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We can’t wait until Sunday!

SUMMARY: With church membership at less than 8 million in the United States, the struggle to get members out of bed and into the pews on Sunday morning continues to be a challenge.

Some churches, however, have found creative ways to make worship services more appealing, generating excitement among their congregations and raising their membership rolls. With a gamut of possibilities such as hip-hop, superheroes and beautiful music, churches are testing new ideas-with remarkable results.

Not your grandmother's worship service
When the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, former pastor of Centennial United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Mo., decided to reach out to 18-to-30-year-olds in the neighborhood, he borrowed an idea from a Chicago church. In March 2008, Cleaver started a hip-hop-themed worship experience called "Tha C."

Now, under the supervision of the new pastor-David A. Gilmore-"Tha C" attracts more than 100 teens and young adults for a full-blown worship experience on the third Saturday of each month, and for a spiritual development workshop on the remaining Saturdays.

"'Tha C' is a direct result of my predecessor's desire to reach out and evangelize among 18-to-30-somethings who weren't going to anyone's church,"' Gilmore said. "He realized the traditional elements of worship were not appealing to or attracting people."'

Young adults in the congregation worked with the clergy to design a program around the four elements of hip-hop: spoken word, dance, song and art.

The hour-long service includes gospel rappers, poetry, steppers, an open-mike segment and singing. 

Gilmore is trying to incorporate art into the service, perhaps using a moveable unit.

"'Most (hip-hop) artists are graffiti artists,"' he noted. "We can't have them tagging the walls of the sanctuary.'"

Gilmore said attendance at the Saturday night service is spilling over into Sunday.

"Our attendance has increased on Sunday, and our membership has increased," Gilmore said. "We have noticed a dramatic increase in college-age students.''

Gilmore said people hunger for spiritual nourishment that the church doesn't always address.

"If we don't let people see and hear the excitement behind our words, we don't get people in," Gilmore concluded.

Child's play
Don't be surprised to find a superhero visiting Roswell [Ga.] United Methodist Church. Instead of Superman or Batman, however, "Kid Compassion," "The Forgivinator" and "Guts Girl" inspire grade-school children with biblical messages of faith and moral values during the energetic worship service known as "Kidz Zone."

Kidz Zone is a high-energy, multimedia worship experience for children through eighth grade. The format uses music, drama and video to teach Bible and life lessons. Worship begins with a live stage production, led by a master teacher who interacts with the characters on video. Then the children break into small groups for discussion.

The Rev. Stacey Hanson, associate minister, said parents asked for a change in the children's program four years ago.

"A group of parents weren't happy with the way we were doing Sunday school," Hanson explained. A nearby community church was using stage productions with Disney characters for their children's program. Roswell UMC borrowed the idea.

"We did piloting, hired folks who could help us with the video part, sent groups away for training and invested some serious dollars through a capital campaign," Hanson added.

Kidz Zone worship services take place in a renovated classroom Sundays at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. -- the same time as the adult worship services. 

Leaders assign children to the same group leader for three months. "The volunteer spends time shepherding the students,'' Rev. Hanson said. "They also talk about life-their friends, family and school.'"

A bonus of Kidz Zone has been an increase in adult attendance at the Sunday morning traditional and contemporary services. Sixty-seven families have joined Roswell UMC because of Kidz Zone.

`"I've had parents say, "I really didn't want to come to church today, but the kids said we've got to go,'" Hanson said. "The kids love coming, and they're bringing friends."

Perfect harmony
Music is the draw for worshipers at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, Tulsa. Those who cannot make it to the downtown Tulsa church can watch Sunday services live on television or over the Internet.

Besides the choirs, the church boasts a symphony orchestra composed of church members, a brass ensemble and six bell choirs.

Dr. Mouzon Biggs, senior pastor, said many members must drive 20 miles to attend worship services.  

"We try to have as many doorways as possible into our church,'" Biggs continued. "Music is a very important entry here.'"

Television and the Internet are also important, Biggs said.

Boston Avenue UMC has televised the 11 a.m. Sunday worship service for 29 years on a local ABC affiliate. Now they stream the service live over the Internet.

"We let the people look in over the heads of our worshipers,'" Biggs noted.  'We never make appeals for money on the air.'"

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