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WATERLOO - It's hours before the first matinee, but the lobby of Crossroads Cinema is bustling.

Bridge of Hope's service Dec. 20 is scheduled to begin in 15 minutes, and several attendees are serving double duty - playing the role of both congregant and church leader.

A bass player wearing a Christmas hat with antlers rushes in and out of theater No. 12, corralling musicians. A man disappears behind the snack counter to brew coffee. And a retiree with thick, pearl-colored locks wraps her arms around newcomers as they shake snow from their boots.

About 50 people attending exude a sense of calm. The opportunity to take a more active role in their worship life is one of the reasons many members joined the small church, a trend in the Cedar Valley and across the nation.

"You really become a part of a family here," said Bridget Saffold, who attends the church with her four children. "My oldest, who is 13, plays the drums every other week, and I've become a part of a lot of the service projects that we do to help the community."

The church's come-as-you-are attitude also was attractive to the Waterloo resident. Attendees dress in blue jeans and munch popcorn during the sermon.

"It's a different environment," said Saffold, one of a growing number of Christians to attend so-called microchurches. "It makes it less intimidating than going into a traditional church."

Less is more

Microchurches have been around since New Testament days but have become more popular in the past decade. Though the groups differ widely in their practices, the majority serve less than 100 members, typically don't own the building where they meet, often practice nondenominational evangelism and intentionally offer believers a worship atmosphere unlike that of established churches. Many of the groups wish to remain small and will plant a new congregation if numbers grow too large.

"People are yearning for a more intimate type of fellowship that they, in many cases, did not find in the very large church," said Carol Childress, founder of FrameWorks, a church consulting firm based in Texas. "In the course of one generation, as a culture here in the United States, we made a 180-degree turn - from valuing strong individuals to searching for a sense of community."

Interest in traditional churches started to wane about 30 years ago, said Pastor Brooks Hanes, who helped create the Kaio Church three years ago. The group was started by handful of individuals who worshipped in devotees' homes. Today, the congregation's 50 members rent a Cedar Falls Baptist church for Sunday evening services and hold monthly discussions at area coffee shops and bars.

"Since the early '80s, churches have been losing people," Hanes said. "I'm learning that we need to go out into the community, out into our neighborhoods, to reach people. You can't just expect people to walk in and enjoy church. They're looking for something different."

In a 2008 Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans reported attending church weekly. Interestingly enough, that stat has remained relatively stable since the '70s, while the percentage of people who cite no religious preference has grown from 0-3 percent to 12-15 percent in the past 40 years. Furthermore, a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life showed about half of all American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once in their lives, illustrating the malleability of the country's religious landscape.

"The problem with the institutional church is people don't join institutions anymore," said Bill Easum, a founder of 21st Century Strategies, another church consulting firm in the Lone Star State. "People under 30 aren't getting married in churches nearly as much or getting their children baptized. When tragedy strikes, they go to self-help books."

While traditional churches struggle to keep members, microchurches gain followers by "reaching people where they are - in the culture of the marketplace," Easum added.

Remaining small and renting out worship space also allows new churches to spend money on their mission, not their infrastructure, said Bridge of Hope pastor, Kevin Van Wyk. The congregation, part of the Reformed Church in America, started meeting at Crossroads in 2006. It has no plans to purchase a worship hall, he said.

"If you're putting money into a building, you're not able to put that into outreach," Van Wyk said. "You start looking inward instead of outward. All of a sudden everyone starts to look at the building as what's important."

Close ties

But staying small has its disadvantages.

Heartland Vineyard Church in Cedar Falls was born in 1988 as a weekly Bible study in the home of Pastor Dan Paxton. By 1990, membership had increased to 27 people, and the group started worshipping at what is now the Main Event Centre on University Avenue. As the congregation continued to grow, it met at a school gymnasium and then at the South Hackett Road facility that now houses the IHOPE free medical clinic.

In 2005, the church built its Greenhill Road center. About 1,400 people attend weekly services.

"We felt that to really carry out the mission that God had given us - to be a church that cares for the poor, a church that has resources to send people out to plant other churches - that we would have to grow," Paxton said. "In other words: We couldn't stay a microchurch. We had to go beyond that."

Since its inception, Heartland Vineyard has established satellite churches in Waterloo, Evansdale, Waverly, Mason City, Ames and Newton. The congregation's annual mission work allowance is equal to what its entire budget was 10 years ago, Paxton said.

Though he believes the church experience is powerful no matter the size of the congregation, the minister looks back on Heartland Vineyard's microchurch period with fondness.

"With a smaller group there's much more built-in accountability: You're eyeball-to-eyeball, talking about who you shared Jesus with that week," he said. "With a larger church, you've got a fairly large contingency of people that come on a Sunday morning for an hour and then really don't see much of each other after that."

At Bridge of Hope, Saffold said she has grown spiritually since joining. But it's the personal relationships she forged that keep her coming on Sunday mornings.

The single mom had recently left a homeless shelter when she joined the congregation nearly three years ago. Church members provided free child care while she completed a nursing degree. Today she works at Covenant Clinic and takes part in Bridge of Hope mission work.

"No one else opened their arms like that," Saffold said. "Finding this church was a real blessing for me."

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