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 has also created a deep rift between old and new members that threatens to tear the conservative church apart.
Responding to numerous complaints about the Rev. Meenan, regional church officials, in a rare step, took control of operations at Hollywood First last week and put the Rev. Meenan and his executive pastor on paid administrative leave to restore the peace.
The turmoil within the 2,700-member congregation reflects what experts 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, the 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 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's now the U.S. Senate chaplain. It was home to Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Henrietta Mears, the 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.'"
The rift over worship is something that William McKinney, the president of the Pacific School of Religion at University of California, Berkeley, has seen before.
"You try to identify the kernel of the gospel - and that, you don't mess with. But your presentation needs to be sensitive to cultural change," he said. "This is a question that mainline folk wrestle with: Has the sacredness of the organ been elevated to a point where Jesus gets lost?"
At Hollywood First, the trouble began when the Rev. Meenan launched the Contemporary Urban Experience services more than two years ago. The weekly Sunday service has attracted some 350 twenty- and thirtysomethings, some with tattoos and piercings. Many work in the entertainment industry.
Some traditionalists have embraced the new service as a way to save their beloved church. For others, however, it represents a threat to the faith and a fall from grace.
"I would be very sad if it became demographically oriented or age-oriented, where there would come a day when the sanctuary was abandoned and all worship moved down to the warehouse," said Sparky Jamison, a 20-year member of Hollywood First and a church elder. "I come from a tradition of loving to sing and perform classical music."
The building tension over worship style exploded this spring when members discovered an $856,000 budget shortfall that the Rev. Meenan had not disclosed. The pastor hasn't been accused of fraud - simply poor management.
The Presbytery of the Pacific, a regional governing body for the denomination's churches in Southern California and Hawaii, received more than 100 letters and calls from disgruntled members. They complained about the Rev. Meenan's dictatorial management style, his disregard for Presbyterian tradition and his decision to put money into overseas trips and youth outreach while criticizing the cost of traditional services.
"There are those who sense a loss of involvement in their church and target me as a result," said the Rev. Meenan, who has been a pastor for 32 years. "Change is essential to our future and change is working for good in Hollywood."