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."
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.
"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."
To find Jesus in Black Sabbath is hardly heretical, Hartley would claim. His pastor, Seay, also recalls being profoundly moved by a secular narrative. "I don't know that I was always aware of it when I was a kid, but that's part of what we did every night, we'd sit down and we'd watch M*A*S*H and eat popcorn, and that was one of our nightly rituals," says Seay, whose grandfather was killed in the Korean War. "And I was watching it, really we were watching it, as if I-wish-I-knew-my-grandfather kind of thing.
"Part of the reason I'm really attracted to film, and I throw most of the shows in HBO into that category, 'cause they just defy other television stuff -- I think they do what Scripture actually does, but the church has failed to do in telling a story," he says. "Most of what Scripture is about is these totally, completely screwed up people that are dysfunctional, that hate each other, that are adulterers, murderers, thieves, and yet God really loves them.
"I think for most of us, we see ourselves in these broken characters."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.