Bending Tradition: Part 1 in a series |

Bending Tradition: Part 1 in a series

summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Cheikh Sy, left, leads about 50 men in a congregational prayer celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr in October. According to Islamic law, Muslim congregations must have a space set aside solely for worship, so Summit County Muslims meet in an apartment in Silverthorne’s Blue River Apartments which they use only for prayer.

SUMMIT COUNTY ” When people think of going to a religious service, they might think of a church with a steeple or a large room filled with pews. But for many Summit County believers, from evangelical Christians to Muslims, those pictures are far from their reality.

Visitors and members of One Community Church gather each Sunday morning in Dillon’s Skyline Cinema, rising from the fold-down theater seats to sing praise songs with the words projected onto the movie screen. As the band plays up front, a roll of candy ” it looks like Smarties ” hides below the keyboardist’s feet, a small reminder of the very different kind of gathering in the same place each Saturday night.

High Country Church usually meets in Silverthorne Elementary’s gym, but on one recent Sunday, members arrived to find too few chairs set up for them, so the group met instead in the cafeteria. Surrounded by posters asking “got milk?” and teaching about the five food groups, student and missions pastor Nick Kopchak spoke about a foreign mission trip he’ll soon be leaving for as congregants sat on the benches of the school’s long lunch tables.

Scenes like these aren’t at all uncommon in Summit County. More than a half-dozen local faith groups meet in a mixed bag of unconventional venues, from the County Senior Center to an apartment ” and each situation brings pros and cons, congregation leaders say.

Pastor Brent Smith believes One Community Church’s location in a theater attracts some people who “wouldn’t be comfortable in a traditional church site” because the theater is a “neutral space.”

Jimmy Humphreys, pastor of Great Divide Calvary Chapel, which meets in Breckenridge’s Abby Hall, sees the same phenomenon. “I think for who we are … a non-traditional site would probably benefit us more,” Humphreys said. “For some people it’s a little safer. For some, they can’t go into a traditional church building and do the traditional church vibe.”

But on the other hand, Smith says the location, among other aspects of One’s worship, may be a negative for some more tradition-minded visitors.

“I’m sure there are people who have come to our church who have been turned off by a multitude of things,” he said. “It could be that we meet in a theater; it could be style of music; it could be teaching style.”

While Smith and Humphreys said where they meet doesn’t shape the church’s approach to worship, other leaders said their location helps foster the atmosphere they want for their services.

Jeff Estes, High Country Church’s pastor, said meeting in Silverthorne Elementary, “does create a casual atmosphere,” which helps worship to be a more open affair.

And Mike Phillips, pastor of Immanuel Fellowship, said the church’s meeting place in the County Senior Center lends itself to the “very contemporary” worship style the congregation practices.

“I’m not saying you can’t have that contemporary, informal style in a tradtional church building, because you can, but it may be harder to foster that atmosphere,” Phillips said.

While for some people the atmosphere of a worship location is a matter of taste, for others it is a core part of their beliefs. Estes said some members of his Christian denomination, Southern Baptist, believe churches should meet only in venues set aside for worship, though he added, “That’s a real small group that feels that way anymore.”

Members of Summit County’s Islamic population who meet in an apartment in Silverthorne’s Blue River Apartments can find their location “very challenging,” said Oumar Niang, one of the congregation’s leaders.

During certain Islamic holidays when believers celebrate with singing, the congregation must find another place to meet, because worshippers “cannot be making noise all night” with neighbors around, Niang said.

That problem is a two-way street. “Sometimes the people in the next apartment are playing music very loudly” during prayer, Niang said. The group is sensitive about not imposing themselves on other apartment occupants, because “we don’t want to offend anybody,” Niang said.

At the other end of the spectrum is High Country Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which meets in the Senior Center each Sunday before Immanuel Fellowship. Congregation president Susan Robertson said the group has no spiritual requirements for a meeting place, but sometimes runs into logistical problems with its venue.

“We’re like the very end of liberal in terms of what we believe,” Robertson said. “We’ve got people coming from so many different faith traditions that it’s almost like there’s not a collective expectation of what the service is going to be.”

Many of the fellowship’s services aren’t necessarily spiritual in nature, Robertson said; they often center on “world politics or community issues.”

Even so, that doesn’t make the group’s meeting place irrelevent. The Senior Center is in some ways an improvement over High Country UU’s previous venue at Copper Mountain, spurring increased attendance and more families, but it also brings drawbacks.

“Sometimes for new people, it might be hard for them to come in and get a sense of what our congregation is all about,” Roberton said. Also, “If we have a big family day, we start running into problems with all the kids, because we don’t have another break-out room.”

Most leaders said that despite the many ways a location can impact a congregation ” for better or worse ” worship can’t be reduced to a setting. As Smith sees it, “A location is only a tool to accomplish the vision of the church.”

“I tell people, ‘Remember: be the church,'” Estes said. “Church is not what happens on Sunday. Church is not the building. Church should be the people.”

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