There are no crosses, no religious signs or symbols and no fancy furniture to decorate Grace Community Church in Columbia. The church meets in three large warehouse buildings in an industrial complex off Route 108.
Instead of vestments, the pastor preaches in an open-neck sport shirt. Instead of a robed choir, the music is directed by upbeat song leaders with hand-held microphones, accompanied by a band with drums, electric guitars and keyboard. Instead of quietly sung hymns, worshipers stand and clap as they sing contemporary choruses that are projected on overhead screens.
But Grace Community does have something that many churches lack - carloads of worshipers lining the roads to the entrance, standing room only at three Sunday services that seat 500 at a time, and children who urge their parents to get them to the church on time.
"Crowd control is a little bit of a problem," says the Rev. Mark Norman, the senior pastor, in explaining his church's uncommon dilemma.
The Rev. Tim Siemens, one of Grace's seven pastors, says the church was founded in 1984 by 10 or so Howard County couples who had been attending Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium and Forcey Memorial Church in Silver Spring. The Timonium and Silver Spring churches joined forces to inaugurate the Columbia church. Siemens served as senior pastor in its early years.
When Grace Community outgrew its first meeting place at Glenelg Country School, the church moved to The Other Barn and then to Oakland Mills High School in Columbia before settling at its current location, off Red Branch Road.
"We're trying to be a church for the people who have given up on churches," Norman said. "There's a lot of people that are beginning to get interested in God again ... because they've experienced some pain of some kind."
Norman said that although the mission of his church "is the same as just about any other evangelical Christian church," Grace avoids typical church accouterments, such as pews, pulpit furniture and stained glass. Such things, he said, are sometimes barriers to church attendance for individuals who may question the relevance of church in their lives.
But, Norman added, "I don't want anybody to get the impression that this is a perfect church. ... We're a broken bunch of people. There's a lot of places where we're running on flat tires and not doing things very well."[God's] kingdom is bigger than we are, and we're just glad to be a part of a community [of churches in Howard County] that's concerned about the people that live here and about helping them understand who Jesus was and why he came."
Grace attracts families with children. "I sometimes call us the church of the minivan," said Norman. "For every 10 adults, we have probably six kids here."
The church offers separate Sunday worship services and midweek clubs and activities for middle school and high school students. About 200 kids attend in each of those age groups. Grace serves another 300 children, from birth through fifth grade, with Sunday morning "Learning Centers" and a "Boys and Girls Grace Adventure" on Wednesday nights.
"It's pretty wild to watch," said the Rev. Tim Jones, pastor of youth ministries. "Kids wake up parents to get there [to church on Sundays]."
Tuesday night, Jones, dressed in baseball cap, jeans and T-shirt, along with several parents and young-adult leaders, presided over a crowd of more than 200 wildly enthusiastic sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. The youngsters had gathered at the Grace youth facility for a monthly Light Touch outreach meeting.
The "Light Touch" gatherings are an opportunity for Grace children to invite their friends to a program that Matt Ousborne, 14, identified as a time for "having fun and learning about God."
"It's an awesome place to learn about God," said Joanna Grabau, 12, of Columbia. "The people here are welcoming, and they don't judge you when you walk in the door."
The noise level was at a maximum Tuesday in the two large meeting rooms where an orange wall, green and yellow doors, insignias from area schools, Christmas lights, two table soccer games and an old sofa provided middle school ambience.
Under red, orange, and pink spotlights, and to the sounds of "CD song time," kids jumped up and down, waved their arms and sang at top volume. The words to popular songs were projected on an overhead screen.
The event progressed with youth-led skits and comic games that illustrated the evening's theme, an exploration of the meaning of true friendship. By the time youth leader Shaun Smithson got up to tell a poignant story of friendship gone awry, the house was as quiet as a traditional church meeting.
And Jones had the children's complete attention as he closed with a Bible viewpoint on friendship.
The youngsters then stood and joined hands as five or six spontaneously called out prayers. "Dear God, just help us to choose the right friends," one child prayed.
Grace Community Church
Leadership: The Rev. Mark Norman, senior pastor; the Rev. Tim Siemens, pastor to the family and staff
Location: 9180 Rumsey Road, Columbia
Date founded: 1984
Web site: www.gcconline.org
Worship services: 8:15 a.m., 9:45 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. Sundays
Children's program: Sundays: birth to fifth grade, "Learning Centers" at all services; middle school worship service at 9:45 a.m.; high school worship service at 11:15 a.m. Weekdays: multiple programs for all ages. Call for information.