It's Saturday night and an Altoona couple in their 20s are looking forward to a night out. Their destination? A church service.
But it is no ordinary church service.
Ian McGregor and Casey Fisher are among the young adults and families who have discovered a new worship center in town - Element Church.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Mike Hammer, a former youth pastor at the Church of God in Punxsutawney, is the new pastor at Element Church. Services are held Saturday nights in the Pleasant Valley Shopping Center.
After a negated opening in March, the church started services a few weeks ago in the former Social Security office in the Pleasant Valley Shopping Center. Although it is beside Chuck E Cheese, parking and access to the sanctuary are behind the plaza.
Mike Hammer, a former youth pastor at First Church of God in Punxsutawney, is the pastor. He and his wife, Megan, and sons, Logan and Parker, moved to Altoona last fall to get acquainted with the people of the city.
Hammer, who originally had planned on starting the church March 15, was informed a few days before the service that the space needed an inspection and permits, delaying the opening until June 1.
If you go
What: Element Church
Where: Pleasant Valley Shopping Center. The entrance is to the left and behind the plaza.
When: 6 p.m. Saturdays
In the meantime, the Hammers held gatherings at Panera Bread, Allegheny Street Coffee Company in Hollidaysburg and Friendly's Restaurant to get acquainted with people who expressed an interest in the church.
Among them were McGregor and Fisher, an engaged couple and students at Penn State Altoona.
"I love Element," said Fisher. "It's so relaxed and casual. They are accepting of you, from any walk of life."
McGregor agrees. "Pastor Mike believes in loving one another," he said, adding that Hammer does not push religion on people.
"I strongly believe in his way," McGregor said.
"Element has done so much for Ian's and my relationship," said Fisher, who explained that they were looking for a place to develop their spiritual lives in anticipation of their marriage.
Both of them are from Tyrone, and although they had some church experiences there, neither was raised with a formal church background.
McGregor said his grandparents took him to Sunday school in Warriors Mark when he was a child, but then he stopped going.
Fisher, whose parents are divorced, attended services with her dad when she was 11 to about age 13.
Her father, who is serving in the military and a devout Christian, is remarried and lives in Kansas.
"He's a big influence on me," Fisher said.
She said she has watched the dynamics of his second family, which includes her half sibling, during visits.
"It has much substance to it," she said.
Fisher said she wants a similar God-based relationship for Ian and her.
To accommodate that desire, McGregor said they tried a lot of different churches.
"They were not my cup of tea," he said.
An environmental studies major at Penn State, McGregor he was more atheist than Christian before attending Element.
"I'm a science major and everything I was taught was contrary to what's in the Bible. The Bible and science go hand in hand if you look at things correctly. I learned that through Pastor Mike," he said.
Hammer, 30, has had his own faith journey.
He grew up in Brookville where he attended a Nazarene church.
"I was a good kid, but I was not a Christian until my senior year in high school. I believed in God but I wasn't following God. They are two different things. July 13, 2000, was the night I gave my life to Jesus. One month later, God very clearly called me to be a youth pastor."
Hammer graduated from Eastern Nazarene College in Boston and served a year as a volunteer worker with the youth group at the Church of God until becoming its youth pastor for seven years.
During that time, he may have unknowingly had a vision of his future.
Hammer said about five years ago, he and Megan had dinner at Chili's Grill and Bar in Logan Town Centre.
He remembers looking out a window and seeing the city from that elevated vantage point.
"This would really be a cool place to start a church," he said he told Megan.
A two years later, he learned that the Western Pennsylvania Ministries of the Church of God with offices in Emlenton, wanted to plant a church in Altoona.
Element Church is affiliated with the Church of God based in Anderson, Ind.
Most of the Churches of God in the Altoona area are part of the Churches of God General Conference, based in Findlay, Ohio, according to Pastors Jon Neely of the Fourth Street Church of God and Pastor Lew Button of the Martinsburg Church of God.
Neely said the churches are mainline evangelical.
Hammer said the churches affiliated with the Anderson group are autonomous and accept women pastors. He said as long as worshippers are consistent in attending and following Jesus, they are considered members.
Its closest churches to the area are in Portage and Robertsdale.
Hammer said Altoona is one of the 10 biggest cities in the state and that 100,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of the railroad town.
"That's a lot of people not being reached. We want to try something different," he said.
The Saturday night services last about an hour with a band led by Tom Trexler of Bellwood providing the music for praise and worship. Hammer's message is about 30 minutes and he tries to inject it with humor. Sometimes short videos are shown.
"I try not to let it be boring. I don't want to go to a boring church," he said.
While the adults are worshipping, the children are having their own service. Megan Hammer works with the infants to 5-year-olds. Volunteers like Fisher, a human development major and a research assistant for the Family Life Project at Penn State, help out.
The children in first through sixth grade are under the guidance of Jordan Haag and Ashley Digan, both of Duncansville. The children attend classes in bright, colorful rooms where they learn stories about God, have snacks and make crafts. During their worship time, a screen of lights features different patterns as the kids sing.
As for the adults, Hammer said Element Church wants to make the experience a positive, enjoyable one for the kids.
Between the kids and adults, a diverse mix of between 30 and 60 people have been attending the services. Hammer said families with young children or with teens, singles and young and older adults worship at Element.
"We have a couple in their 70s who come and they love it. They look forward to it every week," Hammer said.
"We want to be a group of people who are known for their love," he said.