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A rock concert about to happen
South Hills Evangelical Church
1919 North Avenue W.
On a cold Sunday night Pastor John Luhmann says there are two "dudes" named John in the Bible. He is leading his congregation through the Gospel of John with the precise nature of a college professor.
"John's not a pansy, he's a man's man," he says.
Luhmann uses everyday slang to strip chapter and verse into accessible, understandable nuggets that even a first grader could follow. He does so with the help of a flat screen TV set up on the stage where he stands, situated in front of a huge and gothic-looking wood and steel cross. Behind the cross sits a drum set and at least four guitars. There is a soundboard in back of the warehouse-turned-church where three members work the volume on Luhmann's hands-free microphone, add graphics to his message and broadcast his sermon online.
Luhmann is the preaching pastor at South Hills Evangelical Church, better known as SHEC. He wears jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes as he preaches. Most of the faces in his congregation look as though they just got back from the mall. Teenage boys wear hooded sweatshirts and their ball-caps sideways, girls wear designer jeans and ballet flats. Many hold lattes from the Holy Grounds coffee shop that is just past the indoor skate park in another wing of the church. Luhmann offers a coffee break in the middle of the two-hour service.
Sleek black walls, a contemporary concrete floor and a chain link fence behind the stage give SHEC the industrial feel of a rock concert about to happen. Combine this with splashy graphics sprawled across banners hanging from the ceiling, and reminders at every turn to follow SHEC on Facebook and Twitter, or to download podcasts of sermons, and you might think this church has a modern message. But you'd be wrong.
Luhmann reminds his congregation that they have the hearts of sinners. He warns that they will live "small and miserable" lives that will end with the judgment of God for all of eternity unless they live their lives for Jesus. There is no other way to live a life, he says, but through Jesus. "Not through Mohammed, or Buddha, or some guy named Joseph Smith—only through Jesus," he says.
As Luhmann finishes his sermon, a band made up of the young and devout take the stage. They strum out rhythms to soft Christian rock. The words to each song appear on two pull-down video screens flanking either side of the stage. The congregation rises and begins to sing. Luhmann's 21st century fire and brimstone seems to have moved many in the crowd to close their eyes, lift their hands high into the air and sway back and forth. Luhmann sits on the edge of the stage dangling his feet on the side, looking out at his congregation of sinners as they raise a joyful noise to their Lord.
Patience is a virtue
Congregation Har Shalom
3035 S. Russell Street
On a recent Monday morning, just a few days after the end of Hanukkah, a group of kids fill Congregation Har Shalom and sing...Christmas carols.
Despite a rich history and tradition in Missoula, and Congregation Har Shalom's increased presence in the community, Judaism often gets overlooked in the local holiday season discussion.
"In general, no, it's still not known what we do here," says Bert Chessin, president of the congregation's board. "But it's starting to pick up. I think, more and more, people understand that we are a part of the fabric of Missoula."
A lot of Chessin's role as president involves basic education to a largely uninitiated community. For starters, he explains why the group of children is singing Christmas carols in the synagogue. They're from a Montessori school that rents out part of the building; it's a vital arrangement that helps Har Shalom afford the Russell Street property it secured just five years ago. Jews have lived and gathered in Missoula for more than a century, he says, but never had a formal synagogue before the purchase.
"Growing up in Missoula in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember the community really came together for the high holidays," he says. "We would mostly meet in homes, and we'd arrange for a rabbi to come in from Spokane because it was closer than having the rabbi travel from Bozeman."
Chessin goes on to explain other aspects of the synagogue, weaving tidbits of local history into the tour. For instance, the room is arranged so the main lectern and the ark—a wooden box that holds the Torah, the Five Books of Moses that guide Jewish services—face toward Jerusalem. The Torah itself, Chessin says, used to belong to a strong Jewish community in Helena that stopped meeting in the 1930s. Chessin knows the history because it first came to Missoula in 1964—for use at his own Bar Mitzvah. It's been here ever since.
"I like to say we have it on long-term loan," he jokes.
Chessin doesn't need to explain what's hanging on a back wall: Large sandwich boards that spell out "Happy Hanukkah," along with nine hats meant to emulate the nine-candle Menorah used for the holiday. Members of the congregation used the props as part of Missoula's recent Parade of Lights. The annual parade serves as a celebration of the holiday season, and Har Shalom's involvement is just part of the congregation's larger outreach efforts.
"We're not trying to close ourselves off," says Chessin, who counts the congregation's active membership at 50 to 60 families. "So much of what we do is trying to connect to a larger community—not just the Jewish community, but the progressive religious community in general. It happens, we're learning, over time."
Lots of reasons for the season
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
102 McLeod Avenue
You might call it religion, served buffet-style. Missoula's Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is a loose-limbed religious community that offers a supportive environment for the search for truth and meaning. The Fellowship—the local congregation doesn't refer to itself as a church—does not share a creed or promote any particular dogma. Neither do they have a minister or professional staff. Members come from all religious backgrounds, but the one theme they all share is a search for spiritual growth.
"It's like herding cats," laughs Mary Nordhagen, the local Fellowship's chair. The UUs, as they're known, are big on social justice. They were the first major religious group to give their official blessing to homosexual unions, in 1984, and the Missoula Fellowship prides itself on providing a safe and welcoming home to the LGBT community, which has been denied acceptance by many other major faiths.
Their inclusive, all-welcoming approach draws people from the widest spectrum of religious affiliations. Buddhists and Muslims, Christians and atheists, people of all spiritual stripes have joined the ranks of the Unitarian Universalists to enjoy a unique camaraderie in their individual spiritual quests. For UUs, their theology is a result of that quest, not a prescribed obedience to any dogma.
This syncretic quality means that the UU Fellowship celebrates not just Christmas, but any number of religious holidays and traditions as well.
"We celebrate lots of reasons for the season," says Nordhagen. "Almost every religion has a winter holiday, and any birth is a reason for celebration in the world."
Missoula's UU Fellowship, located on the corner of Higgins and McLeod, has been around since 1962, a year after the national UU Association was formed by combining the American Unitarian Association with the Universalist Church of America. The UUA currently has just over a thousand congregations in the United State. Membership numbers vary according to the source, but range anywhere from 215,000 to 625,000 worldwide.
Depending on the desires and ambition of the Missoula Fellowship's members, they celebrate everything from Yom Kippur and Seder to Ramadan and Christmas. They'll also celebrate pagan rituals like the solstice, depending on the desires of the members, and the amount of volunteer work they're willing to put into it.
With no permanent minister to lead the congregation, UUs take turns delivering the service (they eschew the term "sermon") each Sunday. The church routinely draws on the teachings from most every other religion or belief system, and that makes for a pretty wide variety of lay-led services.
"We may not be for everyone," says Nordhagen. "If you hate it this week, come back next week. It'll probably be totally different."