- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

LOS ANGELES - When the Rev. Alan Meenan took over as senior pastor at the nationally prominent Hollywood First Presbyterian Church, it had been losing members for 20 years.

Now, hundreds of new worshippers are flocking to an alternative service staged by the church at a nearby nightclub that offers live rock music and a casual atmosphere that doesn’t frown on flip-flops and nose piercings.

The service, called Contemporary Urban Experience, has bolstered membership at one of the most storied Presbyterian congregations in the country. But it also has created a rift between old and new members that threatens to tear the conservative church apart.

Responding to numerous complaints about Mr. Meenan, regional church officials, in a rare step, took control of operations at Hollywood First two weeks ago and put Mr. Meenan and his executive pastor on paid administrative leave to restore the peace.

The turmoil within the 2,700-member congregation reflects what specialists call the “worship war,” an identity crisis that has beset many mainline Protestant denominations as they struggle to survive in a culture that puts less importance on the traditions of organized religion.

Membership among Presbyterian churches has declined by as many as 40,000 people a year since the mid-1960s, said Jerry Van Marter, news director at Presbyterian Church USA.

Similar declines have been seen in nearly all mainline Protestant denominations, as clashes have developed not only over worship style, but also issues such as the ordination of women and the role of homosexuals in the church.

The decline has been especially painful at Hollywood First, where the congregation helped launch evangelists Billy Graham and Lloyd Ogilvie, who is the U.S. Senate chaplain. It was home to Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Henrietta Mears, author of the popular Sunday school curriculum Gospel Light.

“Hollywood Presbyterian is the elite,” said congregant Teena Smith, who until recently attended a nondenominational megachurch in Atlanta. “People against Meenan say … ‘That’s great, move to alternative. But not in our back yard.’”

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