, feeling spiritually safe is a big selling point. Many modern churches have adopted the more pop culture model, encouraged by the success of advocates like Rick Warren of Saddleback Creek Church in California, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, and the international Emergent Movement, with which OnePlace identifies.

"This movement called Emergent [includes] different churches from all over the country and all over the world, and it's kind of reexamining what it means to be a Christian and to develop Christian faith," Rob Tarr says. "We're moving over to worshiping in new ways. We worship a lot through our art. Art draws artists, so we draw those people in. The same with music."

But critics of the contemporary church have a couple of complaints.

"While no pastor would ever admit to watering down the gospel message, that is exactly what has resulted from preaching this kind of positive needs-oriented sermons that entertain and amuse," says Michael J. Penfold, author of Contemporary Church Building. Penfold lives in England, and is not personally familiar with OnePlace, but spoke about the movement in general.

"Market research has convinced them [churches] that unbelievers stay away from the church not because they reject Christ, but because they reject the church's boring presentation of Christ."

But according to members of OnePlace -- most of whom were raised in traditional churches -- there is something wrong with the traditional model, and it's not just that it's "boring."

"A lot of us are just sick of churches that make you follow these certain requirements, or you're just not welcome," Brooks says. "What kind of load of shit is that?''

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