call us “Pastor”: (l-r) Scott Womer, Phil Taylor, Ed
he music reaches its crescendo and sustains a flood of sound
before calming into an echo and the hush of a rapt silence.
The seven musicians bow their heads. Candles flicker in a
row of cheap, blue drinking glasses at the front of the stage.
Scott Womer, worship pastor, his electric guitar slung over
his shoulder, closes his eyes and puts his mouth close to
the microphone: “God, we just spend time in your presence.
We empty ourselves of all the things that we find sometimes
so important, whether it is our appearance, whether it is
the way people perceive us. God, even as we stand here in
your presence, it’s so easy to be distracted by how we want
to look, how we want to sound, how we want to be. God, forgive
us for filling ourselves so much with the world’s table that
we are no longer hungry for you.”
A bent note curls from Womer’s guitar, and he plays it close
to a disjointed wail. The drummer starts a slow funk and the
acoustic guitarist picks a spare, bright melody. A backup
singer lifts her head, her eyes wet and wild, and she fills
out the harmony. Supplicants sing and sway and raise their
hands into the air. A girl in her mid-20s drops to her knees.
I was told before the service that the band would rock. That
800-year-old songs written by St. Francis of Assisi would
be brought up to speed and the windows would rattle. That
people passing on the streets would wonder what on earth could
be going on inside Revolution Hall on a Sunday morning.
just Terra Nova,” Phil Taylor, executive pastor, said and
Revolution Hall is on one of the rough but up-and-coming riverside
blocks in downtown Troy, with a strip joint and a Salvation
Army across the street and the taproom at Brown’s Brewing
Co. a couple doors down. The hall has been sitting virtually
unused since December, when the club’s booking agent left,
though owner Gary Brown says there is a new agent in place
and seven shows are booked for April.
Brown thinks it’s great that Terra Nova is renting the place.
“They are averaging 130 people a week,” he says.
tells me they chose Revolution Hall because of its size (it
can accommodate 800 people), its acoustics (it’s been billed
as upstate New York’s “most advanced musical venue”) and because
it’s just cool.
And that’s Terra Nova. A cool, confident, Generation X church
that has come of age. The teaching pastor, Ed Marcelle, looks
like an average Gen-Xer. He is dressed casually in worn jeans
and a pullover zipper-neck sweatshirt. His hair hangs a little
long, a little curly and a little out of control. Up on the
stage, while he preaches, he paces slowly back and forth,
like a college professor, feeling his way through his teaching
with modesty and charisma. It is my first church service in
19 years, but I find myself completely engaged.
As the congregation files forward to take communion at the
foot of the stage, I guess at everyone’s age—20, 13, 35, 28,
40. They are hip, frayed, urban, suburban, clean-cut, blue-collar,
and down-and-out. The majority are young couples, Gen X, with
children in tow, or young singles in clusters. But most important,
these are the people who would go to an evangelical church
service held in a bar in downtown Troy. The guys who started
Terra Nova Church had a hunch that there are a lot of these
people in the Capital Region.
They are probably right.
Stephen Bugler and his fiancée, Kim Cahill, in their early
30s, have been coming to Terra Nova since it started up four
months ago. Bugler says he has spent years searching for a
church that he could connect to.
went to a traditional church where everyone wore robes,” Bugler
says. “And they had all these rituals that were completely
dead to me. With Terra Nova, they are taking those ancient
traditions and making them relevant to my life.”
Relevance is key at Terra Nova, says Cahill, who is the director
of the Albany chapter of Campus Ambassadors, a national Christian
fellowship organization. “I feel comfortable inviting a student
to Terra Nova,” she says. “It’s like, they’ve been in Revolution
Hall before. It’s not a church; it’s a bar. They are like,
‘Oh, I can do a bar.’ ”
nice to have a church where you can wear whatever you want
and you can go and feel comfortable,” she adds.
But most important, they say, it is the core values of Terra
Nova that keep them coming back. Terra Nova might be cool,
but it is fundamentally, Biblically grounded.
had somebody ask if Terra is a cult,” laughs Marcelle, who
actually turns 40 during our first conversation in the little
coffee shop next to Revolution Hall. During the hour and a
half we spend talking, he moderates between excited shifting
in his chair and a quick, studied seriousness. His quick wit
has teeth, and when he laughs he looks a little . . . devilish.
off, if we are a cult, are we really going to announce it?”
secondly, you have got to work way too hard in America to
be a cult today. After the guy in California did the [incident
with the] UFO behind the meteor, wear Nikes, cut your testicles
off and cover yourself with a purple blanket, the bar on being
a cult went way, way high,” he says, referring to Marshall
Applewhite and the 39 members of Heaven’s Gate who killed
themselves in order to board a mothership supposedly hidden
behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
assured the person,” he says, “we are pretty boring and orthodox,
in terms of ancient Christian belief.”
It’s true. Theologically, Terra Nova is nothing new; its core
beliefs would appeal to any conservative evangelical. For
all the guitars and the come-as-you-are aesthetic, this is
not a liberal church.
Terra Nova members believe that the Bible is the unerring
truth, the infallible word of God. They believe in original
sin, wine from water, the virgin birth and the resurrection
of Christ. They believe that there is only one God and that
there is only one way to salvation . . . and that there is
a Hell waiting for the unsaved and that a hell of a lot of
people are headed that way. They believe strongly in marriage
between a man and a woman. They believe that homosexuality
is a sin, though they are quick to point out that persecuting
homosexuals is just as much of a sin, and, for that matter,
everyone is a sinner. And they believe that God’s truth is
Where they differ from the traditional evangelical scene is
in their attitude toward popular culture. There is no hint
of the Hell-and-damnation evangelism of Pat Robertson or Jerry
Falwell, or the naiveté of Ned Flanders. These guys are keenly
aware of the wackos and stereotypes, and they are doing their
best to avoid both. They veer all political discussions away
from right vs. left and toward Christ vs. wrong.
a good libertarian,” Marcelle says. “I don’t want to live
in a theocratic American state.”
And although they admit Terra Nova’s core values line up neatly
with Christian conservatives everywhere, the last thing that
they want is to be known for how they stand on divisive political
issues. The politics just get in the way, Marcelle says.
have friends who struggle with the fact that I am a Christian
and I’m nice,” he says. “They have all these negative stereotypes
of what a Christian is supposed to be.”
Stereotypes, he says, that are largely the fault of the institutional
traditional church has created this weird Christian culture,”
he says, “from the pilgrims, who, in a sense, are the real
first runaway anti-missionary Christians. Instead of saying,
‘We want to be normal people and Christians and connect,’
they run away, writing things about how horrible England is,
how sinful, how dark. . . . They run away and they build ‘fortress
church’: Plymouth Massachusetts Bay Colony.”
not a church; it’s a bar. They are like, ‘Oh, I can
do a bar.’
put little fishes on their cars. They shop at Christian bookstores.
They go out of their way to build walls between themselves
and the culture. “We’ve made church a paraculture,” says Marcelle.
“We’ve become a subculture.”
Nova belongs to a large and growing movement of churches trying
to break down this barrier by reaching out and relating to
the 18- to 35-year-old crowd. It is a movement of Gen-X pastors
who listen to Radiohead, Matisyahu, Green Day and Death Cab
for Cutie and drop quotes from Fight Club, Marshall
McLuhan and The Matrix. They hold services in bars,
coffee shops, dance clubs and auto-parts stores.
It is a movement in which authenticity is a coveted word.
A quick scan of any of the thousands of blogs, Web sites and
books dedicated to the Gen-X church movement, also known as
the emergent or post-mod movement, shows just how important
a marker for success authenticity is. It can make or break
the reputation of young churches and pastors. Being in touch,
being culturally relevant is vital. Be a member of your own
community, and your community will be your congregation: This
is the equation the guys at Terra Nova are operating upon.
And their message seems to resonate.
traditional church needs a revolution,” says Cathy Blanch,
a 34-year-old musician. “There are so many people who are
desperate for the love of God, and traditional churches aren’t
Blanch is originally from Syracuse, but before moving to Albany
she spent eight years in Seattle. It was there that she attended
one of the fastest growing churches in America, Mars Hill.
Its founding pastor, Mark Driscoll, is a celebrity in the
contemporary church world. Driscoll started his church when
he was 25 years old with 12 people in his living room, and
after 10 years, his congregation has grown to more than 4,500
people, most in their 20s and 30s.
focus on missions in the U.S.,” Blanch says. “This country
is one of the most underserved missions fields. There are
so many people who are lost. They don’t know who Jesus is.
But you can share the Good News anywhere, at a bus stop, at
your workplace, at a coffee shop.”
She still listens to the Driscoll’s sermons, she says, even
though she regularly attends Terra Nova. She just downloads
Driscoll’s podcasts, which are very popular. His sermons are
downloaded more than a million times a year.
feel like I am still a part of Mars Hill,” she says.
And in a way, she is.
Nova is partially funded by an organization that Driscoll
started five years ago called the Acts 29 Network. It is a
nonhierarchical affiliation of like-minded churches, connected
by theology and finance, which is supported by a yearly tithe
of $500,000 from Mars Hill. This tithe represents 10 percent
of the church’s yearly take.
To date, Acts 29 has helped plant more than 70 churches in
three countries, ranging in size from 15 to 4,500 members,
with 40 more slated to start this year alone. The name, Acts
29, comes from the book of Acts in the New Testament, which
begins at the resurrection of Christ and follows the apostles
as they spread out to form the base of what will become the
modern Christian church. The book has 28 chapters.
what happens after that?” Taylor, Terra Nova’s executive pastor,
asks. “Acts 29. We are going to write Acts 29, essentially.”
Acts 29’s reputation is growing quickly. Every year, 1,000
applicants solicit them, Taylor says. They interview fewer
than 100. To be a member of Acts 29, you must pass a strict
set of standards. The interview process is rigorous, testing
the applicants’ theology, intellect, passion, history and
even their marriages. They are looking for doctrinally strict
Christians who share Acts 29’s passion for planting churches.
When a pastor is accepted into Acts 29, he (and yes, it’s
always a he) begins a planting stage. This is a three-year
period in which Acts 29 provides support to the fledgling
church. For Terra Nova, this support means money to help pay
the salaries of three full-time pastors, rent their offices
and their worship space, provide them with office supplies—any
regular expense. After the three-year period, Terra Nova will
begin to repay their debt to the network.
29 is based on a simple concept of recyclable funds,” Taylor
says. “We don’t repay a central organization. Even though
Acts 29 has an office with a phone number, we don’t pay it
to them. We would talk to the director there, and say, ‘Who
should we be funding now?’ They would say, ‘Here’s four different
churches that we are trying to start.’ “
Peer-to-peer funding. As a nonhierarchical concept, Taylor
says, it allows young pastors like Marcelle and himself the
opportunity to start a church without the help, or regulations,
of a denomination.
are functioning as a fully independent church. Acts 29 has
no control over us. They don’t tell us how we are supposed
to do things. It really is just a group of churches that have
like values, that are networked together,” he explains.
It is a clever business model, set up to promote exponential
growth. The loose structure attracts rebellious, charismatic
entrepreneurs dedicated to supporting like-minded pastors.
As the number of financially stable churches in the network
increases, the number of new churches that they are able to
support also increases. One recent Sunday, David Pinckney,
a pastor from Concord, N.H., and a member of Acts 29, was
passing through the area and made a gift of $5,000 to Terra
Nova. Finally financially stable, Pinckney’s church, the River,
tithed $10,000 this year into the network.
In this way, Acts 29 aims to plant 1,000 churches in the next
gets real when people start meeting people,” Marcelle says.
For Marcelle, it got real when he met his future wife, Diane.
story is a familiar one: The aimless intellectual, good-spirited
but rebellious. A Capital Region native, he went to four undergraduate
colleges, hitchhiked Europe, scoured books, films, music and
poetry searching for purpose to his life. It was 20 years
ago, while he was at the University of Wisconsin, “doing a
bad impersonation of Ernest Hemingway, taking journalism classes
and drinking heavily,” that he got a call that his father
had been killed in a car wreck. “I thought, ‘Well, that changes
the horizon.’ ”
Facing the unbounded riddle of life and death, he said to
himself, “If I am honestly committed to searching out truth,
and I’m not just being a lazy agnostic, I’ve got to at least
I am reading the Upanishads, and I have a brother that is
a philosophy professor, so I am reading Sartre and Camus,
and just going, ‘Holy crap. So let me get this straight: The
meaning of life is that life is meaningless?’ And my brother
goes ‘Yes!’ And I am like, ‘Whoa, this is so not the option
I am going for.’ ”
Though existentially charged atheism was ruled out, religion
wasn’t exactly fitting the bill either. It was the ’80s, the
heyday of televangelism, when the hucksters and bigots shilled
their religion and wiped clean the pensions of the elderly.
it’s really boring priests that I can’t understand,” Marcelle
says, “because I am not a 16th-century peasant. If I’m a 16th-century
European peasant, and I walk into the context of the church
I grew up in, I’d go, ‘Oh, I get it. I get it all.’
Besides, he says, “I was definitely the guy who believed that
organized religion is bad . . . [and] causes wars.”
Marcelle eventually gave up on school and moved back to Albany.
“I was searching, and I think I had given up.”
Until Diane came along. She was a waitress at El Loco at the
time, and a Christian. “And I wanted to not like Christians,
but she was incredibly cute. I was like, ‘Gosh, she can say
whatever she wants with those eyes. I will sit here all day
long.’ I saw something different in her. She was sort of .
. . normal.”
He started reading the New Testament, and in it, he finally
found what he had been looking for: purpose, the “pure passion”
of the followers of Christ. He accepted the resurrection of
Christ and the rest moved quickly. He married his waitress,
fathered four children, studied for six years and graduated
from Dallas Theological Seminary. At 30, he started a Baptist
church, King’s Chapel, in Glenmont, and pastored there for
seven years. But he still wasn’t content.
So he handed off King’s Chapel and began traveling the Northeast
as a consultant, helping churches start up or stay open.
Between 2,500 to 4,500 churches close annually across the
country, with only 1,000 opening, he says. The average size
for a congregation is 70, with 80 percent of all congregations
stagnant. Not growing. Just getting older. Dying.
in the Northeast, the best hope for some of these churches
is to buy a velvet rope and sell tickets to Japanese tourists,”
The institutional church, Marcelle argues, has become so enamored
with tradition it has become a preservationist society.
the fundamentalist and evangelical Amish of our day. It doesn’t
look that weird now, but give it 100 years. I went to a church
where they handed me anticommunist literature, like it’s 1955.
I was like, ‘I don’t know how to tell you guys this, it might
shock you. . .’ ”
There are so many people who want to have a dialogue about
God, he says, “who were me when I was hanging out on Lark
Street. And the Christian church, who is supposedly the keeper
of those truths, isn’t talking.”
On a Tuesday night in April, 10 members of Terra Nova gather
at Womer’s house, a sparsely decorated little cream bungalow
tucked into a side street near UAlbany, for a prayer meeting.
New Tribes is what Terra Nova calls these small get-togethers.
I am told these intimate midweek prayer sessions help keep
the faith alive in between Sundays. They are an opportunity
for church members to bond and unburden themselves, to offer
support and prayer.
love it,” says Chad Leonard, a 22-year-old restaurant worker.
“I meet new people. And we feel so comfortable, we are able
to open up and discuss issues, you know, that you wouldn’t
be able to on Sundays.”
Everyone sits in Womer’s living room. Playing his acoustic
guitar, he leads the group in 20 minutes of singing. In between
songs, everyone lowers their heads in prayer. Some members
of the group will pray aloud, spontaneously. Some of the prayers
are long. Some are only one sentence.
God,” a man begs, “destroy my pride.”
After the music, they go around in a circle reading a passage
from the Bible. From Acts 9 and 10, it is the passage that
Marcelle taught the previous Sunday. In it, Peter preaches
to the gentiles, a bed- ridden man is healed and a woman raised
from the dead. Blanch, the musician from Seattle, points out
a verse that means a lot to her. The gist of it is this: God
loves everyone equally.
how can this be? a woman asks. When there are Third World
countries and children with leukemia? She works at a hospital
and has seen firsthand inequity in suffering. She starts to
cry and the rest of the group is quick to comfort her.
It isn’t in this life that we see God’s unequivocal love,
a man who himself is living with epilepsy says, but in the
These comments spark a discussion that lasts almost an hour.
After this discussion, the men and women break up into two
groups and go into separate rooms. In these smaller, gender-defined
groups, they feel even more at ease to discuss their lives.
As I listen to the very personal struggles that these young
men are dealing with and the despairing that comes with the
belief that you are a sinner, I have a most underwhelming
revelation: This Christianity thing is going to be huge.
are looking for something that is constant and stable,” Womer
says. “Because there isn’t a lot of stability. Politics are
not stable anymore. The economy is not stable anymore. The
family certainly isn’t stable anymore. Churches certainly
aren’t stable anymore.”
are looking to something beyond this world.”
The church leaders at Terra Nova and in Acts 29 are touching
a nerve in a seemingly secular and skeptical generation, a
generation I have always thought was moving beyond religion
in favor of science and relativism. But it seems I’ve been
exactly wrong. Gen-Xers haven’t given up on religion; they’ve
been waiting for it. And in the meantime, they have been using
popular culture to express the same sort of wrought emotional
outpouring, desperation for meaning and finality of action
that now some of them are expressing every Sunday morning
at Revolution Hall.