HAWARDEN, Iowa | Something funny was happening at West Sioux High School on Sunday morning. A man in a monkey suit greeted people walking into the building; music was playing on speakers inside and outside; an automatic bubble-blower sent bubbles skyward.
Inside, people milled about, eating cookies and drinking coffee as cheery greeters wished the newcomers a good morning. A band was onstage inside the school gymnasium, playing "Your Great Name," and free t-shirts were available.
You wouldn't think church was about to begin. But indeed, this was the first service of the Granite Church in Hawarden.
Granite Church, a satellite of the First Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa, aims to be different: it wants to be a church for the "unchurched" -- those who do not attend religious services for one reason or another.
After the worship band finished its set, pastor Cy McMahon took the stage, clad in a black t-shirt and khaki shorts. His sermon started out more like a comedy routine.
McMahon, who came to lead Granite Church after leading The Bridge Church in Ottumwa, Iowa, for 10 years, said he had never heard of Hawarden before scoring this job. He didn't even know how to pronounce the name before he arrived -- "Huh-war-den," or "Hay-warden?"
Then he got serious. McMahon discussed his faith, and how, when he was a younger man, he wasn't much of a believer.
"I had this great plan for my life, and Jesus totally ruined it," McMahon joked.
The crowd, about 200 strong, seemed receptive to the pastor's relaxed demeanor and warmth.
For the unchurched
Granite Church may sound like a somewhat unconventional name for a church -- and, indeed, McMahon said in an interview the name was a matter that took some consultation.
"It was something I had been praying about," McMahon said. "And I had some people praying with me, and I really felt like it was supposed to be a rock of some sort. I felt like granite was a rock that everybody knew about and was well acquainted with."
Plus, he added, not many churches have the name "Granite," which gives it sort of an edge.
There is one demographic Granite Church is targeting above all others -- people who don't go to church.
"The idea behind Granite Church is, we want to be a church that unchurched people love to attend," McMahon said. "We aren't hoping to get people to swap churches, we're hoping to for people to attend who haven't been to church before."
In that spirit, the church decided a high school gymnasium would be the best place for its services. Kari Kingma, a member of Granite Church's launch team, said that old-school churches can make non-churchgoers apprehensive.
"We really like the high school as a place to gather, because it's neutral territory; people are comfortable there," she said.
Despite the fact that the Granite Church is a campus of the First Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Kingma emphasized how dissimilar Granite Church will be from its parent church.
"We're going to be very different from the First Reformed Church," she said. "We won't be doing nearly as many things that are 'traditional,' that they do every Sunday. We're going to simplify the service quite a lot."
That kind of laid-back church service, without "Sunday best" outfits and solemn, 17th century-style hymns, is what makes sense to potential parishioners, Kingma said.
"That's what people are asking for, is a more contemporary service," she said.
Besides the music and style, there are some concrete differences between Granite Church and a traditional church -- for one, the church will not pass around an offering plate. Instead, the church has "Joy Boxes," in which people are free to deposit money as they see fit.
"That (offering plate) can make people feel uncomfortable, and it really puts them on the spot," she said.
Unlike at other churches, where memorization of creeds is of paramount importance, parishioners at Granite Church need not feel bad if they don't know the words.
"If it's going to make people feel uncomfortable because they don't know it, we don't want to do it," Kingma said. "But there will be times where we'll probably say the Apostles' Creed, where it'll be on the screen."
But there is one point on which the Granite Church will not budge, Kingma said -- the truth.
"When Cy teaches, they will hear the truth," she said. "Sometimes the truth is hard to hear, but they will hear it, and they'll know that it's spoken out of love."
Granite Church will be holding services weekly on Sundays at 10 a.m. in West Sioux High School in Hawarden.