Rock music vibrated through the crowd. Audience members, most of them college students casually dressed in jeans, swayed to the beat of a Christian band called “The Worship Team” as they held open cell phones like lighters at a Phish concert.
For the first time since it was established in the mid-1980s, New Life Church has a home. The non-denominational Protestant congregation held its inaugural service yesterday morning at its permanent auditorium on Washtenaw Avenue.
The new space, which can hold about 400 people, will also serve as a theater for nearby Angell Elementary School. In exchange, New Life members will be able to use the school’s parking lot.
In 2002, the group bought the abandoned Delta Zeta sorority house to convert it into a meeting place. It faced resistance from neighbors who said the building would bring unwanted crowds and noise to the area.
“It’s been eight years in the making,” New Life Pastor Steve Hayes said. “We were pushed around over the years.”
New Life started as a student group in the mid-1980s and began holding prayer meetings in University buildings in January of 1998. Later that year, the University banned New Life from using University buildings on weekends, saying the group posed a security threat.
The University equivocated in 2000 and allowed New Life to use the auditoriums in the Modern Languages Building. New Life leaders soon realized that a larger location was needed to accommodate the expanding membership.
Group leaders found funding for the building with help from Great Commission Ministries, a group based in Florida that supports college Christian groups. Construction didn’t begin for two years, though.
In 2004, the Ann Arbor Planning Commission rejected New Life’s plans for the building by a 5-to-3 vote. Commission members said the construction project was poorly planned and would burden the community.
After Hayes sued the Commission on the basis of religious discrimination, the group reached a settlement with the city and construction began.
All through the service, a small boy read his “Prehistoric Dinosaurs” book and played with his gum. His father never noticed, as he was on his feet throughout, entranced by the rock group’s performance. He joined the rest of the crowd in belting out lyrics that were projected onto a screen at the front of the auditorium. Pictures of white sandy beaches and mountains served as a background.
When the service came to an end, two lucky churchgoers who had won a raffle walked away with gift certificates to Panera Bread. The rest of the congregation filed out into the main hall, where coffee and donuts were waiting.
New Life members said they were excited about the new atmosphere.
“The new environment is so energized,” Music school senior Katelin Spencer said as her friends nodded in agreement. “I’ve been here for the past four years and this is the best I’ve seen it.”
– Allison Pincus contributed to this report