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— "Is church hell for you?" asked the glossy ad in CityBeat. "You're not alone. http://www.therainca.com The text was split between an image of hymnals in a church pew and a photo of raging flames. I was curious, so I stopped by the site. First impression: "Whoa -- dark and stormy." Thunder, drums, a hard-rock guitar line: "And I know/ there's no surrender/ And I know/ there's no retreat... Freedom freedom cries out to me..." The homepage featured a video entitled "The Death of Religion," which rolled out texts over images of churches and congregations: "Sixty-five percent were Bible-believing Christians from the WWII generation...35% were Bible-believing Christians from the Baby Boomer generation...92% increase of non-churchgoers since 1991... We are witnessing, before our very eyes, not the death of Christianity, but the death of its religion... We are witnessing the rebirth of the next great move of God... We at The Rain believe that the church as a whole has chosen to ignore, exclude, and marginalize the majority of people who are looking for a real relationship with the heavenly Father, but they have not bought into the religious façade, language, and formats trying to be imposed upon them... That's not God, just church... I believe the greatest contributors to the new thing God is doing are those outside the shrinking Christian circle...and those who wouldn't be caught dead in a church.... We wish to stand in the gap and encourage a better relationship with your heavenly Father while revealing spiritual truth...."

The Rain is run by John Cruz in collaboration with his wife. He's a pastor's kid from the Midwest who got frustrated with Christian culture (the music, the worship format, etc.); she's a former Catholic/former drug addict who experienced a miraculous healing. "She walked into church with a hangover and walked out with the Holy Spirit -- her addiction completely broken," says Cruz.

Even so, Cruz thinks the spiritual winds are shifting away from that milieu. "I believe the church is shrinking because of its lack of contact with the Father," he says (the belief part is not about whether the church is shrinking, but why). "They're not in touch with what God is doing. Religion as a whole tends to reproduce what has worked in the past rather than being reflective of what's going on. They refuse to move forward, as if God is not doing something new and present today, and so they become detached from anything that is present today."

That goes for both medium and message. First, the medium: "I believe that the sort of site that I'm doing is kind of the future of the church. A little bit decentralized, a network of friends, a network of connections. Things online and accessible; you can go at your own pace. Not to say that personal contact isn't necessary...I go to church on Sunday morning just so I can go to the Wednesday night small group -- that's where things happen, where you make your connections." The Rain's MySpace page has attracted a fair number of messages from curious young people, and the site's videos ("Good and Evil," "What If Christianity Was to Start All Over Again," etc.) are pulling decent traffic. "I've only been up for six weeks, and I think I've gotten 1500 people, and much more on repeat visits."

Next, the message: "Following Jesus is offensive -- originally, it was the following of an offensive man. But people try to make religion as inoffensive as possible. They want something comfortable, something that is socially acceptable, that they don't have to think about. Sometimes, I believe Christianity is little more than a collection of moral people, and that's a very dangerous place.... God is not big on morals to begin with. Your morals do not impress God. The heart is what impresses God. Our actions are insufficient -- that's why there is the cross. God puts people in interesting circumstances that appear to be immoral. Abraham and Isaac -- this is an immoral concept from the beginning: sacrificing your own son? We've got the attempt of murder, but God is not as interested in that as He is in molding your heart to express what the Father is. Through that, I believe you will be moral, but it's more than just external. Let's get into what we call the fruits of the Spirit -- love, peace, joy. When those things are produced in your life, morality is going to show up. It may not look exactly the way you want it to look -- Jesus appeared to be immoral. A lot of people didn't like his choices."

As for those "greatest contributors to the new thing God is doing," the ones who are "outside the shrinking Christian circle," Cruz points to films like Children of Men. "It was a disappointment to me, but the idea of it just gave me goose bumps. This is what's happening in Hollywood: men will always express the desire and need for God, whether they understand it or not. That's what I mean by God expressing Himself in pop culture -- it just oozes out. In the film, the world is dying -- it can't conceive life. By 'conceive,' I mean conceive the life of Christ. In Scripture, when you can't conceive, it's sometimes a spiritual analogy for not being able to conceive the Word of God in your life to produce a right relationship." In Scripture, "Elizabeth was married to Zachariah, a priest, and she was not able to conceive, because that priesthood could not conceive a human being -- because through the law, life did not come about." In the movie, "they're obsessed with finding life. When the war stopped and everybody was freaked out at the sight of the child, to me, that was the Christ child that needs to be birthed for all of us."

So far, Cruz is hopeful. "I believe God has favored it to a certain extent. Where we go, I don't know. I'm just following the heart of God in this matter. I think change is going to happen, and San Diego is going to feel that effect."

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