Atheism and agnosticism are on the rise in the U.S. Christianity is swallowing itself in a rash of anti-gay lunacy, Catholic pedophilia scandals and a general sense of stubborn anti-progressivism. And all over the country, there’s a movement to make religion cool. In Philly, that movement has taken the form of Epic Church, an evangelical outfit in which the congregation has come to expect “something different” (its tagline) in one of two locations, Manayunk and Center City.
I’ve been to Epic Church twice now, and while I’d never cast doubt on the church’s mission or frankness—everyone in charge seems like really good people with the goal of making other people good—it shows that, at some point, someone decided to hell with all that memorization and guilt—people want to like their church the same way they like their TV, news and relationships: in small doses, with lots of explicit video and easy-to-comprehend information.
Epic’s services begin with three or four Christian rock songs played by a legit band. The lyrics are projected on a screen behind the musicians so those of us filtering in can sing along. And we can do so with coffee, juice, doughnuts and bagels we just took from the vestibule. “Right? You can bring food inside,” says a woman ushering me into the Suzanne Roberts Theater’s main stage, where mass is held. “This is the best church ever.”
When the band finishes, everyone cheers them on, and we watch an infomercial about the church, projected from the same source as the lyrics. “When I first moved here, I didn’t know really anyone,” a 20-something year-old man on the screen says, hip-hop beats behind his voice. “I got a little flier in the mail, so I came here for a service. I really liked it and I’ve been here ever since.”
Lead pastor Kent Jacobs’ homilies are serialized over several weeks—each one comparing one or more aspects of modern American life to a passage from the Bible. Jacobs makes sure to add his two cents every few minutes in easy-to-understand terms, always closing with a statement about this church. For instance: During my first attendance, he relates Mark 8: 1-10 to the founding of Epic Church. The connection: Jesus turning five loaves of bread and two fish into a meal for 5,000 people was a miracle—and so was the idea to create a brand new church in Philadelphia.
The next time I attend, he’s moved onto Epic’s “Life Apps” series—a Christian take on phone applications, except they’re for your life (complete with a professional, projected video on stage). The theme is the one thing you want to change about yourself, which he suggests could be taking care of your family. Or maybe it’s to get baptized at Epic. If that’s the case, it’s easy. There’s a simple form. You can sign up to do so as soon as possible.