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The Rev. Sam Wheatley was imagining Christ's Last Supper this week as he set the tables for his tiny church's Maundy Thursday celebration.

Wheatley could see Jesus observing the annual Passover Seder with his twelve most loyal disciples. He could hear Jesus warning them that his time was short, that one of them would betray him, and telling them how to remember him. Wheatley could sense the disciples' denseness, their failure to grasp what was happening.

It was an intimate dinner among friends that changed the history of the world. It was the beginning of Christianity.

This is what Wheatley hoped to communicate to his flock at Newsong Presbyterian Church near downtown Salt Lake City.

He calls his church's style "ancient-future," and it's part of a movement known as the "Emerging Church" that is sweeping the nation.

Every new generation of Christians has to find a way to connect to those founding events chronicled in the New Testament. Through the centuries, believers have developed carefully scripted rituals, using purple, black and green robes and banners, Easter lilies and trumpets to symbolize death and resurrection.

In the 1960s, some believers and pastors started to simplify and to update some traditions. They introduced guitars and drums, contemporary music and casual clothing into the services.

A few decades later, the baby boomer pastors had set up mega-churches serving thousands of congregants, with amenities such as child care, coffeeshops and bookstores. Worship became entertainment, with the minister-as-rock-star and congregation-as-audience.

"Everything became so slick that people removed themselves from participating in the service," Wheatley says. "The heart of liturgy is participation, and that's what we lost in the church when we moved to a performance-driven model."

In reaction, some of today's Christian leaders are returning to smaller groups, finding creative ways to re-use ancient traditions but with contemporary elements. For example, updated music to old hymns and minister as shepherd, not superstar. Emerging churches have names like Scum of the Earth, Solomon's Porch, Jacob's Well, Water's Edge and The Open Door. They often meet in living rooms or small buildings rather than formal churches.

"The key for us is authenticity and realness," Wheatley says.

So instead of preaching, the soft-spoken preacher invited his people to sit with him at two tables, covered by white cloths and illuminated by candles. He asks them what they think "Maundy" means.

Mournful? Melancholy?

It comes from the Latin, meaning, "mandate," Wheatley says. "A new mandate to love each other. That's what Christ introduces at the Last Supper."

To set a mood of reverence, he projected images of Jesus on a big screen, which was accompanied by a tape of contemporary music. Artistic depictions of the events of Holy Week flashed before them: Praying in Gethsemane. Judas' kiss. Surrounded by soldiers. Arrested.

The darkened basement had a somber feel as the 17 participants took turns reading passages of scripture.

After each reading, Wheatley didn't tell them what to think. Rather, he gently invited their response.

"What about that passage struck you? What surprised you? Can you relate to the disciples?"

Eight-year-old Julia Wheatley liked the fact that Jesus washed the disciples' feet, not the other way around. A woman across the table noted that this was Jesus' style. He doesn't tell them how to behave, he shows them. And so it went throughout the one-hour service, which included moments of silence, spoken prayers and a couple of hymns, accompanied by acoustic guitar (what else?). It culminated in Communion.

"This is about Jesus turning a seder into the Lord's Supper," Wheatley told them.

He ripped a pita bread in half, sending each part in opposite directions, instructing participants to tear a smaller piece with the words, "This is the body of Christ broken for you."

He then held a large green ceramic chalice before them, and said, "Hold this for your neighbors, while they dip the bread in and say, 'Take the cup of the new covenant.' "

At the end, Wheatley addresses Jesus with the words, "You are our life. You are our bread. Thank you for feeding us."

Mark Peach likes the simplicity and openness of Newsong.

"It is a place where I can bring my questions," says Peach, who is planning to study theology at a Protestant seminary next year.

And Gordon Hultberg enjoys the size of the congregation.

"I just moved here," says Hultberg, who teaches English and drama at Salt Lake City's Intermountain Christian School. "People come from diverse backgrounds. This gives me a chance to get more involved."

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