A Baptist facing East

The Romanesque sanctuary of South Main Baptist Church near downtown Houston may seem like a strange home for the Gen-X faithful in the Ecclesia Christian Community.

The church holds 1000, which means there are acres of empty oak pews when the 250-plus in the Rev. Chris Seay's new congregation gather on Sunday nights. But the sanctuary with the giant rose window has one essential element welcomed by the singles, artists and seekers in trendy urban neighborhoods -- beauty.

"It's as close to a Baptist cathedral as you can get," said Seay. "It may not be the right size for us, right now, but it still feels right. ... It has amazing stained-glass windows. You can look around and see the whole life of Christ. It feels like a real church, a sacred space."

But this is tradition-PLUS. The sanctuary also has room for three projection screens and an arc of television monitors. Seay and his team of Ecclesia (Greek for "church") musicians and artists use these multi-media tools to surround worshippers with a swirling sea of visual art during their worship services, which can last nearly two hours.

Sometimes the images connect with the words of the sermon, music, prayers or scriptures. But often they do not. Then there are times when worshippers are free to drift over to "creative spaces" in which they can paint or sculpt their impressions of what is happening in the service. Seay invited a painter to work behind him at Easter, so that his flock could watch as an impressionistic image entitled "The Body of Christ" developed during the sermon.

The point of all this, said Seay, is to tell a story that touches hearts and invites people into a community, not to conquer unbelievers through a barrage of Western rationalism and legal arguments. He is part of a growing movement of postmodern church leaders who want to blend past and present, the ancient and the digital, to create new forms of worship that appeal to all the senses -- sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

"Most of us have grown up with worship that is like a one-lane highway," said Seay, who is 28. "You get one message at a time, one after another, either a hymn or a prayer or a sermon. That isn't how people live today. ... We want to create a multi-lane highway during worship, because we know that people -- especially young people -- can handle many different messages, even if they are stacked on top of each other."

Seay is a Baptist, but his sponsors and co-workers in this project range from conservative Presbyterians to mainline Methodists. They want to build a congregation that is truly "multi-denominational" and linked to other bodies, not one of the free-floating, "non-denominational" churches that have radically altered the face of contemporary American Protestantism.

The Ecclesia fellowship doesn't want to be "contemporary" because its leaders believe "contemporary" religious groups are fighting for deck space on a sinking ship. Americans who watch MTV and live on the World Wide Web are not hungry for "the whole Western, modern, scientific model" of truth and salvation, said Seay. Postmodern seekers are increasingly turning to Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern, mystical, traditions.

Church leaders must realize that they, too, are heirs to a religious tradition that began in the East, he said. Christianity's roots are in Eastern culture, language and faith. It would help, he said, if future church leaders were required to read Saint John of the Cross and the Desert Fathers, as well as Martin Luther and John Calvin.

The goal is Protestantism-PLUS. Believers must experience truth, he said, as well as hear truth preached.

"Truth cannot be limited to propositions. Christ said, 'I AM the truth.' If the truth of the Gospel is to be experienced, the church must embody it," argued Seay, writing in Leadership magazine. "In a postmodern culture, the effort to know Christ must fully engage the head and the heart. ... We are moving toward a more spiritual world, one that faces East. The question is whether Christ or karma will be the focus of our spirituality."