Evangelical church leaders strive for relevancy

by Amy Kingsley

Tadd Grandstaff, lead pastor of Graham’s Pine Ridge Church, is the new face of the evangelical movement. But it’s not his face, or even his conservative haircut, that sets him apart from older church leaders — it’s his designer T-shirts, blue jeans, sneakers and rock music. Grandstaff kept all of those things on during a Sept. 7 sermon that kicked off the church’s “Naked” series, an event that also coincided with the worship house’s first anniversary.

In a televised conversation with Tom Brokaw, Grandstaff explained how his generation of church planters is softening its stance on social issues like homosexuality and abortion that defined their predecessors. But just because his church is a little more culturally relaxed doesn’t mean that Grandstaff was ready to drop his drawers, Jesus people-style, in praise of the Lord. The nakedness he was demanding was strictly metaphorical. “Today we’re going to get real about the one we serve,” he said. “Today we’re going to find out who we really are at our core.” One of the hallmarks of the new evangelical movement is the tendency of its proponents to emphasize Christianity’s benefits as opposed to its prohibitions. Which is what Grandstaff did at the beginning of his Sept. 7 sermon. When he got to the meat of the message, it wasn’t the specter of sin or cultural corruption that animated him, but the staid ways of traditional religion, which he thinks have taken members away from the real work of God. In fact, Grandstaff came across more like Martin Luther than Jerry Falwell during his hour-long sermon taking aim at the cultural irrelevance of mainstream fundamentalists. “I’m sick of the fake smiles,” he said, “the cheesy church hair, the Sunday-best dresses.” The pastor did preach about a couple of bedrock issues, particularly the sanctity of marriage, but also made an effort to extend his welcome to all of this struggling with addiction and temptation. “We are all screwed-up, jacked-up people,” he said. Grandstaff encouraged church members to wear casual clothes to church, and at least one of the greeters wore a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. The dress code is not the only thing that sets his congregation apart. They also take their hymns electrified, thanks to a church rock quartet, and their sermons caffeinated, thanks to a complimentary coffee bar. The parishioners followed flashlight beams to their seats in the darkened church. No hymnals or Bibles poked out from the backs of chairs in front of them. Instead the group — which included an overflow crowd in the lobby, sang lyrics projected onto twin screens flanking the stage. Grandstaff carried a Bible onstage, which he opened only after dropping into a chair. His message about meeting potential Christians at their cultural level came from 1 Corinthians and Acts. “When did the church decide it would no longer be culturally relevant or relevant to its community?” Grandstaff asked. “We’d rather have people die and go to hell than put a drum kit onstage?” The majority of Grandstaff’s audience on Sunday was young and white, and included about as many men as women. The volunteers — Pine Ridge does not have deacons or other lay leaders — wore laminates and the uniform of casual clothing that defines the church and others

of its ilk. For a young church, Pine Ridge has already made a big splash in Alamance County and beyond. Earlier this year, Grandstaff used a collection plate to distribute cash back to his parishioners with the stipulation that they pay it forward. Church members were told not to use the cash to promote Pine Ridge. The church has also sponsored movie nights and cookout, like the one immediately following the Sept. 7 sermon. Church members and guests spilled out onto the parking lot after the service for “Grillin’ and Chillin’.” In true Pine Ridge fashion, its first anniversary would be celebrated casually, with hamburgers and hotdogs.

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