For once, the church is doing the rule-breaking.

Bay Area Community Church near Annapolis defies the stereotypes of what a church should be, offering an untraditional version of a stripped-down, jazzed-up Christianity.

You wouldn't know you were at church, from the look of it. There are no robes or kneeling parishioners, and the minister doesn't wear a suit jacket.

Music has a folk beat, accompanied by a keyboard and guitars. Sermons connect religion with everyday life, from discussions of modern culture to talks about stress.

It's enough to make some people blanch and others discard their ties. But while the baggage of tradition may be gone, the theology of the Christian faith -- belief in Jesus Christ -- remains, says pastor Mike Metzger.

Metzger is convinced the church's mission is to reach people where they are.

"We're targeting a generation that does not relate well to most older traditional churches," he says. "We want to tell people that God may not be who they remember him to be."

Part of a growing movement among evangelical churches to appeal to baby boomers, Bay Area tries to showcase basic theology by getting rid of traditions that, it says, blur the gospel.

Says the minister, "I'm 36 -- I'm right in the middle of the baby boomers. This is a place for my generation to say, 'Maybe God does exist, and maybe he does have something to say.' "

"We try to strip away the outside pressure," says church member Jenny Frances, 31. "We try to set aside the barriers of staunch choirs in robes, the stiffness. We come to worship God and learn in a non-threatening atmosphere."

A typical member at the church is between 32 and 42, with two children, Metzger says. This is not an accident.The people who started the church surveyed about 1,000 county residents who don't go to church and asked them why.

"Most told us threereasons they didn't go: unfriendly people, boring sermons and too much talk about money," Metzger says.

"We work hard on having good music, being friendly and sensitive to people and not using (religious) language they've never heard. We try to keep the sermons relevant. And we ask visitors not to give us money."

On a recent Sunday morning, several hundred people packed the Pascal Center at Anne Arundel's Community College, where the church holds its two morning services.

Plenty of Gucci handbags and women in fur coats rustled into the auditorium. But they were out numbered by casually dressed young couples and couples in casual clothes and teen-agers in blue jeans and old sneakers.

Metzger, easygoing in a plaid shirt and cords, chatted about forgiveness.

"You won't forgive people because you don't think you needed God to forgive you all that much," he said, pulling outa battered red children's scooter as illustration. "To many of us, forgiveness is worth about as much as this old toy. But when you refuse to forgive a person, you gut the heart out of what God is all about."

After the sermon -- which couldn't have lasted more than 20 minutes -- came more singing in the form of wistful-sounding Psalms and bright little choruses with a rock beat. Church members swayed a bit as they sang: "For you alone my spirit cries/There is none else that satisfies/My heart this empty world denies, and I will not turn back.. . ."

Singing heartily was James Baca, 21, a midshipman at the Naval Academy. Baca says he never found a church he liked until he visited Bay Area.

"My dad's a Catholic, and my mom's a Baptist, and I was a Presbyterian. But here they emphasize what the Bible says instead of what a certain denomination believes," Baca says.

For people like Baca, churches like Bay Area are filling a huge void, says Metzger. At its best, such an untraditional church can provide a home for people who find mainline denomination churches dull or irrelevant, but seek some sort of spiritual meaning.

"People want to know if there's a church that will really talk about life, even with the raw edge, even if it's not real pretty," Metzger says. "In Arundel, we found a lot of people saying, 'Where is authenticity?' "

But this nouveau approach to religion can also be dangerous, Metzger concedes. At its worst, in the attempt to make people comfortable, theology can slide into sheer entertainment, he says.

"The difficulty is trying to be culturally sensitive without being culturally relative," he explains. "The baby-boomer generation is consumer-oriented. So there's that concern of adapting too much."

Metzger moved to the county in 1987, after completing seminary in Dallas. He and his wife Kathy and about four other couples hoped to start a "seeker-sensitive" church modeled after other evangelical churches targeted at baby-boomers.

What began as a Bible study in their home grew until a year later, when the church incorporated as an official church body. Now, nearly 500 people (about 350 adults with their children) attend Bay Area, Metzger says.

"A lot of people haven't given up on God, but they have given up on the church," Metzger says. "We're trying to change their minds."

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