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Church Reaches Out

St. Anne’s Episcopal Church has started a new informal service to help draw in disenchanted young people.

While sitting in a Starbucks Coffee shop, the Rev. Jim Papile, the rector St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Reston, overheard a group of 20-somethings discussing religion at a nearby table.

Intrigued, Papile introduced himself and asked the young people if they attend church regularly.

"They said to me, ‘No, church is boring. There’s nothing for us there,’" he recalled the other day, sitting in the St. Anne’s library. "Some of them told me that they grew up in church, but they didn’t like people telling them what to do and what to think."

Papile realized that the young coffee drinkers weren’t alone. At his next Sunday morning service, he looked among his congregation and saw a noticeable absence of young, single people. Most of the 18 to 35-year-olds in Reston were not attending church Sunday mornings, opting instead to do things like sleep in or go out for a morning jog.

"I began to wonder where these people found God," he said.

Last Sunday afternoon, Papile’s church held the first of a new service to give these young people a home.

The "Come Just as You Are" service, held every Sunday at 5 p.m., has dispensed with many of the trappings of standard church services. Congregants can dress as casually as they like, the sermons are non-liturgical and the bulk of the religious ceremony has been made substantially less formal.

NEARLY 150 WORSHIPPERS attended last Sunday’s service, many of whom were young couples and new faces, Papile said.

For the last three months, church officials have developed the new service by asking themselves what barriers stop young people from attending church, said Greg Ciambruschini, a St. Anne’s member who helped organize the service.

After soliciting input from younger church members, organizers found that church in general is seen as too structured, too judgmental and not inclusive, Ciambruschini said.

This new service seeks to counter all of those complaints, by being laid back and inclusive to all groups.

"Everyone’s welcome here," he said. "Come wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Come if you’re gay. Come if you haven’t been to church in 20 years."

In what might be considered the defining characteristic of the new service, there is no traditional sermon. Rather, each service is centered around a discussion led by Papile about a particular theme. At last Sunday’s service, the theme was "new beginnings," which was used as a springboard in the discussion for congregants to relate religion to their daily lives.

CIAMBRUSCHINI, who is a young member of St. Anne’s himself, said he and his wife had avoided joining a church, feeling that Christian church in general was hypocritical. After joining St. Anne’s last year, though, they immediately felt like they were a part of a community. This new service is intended to replicate that experience with other young people, he said.

"This isn’t your father’s church service," he said. "This is a twist on tradition."

Last Sunday, the service’s non-traditionalism was obvious. Papile wore jeans instead of his usual Sunday morning vestments, during prayers congregants brought up politics and the war in Iraq, and Papile focused on how spirituality is applicable to daily life.

Of course, the new service is not just open to young people, Ciambruschini said.

"It’s for any Christian who doesn’t feel they have a church home," he said.

Music is also a major facet of the new service, with the band and choir seeming to focus more on modern, upbeat tunes rather than more traditional hymns.

Susan Allen, one of the church’s musical directors, said she thinks young single people would enjoy the informal new service.

"It's a way for people who have been to church in the past and just didn't get it," she said. "We want people to find some spiritualness in themselves and in their lives."