When I stepped back into the steepled brick church building of my childhood in Denver, what surprised me most was all that remained the same. There were the same pews, half empty, the same sanctuary with organ on stage left and piano on stage right. I pointed out the hymnals to my young daughters (who had no idea what they were).

As the room filled, though, I noticed things I had never seen at West Side Christian Church. The people who assembled for worship came in a wide range of colors and ages. A worship band began to play popular praise choruses as lyrics and grainy art videos looped on a screen hanging from the ceiling. The second verse of "Shout to the Lord" came up in Spanish.

So things have changed, I thought.

Until last year, West Side was one of thousands of U.S. churches in decline. Stuck somewhere in the churchy traditions of the 1950s, the 91-year-old ministry was literally dying.

The minister of vision and teaching, 29-year-old Cody Moore, says he realized something had to change when he began burying more and more members in an aging, 100-plus-member congregation that rarely added newcomers.

The budget also was shrinking. A financial crisis in March 2004 finally prompted the board of elders to make a life-or-death decision. Could the church continue to sustain the ministry? Or should they close the church doors and sell the building? The church chose to replant itself, knowing that even the best efforts at transforming a congregation usually mean conflict and a loss of members.

"There are very few who do this and who do it well," church-planting consultant Rick Grover says.

Church leaders expected difficulties when they took out a $150,000 loan in the fall of 2004 to finance a new vision. They called it the Pearl, ...

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