Step into the Rev. Debra McKnight's church for Sunday service and you spot a small wooden altar.
But you don't see pews, an organ or fancy arched windows. No soaring ceiling, thick carpeting or heavy prayer books.
People are sitting on white plastic chairs at simple, round wooden tables set on wood floors.
You notice shelves lined with books and, in the corner, a coffee counter.
McKnight is pastor of the Urban Abbey, an experiment with what church might be in the future.
Urban Abbey, run by First United Methodist Church, is a place of worship, a book store and coffee shop, all under one roof and open to the public.
It's an effort by First United to redefine the church experience, better serve the community and draw new members.
First United selected McKnight as pastor because she understands its goals and has reached for them in her own life.
“There is a real authenticity in her ministry,” said the Rev. Jane Florence, pastor of First United.
McKnight, a 35-year-old Nebraska native who is expecting her first child next month, comes from a family of doctors, nurses and dentists. She decided to become a pastor in college after realizing she wanted to help people through faith, not science.
She said the Abbey, which opened in the Old Market in 2011, draws people seeking a less formal worship style and setting, and those who haven't found acceptance at other churches. A brochure says the Abbey opens its door to everyone, “coffee lovers and tea lovers, gay people and straight people, cat people and dog people, Republicans and Democrats, Christians and people annoyed by Christians.”
The Abbey aims to show that while a weekly worship service is important, church means more than gathering for one hour on Sundays. It's open seven days a week, most days until 10:30 p.m. for book browsing, coffee sipping and talking about faith and other topics.
Eileen Burke-Sullivan, associate professor of theology at Creighton University, said churches and other places of worship are increasingly emphasizing that faith is not just a Sunday activity.
Omaha's King of Kings Lutheran Church, for example, has hired an additional pastor whose job is to encourage people to incorporate their faith into their daily lives. That effort includes inviting members and others for lunch and faith-sharing at the church every Wednesday.
Burke-Sullivan said churches know that when people feel a connection between their everyday lives and church, not only does their faith grow but they become more likely to join and stay a member.
Florence said membership has been growing the last six years at First United, which is at 70th and Cass Streets. But the church is always looking for new members, she said.
She said the Abbey fits First United's overall efforts to try new ways to reach people, such as the labyrinth on the church grounds used for prayer and meditation.
The Abbey is a second worship site for First United, she said, and is considered a church. It draws everyone from college students to families and retirees for the Sunday service.
McKnight said the Abbey also sponsors presentations on immigration and other topics. One evening people learned about gardening. Another night the Abbey hosted a thrift store fashion show to highlight the “green” benefits of purchasing used clothing.
Every Wednesday people 21 and older gather for a session where they can bring beer and wine, listen to live music and break into small groups for faith-sharing or to discuss worker rights and other issues.
“This is a sanctuary that is alive and open all week long,” McKnight said.
The book store is owned by an Omaha couple who leases space from the Abbey.
The Abbey owns the coffee shop, a nonprofit business that attracts Abbey members, along with Old Market workers and anyone else looking for a hot cup. Proceeds from the shop help the support the Abbey, and some of the money is donated to local nonprofit groups.
Community service is part of the Abbey's ministry, and members have cleaned Miller Park, picked up trash in the Old Market and volunteered at a food pantry.
The Abbey, near 10th and Jackson Streets, is housed in what was the first floor of an old hotel, and it has an informal atmosphere.
Grace Kuhl, 71, attended other Omaha churches over the years and grew tired of decorative woodwork, elaborate stained-glass windows and other formal looks.
Kuhl likes that the Abbey has no pews, which she think give churches a rigid feel.
Andrea Hartman, a 27-year-old Abbey member, likes the music.
During services you might hear songs by the Beatles, folk rockers Mumford and Sons or country band the Dixie Chicks, as well as traditional Methodist hymns.
The point of playing a popular song is to provide a bridge between church and people's everyday lives, McKnight said. If you hear the same Dixie Chicks song on the radio that you heard at church, it can connect you with the peaceful moments of worship.
The Abbey also handles communion differently than other Methodist churches.
McKnight said Methodist churches typically offer communion once per month, while the Abbey offers it every Sunday.
She said the Abbey does so because some people want to experience the shared ritual of communion more frequently.
On a recent Sunday, McKnight welcomed the congregation to the evening service.
“We gather to be refreshed,'' she said. “And refresh one another.”
A small band with a piano, flute, acoustic guitar and electric bass played “Water of Life.”
As the soft early evening light poured through the windows, McKnight read scripture, then delivered a short sermon.
When she finished, the band played “Let it Be” by the Beatles, and people sang along:
“Let it be, let it be, there will be an answer, let it be.”
At communion time, McKnight held a round loaf of bread and broke it in two.
She told everyone they were welcome to take communion.
You don't need to be a member of her church, she told them, or any other, all you need to be is hungry.
One by one people stood, walked to McKnight and she placed bread in their hands.
The Abbey's emphasis on acceptance is important to Jason Holling.
Holling and his partner joined the Abbey last summer. Holling grew up in Illinois, where he attended church with his family, and after college moved to Omaha for a job in 1997.
But he never joined a church because he said as a gay man he didn't feel he would be accepted.
It seemed people always quoted the Bible, he said, when speaking against same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues. That soured him on organized religion.
“I had built up this, 'we're-not-welcome thing,'” he said.
Friends told him about the Abbey, so one evening he and his partner attended a service.
McKnight welcomed them, and after the service asked if they'd like to learn more about the Abbey. A few days later an information packet was dropped off at their house.
Holling and his partner met with McKnight at the Abbey for coffee, and she told them she'd love to have them join.
McKnight and her congregation don't just talk about acceptance, he said, they show it. McKnight and Abbey members, for example, march with other gay rights supporters in Omaha's annual Pride Parade.
Holling said the Abbey and its members sent a clear, strong message, one he will never forget.
“They wanted us,” he said.
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