Gen-X Gospel

Ecclesia beckons the young with a blend of Christianity and counterculture

In an interview, Seay adds that the very term "religious" induces cynicism among this age bracket. Even at a time when megachurches are flourishing, Seay contends that bigger is not always better. "It's like a franchising model," he says. "I tend to think our days for franchising are over and that people are going to really realize that things have to be organic and flow out of the local soil and be unique."

But are these just Neo-hippies? Counterculture Christians in an AI age? Experts who have studied generational values say that there's something old and something new at work in churches like Ecclesia.

"I think it's because they were raised in an atmosphere in which most social institutions have shown themselves to be in crisis," says Tom Beaudoin, a visiting professor of theology at Boston College and author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. "In that context, people realize that the possibility of being misled, misinformed and manipulated is very strong.

The congregation worships in new, alternative ways.
Daniel Kramer
The congregation worships in new, alternative ways.

"People who -- leaders who -- can appear vulnerable, who foreground their own frailty and imperfections, who are empathetic and also unafraid to learn the current language of youth, are more likely to be respected as real or authentic," says Beaudoin.

Members of Ecclesia say much the same thing.

Regarding the church elders, Gahm says, "They're just regular guys; they're just as fucked up as anyone else, man. They'll be first to admit it." In any other religious context, such talk would find Gahm burned at the stake or shunned over coffee and doughnuts, depending on the century. But no BS is Chris Seay's MO. Rather than ignore a wailing baby during one of his recent sermons, Seay deadpanned: "I must be preaching really bad. I'm causing stress in a lot of people, including my baby." The crowd laughed.

"The thing that drew me here was that it wasn't about some big experience, it was about real life people not putting up a facade," says 25-year-old Leah Brown, who tired of the straitlaced legalism of other communities. "I came from a church where the leaders wouldn't admit mistakes. It would be all hush-hush."

This mentality extends across the congregation through both relationships and appearances; after services they're just as likely to head off to an emo show at Numbers on Westheimer. They don't have to go home and change, after all.

"I think the class dimension is important to keep in mind here," says Beaudoin. "The lower classes -- folks in those situations are almost never found in these kinds of churches, because it's enough to try and make ends meet."

Three years ago, Ecclesia purchased an old church building on Taft in the Montrose with plans to renovate it into an all-purpose arts center replete with a bookstore, cafe, art gallery, music stage, recording studio, small theater and even a living area for a few members. The venture would execute Seay's theology of creativity and help pay for itself, supplementing the collection plate. It was a big, bold vision -- one that has left the neighbors a little pissed off.

"Basically, I would say that the problem with those guys seems to be that they're not conscious that they are or should be part of a community. They think they're in their own little world," says Maureen McNamara, who's had a house across the street for over ten years. "It's kind of an odd thing to me that they're trying to do something that they think is Christian or community-based when they act like they could be anywhere." She complains that, on a recent weeknight, screaming electric saws kept her baby up until nearly midnight. On other nights, she says, she hears loud rock music blasting from inside until late.

"In general, they feel like they're above the law or maybe they can remain ignorant of the law," says Hilary Smith, another neighbor who adds that his main concern is the flood of parking problems they've brought with them.

According to officials in the permits division of the city's planning and development department, the church was told last year that it had to clear out tenants and operations until it had obtained proper permits. Ecclesia leaders admit mistakes have been made in building the Taft art space. During interviews for an in-house documentary, elders say they received advice that they didn't need permits because they were a church -- a miscue one chalked up to "a huge learning curve, because none of us knew anything about construction and permits."

"We as the leaders of Ecclesia -- the pastors, the elders -- we are responsible," says community pastor Chad Karger on the video. According to city officials, the permit process was 98 percent complete as of mid-November.

Like other Ecclesia members, Kevin Hartley refuses to censor himself from what conservative Christians frequently demonize. "I had probably one of the greatest religious experiences of my life at an Ozzy Osbourne concert in San Antonio," says Hartley. "Things just all of a sudden became crystal-clear, they just started making sense. I think it was during 'Goodbye to Romance,' and it was the first time Ozzy had been back in San Antonio since he pissed on the Alamo and all that crap. It was, like, meaningful he was even there."

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