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About three years ago, Steve Czepiec's buddy invited him to church.
"I had never been to a church before," said Mr. Czepiec, 21, of Maumee. "But, obviously, I had impressions of what a church would be like."
Those impressions, he said, were shattered as soon as he walked through the gleaming glass doors of CedarCreek Church in Perrysburg Township.
The bright, bustling lobby was filled with the aroma of gourmet coffee, provided free of charge before, during, and after services, and everyone was greeted by several smiling people.
The 1,400-seat sanctuary has no stained-glass windows but offers movie theater-style seats - complete with cup holders - and features world-class lighting and sound systems to go along with five large video screens.
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A 10-person band plays high-energy, professional-quality music during the services, including contemporary worship songs but excluding traditional hymns. Recent services included cover versions of songs by such musical groups as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Green Day.
Pastors wear casual slacks and open-collar shirts - not suits and ties or vestments - and offer sermons that include numerous Bible quotations but omit religious jargon.
"I enjoyed it a lot," Mr. Czepiec said. "It was more like going to a play or a concert. I felt very comfortable."
While most mainline, traditional churches are struggling with falling attendance, CedarCreek and many similar "seeker-sensitive" churches - those aimed at attracting people who usually don't go to church - have a different kind of problem: keeping up with growth.
CedarCreek staff carefully plans out its presentation in order to make "unchurched" visitors or those from mainstream churches looking for "something else" feel welcome.
They regularly survey their visitors and pore over the responses, hoping to reach more people like Mr. Czepiec, who became a regular and, two years after his initial visit, made a spiritual commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
"We try to take out the stumbling blocks," said the Rev. Lee Powell, lead pastor of CedarCreek. "Surveys consistently show that there are four reasons why people don't go to church: It's boring, it's irrelevant, the music is outdated, or they feel we're only interested in money."
The seeker-sensitive strategy is simple: present the Gospel in a way that is relevant to modern society, said the Rev. Glenn Teal, pastor of CrossRoads Community Church in Temperance, Mich., another area seeker church with booming growth.
"We're just asking one more question," he said. "In addition to asking if it's biblical, if it's right, and if it's of God, we're asking: 'Does it translate into the everyday life of a normal person who has not been to church in five years?' The question should not drive everything you do - but it should be asked."
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On Easter weekend, CedarCreek opened a $5 million, 30,000-square-foot addition that includes a 320-seat chapel, an expanded atrium, and a coffee shop with wireless Internet access and closed-circuit video for overflow seating.
The new construction came less than three years after the nondenominational church moved into its $6 million facility on 19 acres on Lime City Road.
In just over 10 years, since starting with 25 people in the fall of 1994, CedarCreek has become the largest church in northwest Ohio, based on attendance, with an average of 7,000 people going to its five weekend services.
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By comparison, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sylvania has 10,000 registered members, but attendance averages about 3,100.
And CedarCreek's numbers keep climbing: a record 9,778 people attended seven services over the Easter weekend, hearing sermons from a series titled "CSI: Easter."
Ed McAuley, executive pastor of operations, said 381 people signed cards that weekend "stating that they had accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior."
Pastor Teal's CrossRoads Community Church draws an average of 1,600 to its five weekend services, while 2,387 attended over the Easter weekend.
A member of the Free Methodist denomination, CrossRoads plans to start construction on a $6.5 million, 1,000-seat facility just north of Toledo.
Jeff Johnson, 38, of Temperance, attended a recent CrossRoads service with his wife, Connie, and two children, 3 and 5.
"It was my first time here," Mr. Johnson said. "It was interesting. I grew up in a normal, traditional, Lutheran church, and this takes some getting used to. I didn't feel comfortable at first. But the sermon was easy to understand. I'm sure I'll come back."
Buck Miller, 68, and his wife, Linda, of Temperance, have been attending CrossRoads for about 2 1/2 years.
"The love and acceptance are evident here, and they glorify the Lord," Mrs. Miller said.
"It's so much fun that it's almost like not being in church," Mr. Miller said with a wink.
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Many seeker churches invest heavily in advertising and marketing to attract attendance, buying ads in newspapers and electronic media as well as billboards.
Still, about 80 percent of first-time visitors come because they were personally invited, Pastor Powell said.
CedarCreek's 46-year-old pastor was a national advertising executive at Sears before entering the ministry.
"When I worked at Sears, we used to buy tire ads every week," Pastor Powell said. "Most of the time people pay no attention to them. But when they need a tire - that's when they looked for the ad."
It's the same with church ads, or as he prefers to call them, "outreach." CedarCreek wants to be visible when somebody who is seeking spiritual answers is thinking about going to church, he said.
Since seeker-sensitive churches are not a denomination, overall data on attendance are hard to find.
But the Willow Creek Association, which provides resources such as drama scripts and workshop lessons for seeker-sensitive churches, has 10,500 member churches worldwide and more than 50 member churches in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
Thousands of other American pastors have been taking notes on the movement and adapting some of its strategies and philosophies for their own churches.
"To be honest, there was a time when I was real threatened by it," said the Rev. Philip Jones, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Maumee. "I've invested my whole life in tradition. For many people, the seeker-sensitive movement looked like a fad that was passing. I don't think many people think it's a fad anymore."
He said the seeker-sensitive church has its place in society.
"I think our culture accommodates so many different tastes. It's like restaurants: You can't say we're only going to provide one menu, one dish, one style, and you are supposed to accept what we offer. No matter how wonderful it is, it doesn't work for everyone. Americans expect to be accommodated."
St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Maumee, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, started a seeker-sensitive "satellite" church a year ago with the unusual name of 10:35, starting out in Monclova Elementary School and moving Easter Sunday to the Maumee Indoor Theatre on Conant Street.
"We hold a number of different kinds of services here at St. Paul's, but we realized that to do a really seeker-targeted service, we needed to hold it outside these walls," said the Rev. Tom Schaeffer of St. Paul's. "You can have a great seeker-targeted ministry, but if you hold it in the confines of a traditional church, you're going to create boundaries right away."
Mr. Schaeffer said many people who made a spiritual commitment at 10:35 soon became involved in midweek services and Bible studies at St. Paul's Lutheran. "But they said they probably would not have made that initial contact with the ministry if 10:35 had been in the confines of the church walls. You have to help people get over that barrier to begin with."
"Anything which brings people to a saving knowledge of Jesus is good," said the Rev. Tony D. Scott, pastor of Cathedral of Praise. "I think it's something that every church needs to evaluate: How can they incorporate the seeker-sensitive movement by focusing on people who are not attending church? That should be every church's mission."
Pastor Teal said he first discovered the seeker concept in October, 1986, when he attended one of the first national pastors' conferences led by the Rev. Bill Hybels, a pioneer of the seeker-sensitive movement.
He left the conference feeling inspired, encouraged, and excited about the possibilities. Not only was he sold on the concept of "a church for the unchurched," Pastor Teal said, but he found a way to use his own creative talents in ministry.
"I have a background in music," Pastor Teal said. "I was always artistic and creative, but the old church model didn't have much room for that. I always felt like a duck out of water."
Then pastoring in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he began encouraging talented volunteers to play contemporary music and to present top-notch dramas during church services.
"The old church dramas were super-moralistic and poorly done," he said. "You'd have someone in a bathrobe playing Saint Peter. Gifted people would run away from that kind of play."
Since moving to Temperance in 1995, Pastor Teal has continued to integrate technology, the arts, and evangelism.
Visitors are often pleasantly surprised to see a clip from a movie like The Matrix, he said, or to hear a song by a mainstream rock band like Evanescence, or to watch a thought-provoking, live drama performed to the highest artistic standards.
The whole purpose, he said, is to draw people to the Gospel.
While weekend services get the most attention, CedarCreek, CrossRoads, and other thriving seeker-sensitive churches offer activities throughout the week, including Bible studies, support groups, and recreational activities from hockey and golf to kickboxing and ballroom dancing.
"You can get whatever you want out of this church," said Steve Whitlow, who has been attending CedarCreek for several years. "The bottom line is: They're reaching people and lives are being changed."
Indeed, a key factor in the success of large "megachurches" is getting people involved in small-group activities where they can develop personal relationships and avoid feeling lost or intimidated by the large weekend crowds.
Another important component, the pastors say, is to offer high-quality programs for children and youths, from infants to teenagers.
Cheryl Bliss, 60, of Bowling Green, went to a recent CedarCreek service with her daughter and grandchildren.
"It's nice to have a church that appeals to the whole family," Mrs. Bliss said. "The praise and worship music is a little louder than what I was used to, but it was nice. The music is excellent."
While he wants CrossRoads to be "fun and intriguing," Pastor Teal rejected claims from some traditional churchgoers and other critics that seeker churches are compromising or watering down the Bible's messages.
"There's nothing wrong with being entertaining if it means capturing people's attention while you present the Gospel to them," Pastor Teal said.
"People who criticize it are looking at the surface, not the substance," he said. "People are put off by the externals, but they don't see the bigger spiritual picture."
Pastor Powell also feels that many critics wrongly believe the relaxed atmosphere in seeker churches means that sermons are lightweight, or that pastors are afraid to preach about tough issues.
"Our sermons are filled with Scripture," he said. "And there is no lid on what we can preach. In fact, after some of my sermons people have told me they're amazed anybody comes back."
He also said the church sets high standards for membership.
Although attendance averages 7,000 per weekend, CedarCreek has just 679 members. To join, a person must go through an extensive program that explains the church's core values. Those include a biblical world view, pursuit of Christ-like virtue, evangelization, and sharing God's resources. The latter tenet includes tithing, or donating 10 percent of one's income.
"We believe that tithing is biblical, but we do not check checkbooks or W-2 forms," Pastor McAuley said. "We believe that's a personal thing between the individual and God."
With attendance continuing to soar, CedarCreek is studying ways to keep up with the growth.
One step is to open a "satellite" church in West Toledo next year, with Sunday morning services that offer live praise-and-worship music, but sermons videotaped at the main church during Saturday night's service.
While the satellite church is expected to draw 600 to 800 people, Pastor Powell said he foresees more space-related problems ahead.
The next construction phase will cost $10 million and include a 3,200-seat auditorium and a gymnasium, but it is still several years away.
In the meantime, Pastor Powell said, a church that caters to seekers, skeptics, new believers, and college students does not generate the same level of financial donations, per capita, than churches with more mature Christian members.
CedarCreek's church bulletins handed out before services include a weekly financial report. The general fund budget is $61,895 per week, or $3.2 million a year, and on a recent Sunday the report stated that the previous week's donations totaled $81,055.
As more and more people stream into CedarCreek, Pastor Powell confided that he is pondering a drastic step:
"We're growing so much that, in October, we will ask some of our people to prayerfully consider attending another church to make room for lost people" who rarely go to church.
It's not certain what impact such a request would have on regulars or, for that matter, recent newcomers like Mrs. Bliss.
The most important thing to her, she said, is that the sermons are biblically based. CedarCreek's casual atmosphere is incidental.
"After all," she said, "Jesus didn't exactly wear a tuxedo."
Contact David Yonke at: