The church where it really pays to pray

WHEN Bill and Kris Brittian took over the First Christian Church in Auburn, outside Seattle, there were just 14 regular members of the congregation, all of them the wrong side of 50. So they made a few changes.

Out went the fusty hymns and the Sunday best clothing, and in came live rock 'n roll, overhead video projections, and interactive computer gizmos. Rather than relying on word of mouth, they decided to market their church with a fully-fledged advertising campaign. And, rather than expecting church-goers to make donations to them, Pastors Bill and Kris made an unprecedented offer: come to our church for four consecutive Sundays and we'll pay you 50 bucks (pounds 32). Bring a friend or family member, and we'll up the amount to $75.

It might not be anything the Archbishop of Canterbury would approve of, but it seems to be working. More than 80 people turned up for the inaugural service on Easter Sunday, and at least 60 have come each week since. Plenty were attracted by the pray-and-get-paid scheme, but most of them loved the ceremony so much that only seven people ended up claiming the money.

Instead of John Wesley, they sing rock standards like "Stand By Me" and George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" (minus the Hare Krishna references). Last week they sang "Amazing Grace" to the theme tune of the television series Gilligan's Island. A service might include video clips of The Wizard of Oz or interactive cartoons. Sometimes the pastors will talk about awful traditional hymns that ought never to have been written, or speculate whether Christ's exhortation to "turn the other cheek" was really an invitation to his disciples to flash their buttocks at people they didn't like.

"Our mission is to reach unchurched people," Pastor Bill explained. "Church is supposed to be fun, upbeat, enjoyable. Christianity can stand a little fun. Too many churches are hell bent on telling you what you can't do. If people don't like having fun, I tell them they can go someplace else."

All of which makes the Rock of Auburn, as it has been renamed, one of the stranger churches in the world. The building is bright pink and looks like a spaceship out of a 1960s television series. The technical equipment is state-of-the-art - apparently the only other multi-media church in the world is somewhere near Dayton, Ohio.

Pastor Bill dresses in tennis shoes and short-sleeved shirts, strumming his guitar while his wife tinkles on an electronic keyboard. There are two professional musicians, too, including a recovering crack addict on drums who has now converted to Christianity. "She told me she'd come and play just once, but she's been back every week," Pastor Bill said. "I decided to make her a worship leader, but she knew so little about religion I had to explain to her what the word 'worship' meant."

The Seattle area is a ripe market to exploit. It has the lowest church attendance of anywhere in the US - as little as 35 per cent of the population has ever been to church (compared with well over 70 per cent in a relatively secular eastern city like Philadelphia), and only 10 per cent attend with any regularity.

To those more traditionalist Christians who shudder at the payment scheme, Pastor Bill says the money's worth it if it gets the message to more people. Religious denominations typically spent up to $2m on establishing a new church, he says, so it's merely a question of what the money gets spent on. And the Rock's total budget was well short of $200,000.

If their concept catches on, the Brittians hope to open a new church every two years. Their methods may raise eyebrows, but they aren't bothered as long as folk keep coming. "All publicity is good, even negative publicity," Pastor Bill remarks. It's a maxim to make any marketing executive proud.

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