A tale of 2 churches: As one clings to tradition, one sweetens the deal with cookies

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Sunday mornings at Ebenezer Lutheran Church are almost exactly what you’d expect them to be — except, perhaps, for all the empty pews.

At a recent service at Columbia’s oldest Lutheran church, about 40 or 50 people sat in the hushed hall of Ebenezer’s stunning sanctuary. There were a handful of children, many more white-haired heads and at least one homeless person.

The pastor preached about temptation, and a handbell ensemble played.

Across town, Sunday mornings at Downtown Church are almost equal parts expected and unexpected.

For one thing, the church doesn’t meet in a church. And for another, there are cookies.

Ebenezer and Downtown tell a tale of two downtown churches, both with the same mission: to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But they’re following seemingly divergent paths into the foreseeable future. In many ways, they represent the crossroads of Christianity in South Carolina, as churches grapple with the reality of declining attendance and the need to evolve to attract new believers.

While almost everything about Ebenezer is “traditional” — from the bare wooden pews to the slow, solemn hymns — Downtown Church purposely doesn’t fit the mold. It shuns descriptors like “traditional” or “contemporary” or “progressive” that might put the church in any kind of box. It doesn’t even advertise itself as Presbyterian.

Around 300 people, a mix of ages and races, gather each Sunday for Downtown’s service at 701 Whaley, a popular events venue. They sing along with a modest worship band that sometimes includes a violin or mandolin. There are no digital screens or colorful lighting.

There are paper bulletins, no offering plates, no Sunday school and no special children’s sermon. They recite the Apostles’ Creed. In lieu of a traditional “pass the peace” portion of the service, churchgoers indulge in the “Holy Interruption” — a five- or 10-minute break in the service for socializing, coffee drinking and cookie eating.

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Downtown Church formed almost eight years ago because its leaders “sensed a need for a place for people who were persistently asking questions about God and were very interested in their own spirituality but were not opting into the formal institutions that would typically provide those answers,” said the Rev. Amos Disasa, the church’s co-pastor. “They’re weren’t going to church on Sundays, but it wasn’t that they had given up on God. They were disinterested in the institution of a church as it is.”

Since its birth, Downtown’s congregation has multiplied about threefold. A new church building is under construction at the BullStreet development inside an old energy facility.

Meanwhile, Ebenezer — like many long-lived churches across South Carolina and America — is shrinking. Its membership and attendance numbers are probably as low as they’ve ever been, music minister David Turner said.

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The progressive Turner is eager to see Ebenezer embrace change, but it’s up to the people of the church to make choices to change, he said. The church has recently called a new senior pastor, after a two-year search, which could present an opportunity to assess where the church is and where it’s going.

“One of the challenges for urban churches is evolving with the downtown community,” Turner said. It’s a challenge Ebenezer has struggled to meet.

About 180 years younger than Ebenezer, Downtown Church has built its identity, in part, on its willingness to change — to try new things and to let go of things that don’t work or don’t matter or have run their course.

It’s an attractive place for people like Amanda McAlhaney, who shied away from “traditional” churches most of her life. She felt little personal connection there and was turned off by fear-based messages, she said.

What she and her husband, Shawn, found at Downtown Church is a down-to-earth message that consistently translates to their everyday lives, she said.

“For me, this church is just about being a good human being,” McAlhaney said. “I’m always thinking how I’m going to relate this to life, and I think that has been something missing in other sermons (in other churches). … The formality drops or disappears, and you’re just there to worship. … That’s something that’s been really special about it for me, when people just don’t want the formality of the traditional church.”

Turner said he’s trying to push Ebenezer to look for ways to get people into the church through the “side door and back door” — because, these days, people aren’t walking into a church just because it’s there, he said.

The cemetery on the grounds of Ebenezer Lutheran Church dates back to 1830. Gerry Melendez

“I think you find some way for people to, first and foremost, connect socially, and then you turn it into a spiritual formation event,” Turner said. “We’re a consumeristic culture now, and so you can fight it and you can roll your eyes about it … it sort of is what it is. So I think, get them pulled in, and you can have that conversation after they’re invested in the program.”

Maybe it’s offering a chance to volunteer at a soup kitchen, opening the church as a performance hall during the week or allowing nonmembers to be married in the sanctuary, Turner suggested. The point is to give people another reason, any reason, to connect with the church.

At Downtown Church, it’s easy to embrace change — to try new things and let go of others — because the survival of their congregation “is not the point of existing,” Disasa said.

“We try really hard to be OK with the idea that Downtown Church may not exist someday,” said the Rev. Dawn Hyde, the church’s co-pastor with Disasa. “And it’s not the end of the world. It’s not the end of faith. It’s not the end of God.”