Michelle Burgess was seeking comfort shortly after her father was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. She wasn’t sure if it would come from friendship or religion. Then her teenaged baby sitter suggested she attend Shore Fellowship in Egg Harbor Township.

“The first couple of services I went to, it felt like it was directly for me and it felt like they knew why I was there and needed to hear what I heard,” Burgess, 34, said. “I grew up Catholic, and I was going to church hungry and I would leave starving.”

Her husband, Scott, refused to attend with her; he also was raised Catholic. He had seen a few of Shore Fellowship’s services broadcast on TV and felt the non-traditional environment was disrespectful to God. But after 10 months, he decided to join her. On the drive back to their home in the Equestrian Estates subdivision in Egg Harbor Township, she asked what he thought.

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“This is what church is supposed to be,” he said.

The Burgesses’ Catholic background is common at Shore Fellowship and other non-denominational or Evangelical churches in the region, where membership is expanding or has remained steady while attendance at many Catholic parishes has declined or has undergone significant demographic changes. In recent years, many Catholic parishes in southern New Jersey have merged or have been dissolved.

Nationwide, nearly one in three adults have been raised Catholic, but fewer than one in four still identify as Catholic, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey published in 2008 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The number of those who identify as a non-denominational Christian has surged, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey: In 1990, fewer than 200,000 people nationwide considered themselves a non-denominational Christian, but in 2008 that number was more than 8 million, the survey found.

This shift comes as fewer Americans consider themselves Christian or even religious, both surveys found.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 42 percent of New Jersey residents identify as Catholic and 12 percent identify as Evangelical, a diverse collection of Protestant groups that strictly follows the Bible and focuses on sharing the positive message that Jesus Christ died for sinners. And at Shore Fellowship, which follows a Baptist doctrine, 45 percent of members come from Catholic backgrounds, Pastor Tim Chambers said.

Frisbees and God

Thursday evenings are reserved for high schoolers at Beacon Free Evangelical Church on Sixth Avenue in Galloway Township. The hundreds of chairs that fill the congregational area on Sundays have been removed. The gray rug has the markings of a basketball court woven in, and two temporary basketball hoops are set up at opposite ends of the room.

Teenage boys and girls toss balls at the hoops; occasionally, a stray ball lands on a stage, where some musical instruments used during services sit behind hard plastic partitions.

When the building was completed in 2001, Pastor Pete Nelson and other church members wanted to ensure the building could serve the community in ways other than just prayer. The members added a basketball and cheerleading ministry.

On a recent Thursday evening, Christian metal music blared in the room and about 20 teens laughed and screamed. Some wore shoes, and others were barefoot as they played an intense game of Frisbee. That fun environment, free of cliques, drama or judgment, draws teens who don’t attend Beacon’s Sunday services, youth pastor Jeff Speel said.

“I think that people just want to talk and have someone listen, to be with their friends,” Speel said. “We don’t know if they get that at home.”

He and his wife, Christina, are new to Beacon, but they know the tone they want to set and how they intend to reach and support young people. They host games followed by short education sessions in which they talk about how teenagers can find meaning in the Bible and that they can see God everywhere.

Teens, in particular, are at a difficult spiritual juncture in their lives, Christina Speel said. They are just discovering who they are and where they fit into the world. It’s hard for them to also know where God fits in, she said. So the Speels try to be positive role models and let the teens know someone cares. They check in with those they haven’t seen recently and message others through Facebook or text messages.

“We can’t say God wants a relationship with you and then tell them to read the Bible for two hours,” she said.

Refuge from high school

Eric Coyle, 17, has come to Beacon for much of his life. His closest friends and his girlfriend attend the youth group, although not all attend Beacon for church. “This is my family,” he said about the group.

The atmosphere of friendship and fellowship is the major draw, the Atlantic County Christian School senior said. “You get away from the whole high school group and clique mentality,” he said.

One of Coyle’s good friends, Dan Smith, 15, of Port Republic, attends Cedar Creek High School. Smith used to attend Beacon for church, but his family now has church services in their home. Smith continues to come to the youth group because his friends are there, he can play sports and games, and he enjoys hearing the lessons.

Kyra Huttinger, 16, grew up as a Catholic. Her parents still attend Catholic services, but a few years ago, Kyra began exploring other ways to express her faith. She said Christianity comes in different forms, and she finds the environment at Beacon’s youth group more in line with how she feels. She said her parents don’t mind that she doesn’t attend youth groups or church at a Catholic parish.

“I think that they are happy (I come here),” she said. “I’m staying connected to God, it doesn’t matter how I’m connected to God.”

‘There’s a hunger’

The growth of Evangelical and non-denominational Christianity can be attributed to a number of factors, including a cultural shift to a less formal society and the increased importance Americans place on personalizing external characteristics in their lives, said Yolanda Pierce, an assistant professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

“I think people are seeking a much more experiential way of knowing God and religion. I think there’s a hunger there in times, particularly of turmoil, when people want something that is much more experiential and much more emotional,” Pierce said. “People turn to their faith and I think that they have been longing in their faith for something that is more differential than formal liturgical worship.”

By reaching out to youth culture beyond Sunday school, particularly with recreation and popular culture, Pierce said, churches are ensuring they can keep their population stable or even growing. “Churches are trying to reach out to another generation, realizing that the membership of churches is aging. It’s meant to attract people who are either un-churched completely or kids who maybe resent going to church.”

At Shore Fellowship, attendance at Sunday services has increased so much that next month, the church will add a fourth service to its weekend lineup. When Chambers joined the congregation in 1999, the church had about 300 members. It now has about 2,000. It was listed as one the country’s fastest growing churches in OUTREACH magazine, with its attendance increasing 34 percent from 2008 to 2009.

“We’re not about reaching already-reached people. We have no desire to get people from other churches to come here because they think this is cool or they like it better,” Chambers said. “We would rather go after the people that are not reached yet or have veered far from God, or maybe they have had an experience that turned them off from church.”

Diocese adjusts

It’s not unusual for former Catholics to migrate to non-denominational or Evangelical churches, although the shift is something that upper-level church officials are trying to address, said Peter Feuerherd, author of the book “HolyLand USA: A Catholic Ride Through America’s Evangelical Landscape” and the new spokesman for the Camden Diocese, which oversees parishes in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. “Some people feel their needs are not being met and that’s something we would like to address.”

When Bishop Joseph A. Galante was appointed to the Camden Diocese several years ago, he held open forums in every diocese parish and among the criticism and concerns were that younger generations were not staying with the faith and that the spiritual needs of youth and young adults were not being met, said Sister Roseann Quinn, the bishop’s delegate of lifelong faith formation. “We know from our half-empty churches that many of our people have drifted off into wherever,” she said.

Since then, the diocese has worked to address those concerns, and there is now a focus on making homilies and sermons more relevant to modern culture, Quinn said. And as part of those efforts to meet needs of area Catholics, the diocese is http://pressofatlanticcity.com/news/breaking/article_8c27b0a0-e5a7-11df-a1f5-001cc4c03286.html" target="_blank">merging parishes to address shifting demographics, declining attendance and fewer available priests.

Related story: On Sunday, the Camden Diocese announced that six churches - including two in Cumberland County - will http://pressofatlanticcity.com/news/breaking/article_8c27b0a0-e5a7-11df-a1f5-001cc4c03286.html" target="_blank">merge next month.

Since 2009, 24 parishes in The Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area have been merged into 10 and a goal is for church members to take on larger roles in youth and adult religious education, Feuerherd said. Another major goal behind the restructuring is to build stronger congregations that provide more supportive spiritual environments, he said,

“Inter-denominational churches are able to foster intimacy and supportive environments and Catholic churches do the same thing, but our issue is sometimes we lose people along the way because there are just so many Catholics,” Feuerherd said. “Our task is not so much going out to grab (new) Catholics, but to find ways to keep Catholics in the folds, so to speak, to help them find parish communities that are what they are looking for.”

As fewer Caucasians attend services, more recent immigrants, typically from Latin American countries, are filling their spaces, Feuerherd said. Another issue is that a large parish might be served by only one priest and that makes it difficult for those in the congregation to develop a close relationship and have their needs met, he said. “Consolidated parishes can deliver more extensive services to people. They can do better youth programming, they can do better formation of adults programming,” he said.

A modern twist

Mary Magdalene is on trial for adultery in the 21st century. Her accuser talks of a crazy night with too much to drink. He laughs nervously and makes risque jokes. She’s found guilty and sentenced to death by stoning.

Her lawyer warns: “He who is without sin shall cast the first stone.” He walks her away; but as he does, he changes his suit to a simple brown robe with a white rope around the waist.

The skit was written by Anthony Carrington, who also portrayed the lawyer, to bring biblical stories and characters to life with a modern twist to share the message that “God is always there for you,” he said.

The skit is fiction because the real Mary Magdalene was never on trial, and while Jesus Christ said a variation of Carrington’s words in reference to a woman charged with adultery, she was not Mary Magdalene.

The skit was part of a special youth service earlier this fall at Praise Tabernacle on Ocean Heights Avenue in Egg Harbor Township.

“The message was that ‘Jesus loves us and forgives us. No matter when the world around us finds us guilty, he still accepts us for who we are,’” said Katrina Mertz, who played Mary Magdalene.

Rather than listening to a long sermon, children and teenagers danced to Christian contemporary songs, performed Christian rock music and even told Christian jokes.

“This is not performance, this is not art,” Youth Pastor Joshua Kennedy told parishioners as the service began. “It’s ministry.”

Artistic expression and using popular culture to teach Bible lessons is a hallmark of Praise Tabernacle’s ministry, Kennedy and Pastor Steven Rahter said. The church has even produced full-length films with strong Christian messages.

That focus comes from Praise Tabernacle’s goal to spread the Christian message through as many forms as possible, because some people won’t be reached through traditional church services.

“We like to see each kid find their talent and use it for God,” Kennedy said. “It gives them a chance to own their faith, more than just a sermon or a prayer.”

Rock ‘n’ service

The lights on stage explode in a rainbow, with the back wall reflecting turquoise and magenta.

Spotlights beam vibrant color and send rays over the crowd. Electric guitars riff and the rock beat from snare drums and cymbals vibrates throughout the room filled with several hundred standing people, some of whom are dancing at their seats.

“Your love reaches out to me / your grace has made a way to you,” three women sing.

This is how Sunday services at Shore Fellowship begin.

Services are part rock concert, part philosophical lecture, all with a deep Christian tone. It’s a come-as-you-are environment, where attire ranges from dresses and heels to jeans and Eagles jerseys. Chambers emphasizes that his congregation is full of imperfect people searching for comfort and meaning in their lives.

Sermons often include elements of current events, popular culture, such as contemporary movies, songs and concerns. Last year, Chambers did a series called “Bailout,” which discussed the importance of personal finances and setting priorities.

“It does no good to talk to people and say, ‘God loves you’ and use these biblical phrases and terms when they don’t even relate to any of that,” Chambers said. “They just know they are hurting and they are living paycheck to paycheck and their family is falling apart and they just want someone to give them some hope.

“Then they are receptive to hear the message that will change their life, but if we’re trying to reach them at a level that they can’t even relate to, then we can’t even get them in the door.”

The church also offers discussion groups that meet throughout the region, where members discuss personal troubles as they relate to that week’s sermon and theme. The current theme is based on the book Fearless, by Christian author Max Lucado, who asks what would life be like if you could live without fear.

On a Thursday night at Michelle and Scott Burgess’s house, about 20 adults sat in the living room talking about their fear of not mattering.

There is no judgment, only support through personal experience, spirituality and the Bible. What happens in the group stays in the group. The men and women talk about their fears as parents, in relationships, in their marriages. They share intimate details of their lives and deep feelings about fears and grief, their anger with God and their reconciliations. They share those things, they say, to help the others in the group.

“I believe people come (to Shore Fellowship) because they’re looking for principles to base their life on,” Chambers said. “They’re searching for God and how God really applies to my life, can he really change my life, can he really make a difference in my life.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216

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