Churches think big by thinking small

Victoria Crosby, who's about to leave town for college in North Carolina, says she's had "a radical week." She's been praying "like crazy" for her friends, and one finally came to her saying he's ready to get off drugs and get sober. The exuberant young woman shares this answer to prayer with the dozen people at the Sunday evening service of His Way Inn.

Pastor Jack Deardorff then calls on the Lord to "fill us afresh with your Holy Spirit." And the group rises for worship, lifting voices in praise songs accompanied by a multimedia DVD.

Meeting in the Doubletree Hotel in Westborough, Mass., His Way Inn is a newly "planted" church – one started from scratch specifically for people who may have given up on church or who've never had a church experience.

Church planting is far from a new phenomenon, but enthusiasm for it has mushroomed in recent years, as populations have shifted and attendance has declined in many traditional settings, particularly among young people. Both Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches are birthing new congregations all across the United States. And some young pastors are striking out on their own to create worship communities in fresh forms. Some of the most vibrant new churches are sprouting in immigrant neighborhoods. The movement, if successful, has the potential to reshape American faith communities.

His Way Inn, sponsored by the Foursquare Gospel Church, is one of at least 100 plants in the Boston area since 2000, where local pastors talk of a "quiet revival."

"I know of 21 plants in the last six months," says the Rev. Ralph Kee, of the Conservative Baptists Association. Mr. Kee, who heads the Greater Boston Church Planting Collaborative, says perhaps a majority are being done by immigrants, from Puerto Ricans and Brazilians, to Haitians and Vietnamese.

Young pastors are also coming from such places as Illinois, Texas, and Arkansas. With one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the US, New England is considered ripe for evangelization.

While church planting is a national and global movement, it is fraught with challenges, and rates of success vary widely. Some speak of 60 to 80 percent failure rates in the past. But new approaches and models are proving more effective, and eager church planters now have more resource materials, training, and coaches to draw on.

Church plants come in many shapes and sizes, including traditional formats, postmodern experiments, house churches, "cell churches" that are planned to multiply continually, and a "purpose-driven model" based on Pastor Rick Warren's books.

Some aim for churches to grow as large as possible; others want to maintain small, intimate communities. But all are fired by the desire, in Mr. Deardorff's words, "to help people have a relationship with a living God and learn we can have a spiritual life filled by the Holy Spirit."

As with other mainline churches, the US Episcopal Church has experienced declining membership for some time. Its Tennessee diocese is growing impressively, however, thanks to a church- planting campaign spurred by Bishop Bertram Herlong.

Paying attention to shifting demographics, the diocese has targeted sites in rapidly developing areas, planting seven new churches since 1994. Its membership has grown from 12,000 then to 16,000 today.

In Brentwood, Tenn., a booming upscale suburb south of Nashville, the Rev. Randall Dunnavant started The Church of the Good Shepherd in 1995 with a group of Episcopalians borrowed from other churches. Today, its 700 members are worshiping in a striking new sanctuary. But they got there step by step.

A businessman before heading to seminary, Mr. Dunnavant knew how to advertise. They did four bulk mailings, and everything possible to get their name in the paper. But then, "it was a matter of being the church you are called to be," he says in an interview amid the clatter of the final stages of construction.

That includes "loving the dickens out of people," he adds. "The people saw something and told their friends."

A charismatic man with a ready wit, the rector says he was aiming for "de-churched" people, those who left congregations because they'd had a bad experience, or been raised in a tradition that told them "they were going to fry in hell for everything they did that was fun."

Loneliness is one of the largest issues in personal life – lots of people have a hole only God can fill, he says, and being "spiritual but not religious" is not the answer.

"Tell me anyplace else where being your own authority works," he says. "Besides, Christianity is based on the idea of living in community.... It gets at that loneliness, giving you a connection to the Creator and to other people."

While a number of today's popular megachurches were new plants, the Rev. Bob Hyatt left his post at a megachurch to reach out to people that other churches were missing. Many in the younger generation, he says, "need to do church differently."

He was dismayed at seeing megachurch pastors "become CEOs, managers, and programmers, not shepherds." So in early 2004, he and a team of friends in Portland, Ore., met to discuss core values for a church different from a seeker or consumer mentality.

"Our priority was to form a close-knit community concerned about what God is saying through the scripture," he says, "and what we did on Sunday would flow out of that."

A dozen people began meeting in a pub, and now the Evergreen Life Community involves 120 people, the majority between ages 25 and 35. "One person in our core group said, 'I'm so tired of once-a-week church; I want to live life and faith with people, not just show up on Sunday, smile, shake hands, and leave,' " Mr. Hyatt says. "People want relationships, not programs; they want to do it themselves ... not be lost in a crowd."

At Evergreen Life, Hyatt does what he loves most: He counsels people about life and faith, and suggests what God is saying about the community's purpose.

"Then I ask, 'What do you want to do [to carry that out]?" The community has started home groups and is planning a house for homeless teens. It intends to start a church plant.

"We want to always be growing spiritually and numerically, but to limit our own size, we'll have to plant," Hyatt adds.

Deardorff has experienced the ups and downs of several planting projects and is deliberately aiming small as well. He calls His Way Inn a "cell church." They meet on Sunday evening to "celebrate" together, but the cell or "life groups" that meet during the week in people's homes are the heart of the church. As they help individuals on their spiritual journeys, they foster each person's ability to minister to others. Then the cells will keep multiplying, he says.

Carol Fillapelli shares that vision and is leading one of the life groups. "There are people who don't like a large church because the intimacy isn't there; they realize a life group is a safe place," she says. "If people are struggling with something, we'll discuss how the scriptures apply to what they're going through."

If church growth comes slowly, it's just God's timing, she feels. "Part of it is waiting on God to prepare us in the leadership and change us in the ways that are needed for the expansion to come."

Yet for some people, the need is already being met. Raymond Hart, who says alcoholism over the course of 34 years made him suicidal, has found a home in "this special group that is so kind and open-hearted."

He speaks with passion at the Sunday night service of his own communing with God. "We want more people to come here," he says to the small congregation, "but you are 'the real thing.' "

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