Mars Hill Albuquerque
The religious landscape in Albuquerque is complicated, or maybe I should say diverse, and just keeping up with the changes on the religious scene, never mind the day-to-day health of the scene, would be more than a full-time job. The Albuquerque metro area includes tony, nearly churchless communities like Placitas and Corrales; three Pueblos, of which one is predominately Christian, an entrenched Catholic culture with a continuous history back to the time of the conquistadors, a distinct new immigrant Catholic culture, established Lutheran communities (both ELCA and LCMS), with their attendant schools, a long-lived nondenominational homeless shelter [link], two religious television stations (one run by a local church; one TBN affiliate), and four of New Mexico’s five megachurches [link].
It is also home to the University of New Mexico, which borders the Nob Hill neighborhood surrounding historic Route 66, home of the Lobo Theater [link]. The University/Nob Hill area is as close as Albuquerque gets to funky and bohemian; the surviving Route 66 artifacts tend toward a picture-postcard Art Deco feel that kind of runs counter to the prevailing skinny-jeans tattooed hipster ethic, but it’s what Albuquerque has to offer at the moment. The Lobo Theater has art deco elements in its edifice, but the interior (lobby, balcony, and main theater) have a functional, recently-but-not-expensively-remodeled feel; there aren’t many clues that you’re in a historic building. And the Lobo Theater is home to Mars Hill Albuquerque, formerly City on a Hill Church. This is a good location for drawing people from the university and from the Nob Hill neighborhood; on Sundays on-street parking is free in Nob Hill, and it is ample if sometimes hard to find. It’ s probably easier to find parking if you know the neighborhood. We ended up parking close enough that we could hear the church rock band while standing next to our car, through the wall of the theater.
Mars Hill Albuquerque runs two services Sunday morning and one Sunday night service; pastor Dave Bruskas said the Sunday I visited that they draw 600 on an average Sunday, suggesting that they will soon outgrow the Lobo Theater building and need to find a bigger space in roughly the same part of town. It’s just as well; the main part of the building (floor seats and balcony) is long, narrow, dark, and loud, with two small aisles that give the place a cramped, pre-fire-code feel. We initially took seats on the floor and later moved to the balcony when our baby objected to the music. The seats on the floor had us craning our necks to see the screen and stage; the balcony seats had a better view (and better acoustics) but was steamy hot (the heating system is also vintage). The darkness and theater seats and aisles also make for poor opportunities to meet (or even see) other people there for church. We saw more faces out in the lobby than in the theater.
I can’t say “this is a friendly church” or otherwise; I spent most of our settling-in time and “hand of fellowship” time dealing with a diaper change and getting our baby settled after he started crying during the music. I suspect it was just too loud, but I didn’t see/hear any other babies fussing, so it’s hard to say.
The building and the darkness give the church service an “everything of interest is happening on stage” feel; it’s an experience not unlike watching a movie or watching television. I believe by design Mars Hill compensates for this by having small groups, of which more later.
The people we saw tended toward the older end of the college spectrum, mid-twenties types, some couples with small children, and the occasional older (think fifties) single man. It’s not really a college church and not really the Mars Hill demographic (that’s mostly people in their thirties and forties now, I understand) and it isn’t really multigenerational the way a mature healthy church might be. If I had to guess I’d say these are City on a Hill people, mostly folks who started attending church here when they were in college who didn’t leave town after graduation.
The dress code is t-shirt-and-jeans casual, in colors darker than is typical for the UNM area, with a fair amount of small glasses and goatees. I hesitate to say “hipster church” or “grunge church;” it doesn’t have the look and feel of a young urban church, nor does it feel really Albuquerque.
Anyway, people who really need “sacred spaces” would probably be disappointed in Albuquerque’s larger churches anyway; Calvary Albuquerque’s main sanctuary is a converted tennis club/fitness center; Hoffmantown is big but airless and sits on a big bleak parking lot; Calvary Chapel Rio Rancho is a giant metal shed; Calvary Chapel Rio Grand Valley (Belen) meets in a converted Walmart. I wish the folks at Mars Hill Albuquerque well in finding their next building. There’s lots of unused retail space available in their part of town, but I’m hoping they don’t have to settle for something big and characterless in a strip mall somewhere.