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The crowd rolls in at around 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. The name on the red brick church in the Heights is West End Baptist, but the congregation goes by Ecclesia. The dress code, or lack of dress code, means that people feel cool enough to sport flip-flops, torn jeans and messy hair. Instead of codified religious ritual, their services are based around music, art and video presentations. Instead of stodgy, starchy routine, there is slacker spontaneity.
In one corner of the sanctuary, a dozen people kneel on a spattered green tarp, swiping away at canvases with acrylic paint. They're huddled low, their shadows dancing along the wall. They continue worshiping in this way throughout the service. Robbie Seay, the music pastor with a mop of blond hair and a tight T-shirt, leads loud, straightforward rock from the altar. Candles are loosely arranged less like a Catholic grotto and more like the backdrop to a VH1 acoustic special.
If it doesn't look like church, it doesn't feel entirely like church, either.
"It's kind of like going to a bar every Sunday," says Taylor Gahm, an indie filmmaker who's been attending the church for about two years. He adds that the casual environment makes it feel more like he's just hanging out with friends than trudging off to some dull institutional commitment.
"The thing I love about it is that it's very free with expression," says Christin Cook, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter who began attending a few weeks back. "I don't look like a freak when I come here.
"I know I look different. Most places I go, I end up sticking out like a sore thumb," she says. She might be referring to her spiky dyed hair and funky thrift-store threads -- not exactly standard-issue church attire. "It's also very laid-back. There's not a lot of stipulations on how you dress or how you act."
According to an administrator at Ecclesia, the average age is 25 and the congregation -- a few hundred, depending on the night -- comes from pretty diverse backgrounds. Many identify with Gahm, who calls himself "a refugee of the Southern Baptist experiment," raised in and put off by the superficiality of big religion. Ask around and nearly every member uses the terms "real" or "authentic" to describe what draws them to Ecclesia. It could be the come-as-you-are fashion vibe, to borrow a phrase from a Generation X icon.
More than that, though, it's a quality that trickles down from lead pastor Chris Seay, the 32-year-old author of such books as The Gospel According to Tony Soprano and The Tao of Enron. Seay, with soft blue eyes and a blond goatee jutting off his chin, takes the stage in a maroon shirt and faded jeans. He conducts his ministry with a no-frills honesty, often sprinkling in pop culture analogies like a hard-wired hipster prophet.
"Matthew, Mark and Luke are like ABC, CBS and NBC," he tells the crowd on a recent evening. "John is like Fox News. You read it and you're like, 'These guys aren't even on the same script.' " Seay, the older brother of music pastor Robbie, drops Throwing Copper lyrics into sermons and Eyes Wide Shut references into conversation. He is, in essence, Generations X and Y: awash in media culture. And like everyone else here, he grew up knowing that spirituality wasn't the problem. It was the slick, pious format that it always came packaged in.
"I sensed some sense of spiritual obligation and calling, but I knew that if it had played out in the kind of church that I was familiar with, that I'd just die inside," he says. Ecclesia, officially "founded" by Seay in 1999, had a grassroots beginning. The community gathered at South Main Baptist for a while, before merging with West End Baptist last spring to ensure that the aging, dwindling congregation wouldn't die. Seay, who studied at Baylor's Truett Theological Seminary and led a similar Gen-X church in Waco in the late '90s, ministers to West End seniors on Sunday mornings and the Ecclesia young'uns at the 5:30 service.
For a group rejecting the authority and relevance of religious institutions -- priests molest, televangelists swindle, and the religious right flees pop culture -- some think that a church steeped in plurality might be the only way to reach a demographic born into postmodernism. It might be why Seay opts for the cheerfully inclusive, yet dogmatically imprecise "multidenominational" tag to describe the church -- a church that affiliates with the more open-minded Baptist conventions and offered Christian yoga lessons at one point. It's also why The Matrix affected Seay as powerfully as anyone who saw that movie. The film told the story of a tech whiz named Neo, who discovers that cyberintelligence has created an elaborate virtual world called the matrix to harness the energy of enslaved humans. Earlier this year Seay published The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in the Matrix.
"My co-author, Greg [Garrett], has a student who declared that the matrix resembles nothing so much as organized religion and our involvement with it," he writes in the book. "This student saw the two as similar systems that keep people asleep, dreaming and docile, unable to ask questions or imagine alternatives. Many Gen-X and Gen-Yers share this jaundiced view, and thus share much in common with Neo."