Worship at the fountain of youth

Daily Sundial

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Twenty years ago, Philip Wagner and his wife Holly founded the Oasis Christian Center as a Bible study group operating out of a friend’s home in Beverly Hills.

Eventually, the congregation grew large enough to move into the Destiny Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

At the time, the group functioned as a traditional, serene church.

Then, after 10 years of service, Philip came to a startling conclusion.

“I thought to myself that if I wasn’t a pastor, I wouldn’t want to attend this church,” he said. “This is not a positive thought.”

After realizing that his worship services needed a transformation, Philip brainstormed ways in which he could make his services more appealing to all ages in the community.

“I didn’t say, ‘What’s a great way to attract young people?'” Philip said. “I just thought of making it fun.”

Now, Oasis has become a hip venue where teenagers and young adults can connect and worship in their own non-traditional way. Oasis’s weekend religious services are marked by the sounds of laughter, humor and play. Membership has grown from 10 to 2,000.

Two weeks ago, the Wagners decided to bring the Oasis Christian Center to the Northridge Center on campus to provide Sunday services.

“Our vision is to create a church for young people,” Philip said. “We want to create a relationship with God, so sometimes in church we have a good time and use humor in our services.”

That youth-oriented vision isn’t exclusive to the Wagners and Oasis. Increasingly, members of many different faiths are attempting to make religion more appealing to young people, a demographic that is slipping away from conventional methods of worship.

“It is true that the more traditional forms of communication in Christianity and other religions in America have lost the younger people,” said Patrick Nichelson, chair of the CSUN Religious Studies Department. “A sense across religious traditions is that there’s a peculiarly religious age in adolescence that tends to expire somewhere in the 20s. That’s a time when lots of people have great heights and depths of emotion.”

Elizabeth Say, CSUN College of Humanities dean, agreed that it has become more difficult for mainstream religions to reach young adults.

“Attendance in church is dropping off, and there’s a push to get younger people more involved,” she said.

But Jennifer Swanson, spokesperson for Life Teen, a non-profit Catholic youth ministry founded at roughly the same time as Oasis, said teenagers today aren’t more difficult to reach, but that the means of communication have changed.

“Every generation is a new culture,” Swanson said. “For instance, kids are communicating more through e-mail and text messaging, which they weren’t doing 15 years ago.”

Life Teen was created for the purpose of drawing teenagers into the religion by evolving along with the technology of communication.

The organization, which currently has 960 parishes in 19 countries, was designed to mirror Pope John Paul II’s goal of making the church relevant to young people, Swanson said.

“We had a pope for years who believed in communication more than any other pope beforehand, using all the technology possible to reach people,” she said.

One of the most popular means of communicating the church’s message to the younger generation is pop music. At Oasis, for example, members do not pray and sing silently, but rather dance enthusiastically to the urban sounds of R’B, jazz, funk and rock.

“We play music people would hear on the radio,” Philip said.

Some say there are drawbacks to marketing religion specifically toward teenagers, however.

“A lot of it comes across as censored MTV commercials,” Nichelson said. “Serious religion challenges people to be countercultural to, in some deep way, challenge the establishment. These groups seem to be just utterly pop cultural.”

But Philip said that as a congregation, Oasis does more for the community than just provide a place of worship. It also offers 13 different ministries for people from all walks of life. At Oasis, people from a variety of races, ages, and social backgrounds get together for the common purpose of helping the community.

“We get involved in a variety of projects in the community,” Philip said. “We participate in bringing meals to the homeless (and to) community projects, such as helping people refurnish their home(s).”

Holly Wagner said she also wants to use the church to help empower women. She will host the Oasis Christian Center’s next conference, Godchicks, at Angelus Temple from June 10-11.

According to Holly, her goal at the Godchicks conference is to empower women by helping them discover and embrace their unique talents, which will ultimately change the world in a positive way.

“Women want to know that they are loved and treasured and that they can contribute to their world,” Holly said. “At Godchicks, we are trying to accomplish this.”

This is the second year that Oasis has held the Godchicks conference. The conference last year was so successful that tickets sold out. This year, about 3,000 women from all over the Los Angeles area are expected to be present at the event.

Another problem with aiming religion at younger people is the possible dilution of the religious message.

“Mainstream faiths are struggling with the idea of how to attract (young people) while remaining true to their ideals,” Say said.

Swanson said the means of communicating the message do not matter as long as the message remains relevant.

“Although there is music (…) that’s fun to listen to, I don’t think it belittles the message,” she said.

The Wagners said they feel Oasis remains true to the Christian message.

They also feel Oasis has a lot to offer young adults.

The Oasis team can help young adults not only build a relationship with God, but can also help them to choose the right path to be successful, they said.

“Many individuals go through a rough stage of life,” Nichelson said. “If that enthusiasm (for the church) helps them out or is an alternative to smoking too much dope or getting too drunk on Friday night, that’s probably a good thing.”