Martin Luther he’s not. But Jack Sims is trying to foment his own type of reformation.
A marketing consultant and self-proclaimed “baby boom” expert, Sims is founder of a nontraditional Southern California church called Matthew’s Party. His congregation meets in a restaurant, advertises itself on top-40 radio, and makes a point of catering to the lifestyles of young Americans.
Sims says churches have lost touch with the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, the so-called baby boom generation. “Baby boomers are very interested in spiritual issues,” argues the 40-year-old Sims. “But we … can’t relate to the lifestyle, music, or jargon of what has become a culturally entrenched church.”
According to Sims, the typical evangelical church ignores the changes that have occurred in America’s social structure. “Whether we like it or not, 63 percent of all women now work outside the home,” he says. “… But we go on making women feel guilty for their changing role.”
He cites political ideology as another factor contributing to the gap between conservative churches and members of the post-World War II generation. “Reverend Rambo is speaking from the pulpits of America, and his message promotes the escalation of war in the world,” Sims maintains. “Meanwhile, most 20-to 40-year-olds find it difficult to believe that the Jesus of Scripture would favor bigger and better bombs.”
Younger America’s fascination with high technology has also been overlooked by most churches, contends Sims. “As Christians we have a spiritual message that’s timeless, but we need new packaging. We’re still presenting our message in monotone in an MTV world.”
Acting on his theories, Sims last year founded Matthew’s Party, which now attracts about 50 people each week. The church is named for the passage in Matthew 9 where Jesus eats a meal with Matthew and a group of sinners.
In a top-40 radio commercial, Sims appeals to prospective visitors by chiding traditional forms of worship: “Many people feel church is boring, old-fashioned, and hypocritical … where someone’s always asking for money,” he says. “Matthew’s Party is a church without organ music, offering plates, coats and ties, or narrow thinking.”
In an effort to meet the needs of its target audience, Matthew’s Party has abandoned Sunday morning worship. The church holds informal weeknight get-togethers because, according to Sims, “most baby boom families depend on two incomes. That means there are two days left for spending time with the family, Saturday and Sunday.”
The group meets Tuesday nights in a rented banquet room at an upscale Anaheim restaurant. Instrumentalists play fusion jazz versions of contemporary Christian tunes as visitors select from an assortment of appetizers. A short, informal Bible study led by Sims is followed by discussion and group prayer. The church’s expenses of about $400 a week are covered through unsolicited donations.
“I know there are plenty of good people in the evangelical church system, and I’m not saying we ought to scrap the whole thing and start from the beginning,” says Sims. “… Our statement of faith is as scriptural as anybody’s. We are a group of people committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ and to each other.… But any religious trapping that is not scriptural is fair game for change.”
Sims’s knack for challenging church norms has garnered wide media coverage and mixed reviews from fellow Christians. The aspect of Matthew’s Party that has raised the most eyebrows is the availability of alcoholic beverages during its meetings. A bar operated by the restaurant sits near the entrance to the church’s banquet room meeting place.
“We neither condemn nor endorse the drinking of alcohol as part of our fellowship time,” says Sims, “because we believe there is no biblical precedent for doing so. It’s purely a cultural phenomenon, and I don’t think that’s enough of a reason to turn people away.”
Sims’s position on alcohol, however, has cost him his ordination. After an article about Matthew’s Party appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Evangelical Church Alliance in Bradley, Illinois, refused to renew his ordination papers. “They said, ‘We’re all for you on every other point,’ ” Sims says. “But they pulled back on the alcohol issue.”
For a consulting fee of $250 a day, Sims uses his research to help other churches understand the needs of baby boomers. He suggests that congregations redesign their worship formats and refocus their ministries to care for members more effectively and attract unchurched baby boomers.
His vision inspired at least three groups to begin churches for baby boomers. Two of those, in Ventura, California, and Minneapolis, failed to develop into viable congregations. However, a group in Pittsburgh is taking root with an average attendance of 30.
In some respects, Sims is building on a model pioneered in the late 1960s by Chuck Smith. Smith’s Calvary Chapel incorporated contemporary praise music in its worship services to attract young people who became Christians during the Jesus Movement. Smith, a respected pastor whose congregation has spawned daughter churches across the country, echoes the comments of other pastors who say their churches have not had a problem reaching the baby boom generation. He says his Costa Mesa, California, church attracts some 12,000 worshipers “of mostly baby boom age.”
“When the church-growth movement started,” Smith says, “a lot of people came and studied us.” He says Sims is making some valid points, but he urges caution. “I see nothing wrong with trying to appeal to the given tastes of a generation,” Smith says. “But I think there’s a certain danger to the philosophy that the end justifies the means.”
By Brian Bird.
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