SERMON IN THE CITY

The Pastors Out to Save Millennials’ Souls

They’re called church planters—and they’re spreading seeds for what could be thousands of new congregations. And they’re finding many young urbanites eager for a meaningful connection.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/ The Daily Beast

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Standing at the front of a small movie theater here, Shaun Cross is doing what he believes he’s supposed to: preaching the word of God to bring urbanites closer to Jesus.

It’s a Sunday a few weeks before Christmas and a few dozen people, most in their twenties and thirties, are intently listening as Cross spins a sermon on the theme of the New Testament book of Galatians. Behind him, an image on the screen reads, “Magnify Jesus. Make disciples.”

“We want to be a people who genuinely love one another,” he tells the congregation, which calls itself Union Church. “If you are seeing categories of people, you’re missing the point of the Gospel. We all are adopted children of God.”

Two months ago, Union Church was meeting in Cross’s living room. Six months before that, it didn’t exist.

Cross is a church planter—a pastor who starts his own church from scratch. He’s in good company: Church planting has become hugely popular among Christian denominations around the U.S. over the past decade. In particular, many groups have recognized that cities are now home to an enormous untapped population of potential church-goers—young adults desperate for a sense of belonging and a spiritual home that doesn’t feel like their parents’ church—and a large number have recently turned their attention from the suburbs to metropolitan areas, helping pastors like Cross make inroads there.

But it’s not apparent to the naked eye. Many of these new churches meet in school auditoriums, homes, or, like Union Church, theaters, and unless you have friends who attend, you probably have no idea they exist.

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Church planters are often new to the areas where they’ve set up shop. Not Shaun Cross. He grew up in the Washington region and always had it in mind as a final destination, even after moving to North Carolina for college and a preaching job.

“Anyone who lives here knows it’s a city that’s changing,” says Cross, explaining the appeal. “To have a Hill staffer and a guy who’s lived in DC his whole life worship together—there’s a beautiful picture there. This is what Jesus died for, this is what the Gospel looks like.”

Cross, who is married with three kids and has a warm, intellectual manner, held a yearlong residency at a small church nearby, then launched Union Church. Right now he’s got about 20 members, mostly young adults who grew up elsewhere and work for the government, nonprofit organizations, and think tanks—a typical DC mix. So far, the less-affluent Washington natives haven’t showed up in droves, but that’ll come, says Cross, “ideally through word of mouth. We’re new, we understand it’s a challenge.”

For now, it’s more important that the congregation begins to view one another as family, as a community that’s embedded in one another’s lives. That’s one of Cross’s key messages, frequently illustrated with examples of how the early Christians cared for one another. Another is his repeated exhortation that “We’re not just coming to church, we are the church.”

Cross’s style is unique, but his efforts aren’t. Washington has several dozen churches that have launched in the last 10 years and are crowded with enthusiastic, engaged millennials excited to belong to something bigger than themselves. Most—like the District Church, whose 600 members meet in school auditoriums, and the Table Church, with its personal, social justice-y vibe—are barely five years old.

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The phenomenon goes way beyond DC, and it isn’t limited to Southern metropolises or cities with strong religious traditions. Dynamic new churches—like Reality San Francisco, Chicago’s Urban Village Church, and Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia—have been firmly planted in cities all over, pulling in tens of thousands of young worshipers.

Exact data is hard to come by. The research wing of LifeWay, the biggest Christian nonprofit in the U.S., says more than 4,000 new churches opened their doors in 2014, outstripping the 3,700 that closed. But there’s little information about urban churches specifically.

Still, those who have been observing the trend say the change in focus from suburban to urban has happened very quickly. “Everyone’s planting in the heart of the city,” said Sean Benesh, author of Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting. Ten years ago, while working on a doctoral research project, Benesh found that 70 percent of all the new churches he studied were in the suburbs. But in the last few years, “it’s been a massive shift.” These days, even Portland, Oregon, where he lives, is a hotspot for church planting.

Ask church planters themselves why they’ve decided to focus on gentrifying cities and they’re likely to mention “the nations”—as in “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,” from Matthew 28:19—who can be found in spades there. Or they might talk about wanting to get “upstream,” to the places where culture is created. Or perhaps it’s simply an obvious strategy, because the return of young professionals to central cities has been one of the biggest urban movements of the past half century.

But most likely, the rise in urban church planting is due to a guy named Tim Keller. Pastor of Manhattan’s massively popular Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Keller was one of the early, prominent church planters who decided that maybe New Yorkers weren’t secular heathens after all. He benefited from the chaos and confusion following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks—some 5,000 people showed up on the Sunday afterward—and now claims somewhere between 4,500 and 9,000 regular attendees. Keller has indisputably received the most media attention of any urban church planter in recent times, and he’s a bit of a rock star in church-planting circles.

Prior to Keller’s success, says Tony Carnes, who runs the A Journey Through NYC Religions website, “the word was that a church planter goes to New York to meet his end. Now, coming to New York becomes the coolest thing in the world for pastors: You’re getting the very best to come.” That’s true for other big cities as well.

What Keller showed church planters is that all of the damning news to come out about religion in the past few years—particularly the Pew Research Center’s reports on the steep rise in religiously unaffiliated people, especially among millennials—doesn’t mean young adults don’t care about religion. In fact, they’ve found, many urban dwellers grew up with Christianity and are looking for something to ground them where they are. It just needs to feel right.

In response, planters have designed their churches and services to appeal to millennials. There are the obvious things, like stylish, well-designed websites featuring racially diverse groups of people, and social-media presences.

But appealing to sophisticated city residents is more of a substantive thing. Just like Shaun Cross, church planters emphasize that congregants are integral members of a community, and often organize small group meetings during the week—that can be attractive to workers living in a transient city far from family. Many strongly encourage worshipers to get involved in the neighborhoods around them—you might call it “place-based” Christianity—through service work and other outreach, deepening a sense of connectedness and tapping into members’ desire to make a difference in the world.

Millennials popularized the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” and are said to be, as a group, suspicious of formal institutions. In response, the churches focus less on the trappings of religion and more on the woes common to us all, like loneliness, the struggle to be a better person, or the ache for a sense of meaning, though services are still very much about Jesus’s teachings. Labels are often eschewed; many churches are nondenominational or don’t mention their affiliation, and divisive social mores don’t come up regularly.

Perhaps the most important element is congregants’ participation in the process. “Even conservative churches are more participatory,” said Christopher James, a professor of evangelism and missional Christianity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary; he researched all of the churches planted in Seattle between 2001 and 2014. “People want to get their hands on something.”

In fact, church planting can’t succeed without engaged congregants. Someone is always needed to prepare a secular space for a religious service, head up a new ministry, or take on child-care duties for a couple of hours.

“Because it’s so small and is trying to do something that’s crazy idealistic, if you’re going to be part of this, you have to really be part—there’s no showing up casually,” said Emily Kotarek, a member of Union Church. “If you don’t show up, it matters. Same way as a family.”

In fact, says Joey Kotarek, her husband (Cross married them in January), that’s kind of the draw. A new church “doesn’t quite exist yet, so you get very invested. It becomes something you have ownership of—a part of you.”

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In early February, Union Church holds a members’ meeting at Cross’s house to discuss business matters. Congregants wander in without knocking, obviously familiar with the home, and gather around a big farmhouse-style table.

Cross is excited about the way things are going for Union Church. “It’s been so cool on these past two consecutive Sundays to see, ‘All right, there’s momentum building!’” He asks everyone to speak briefly on “how the Lord met you in 2015,” and people unburden themselves, mentioning housing troubles, infertility, cancer. There are tears.

Eventually, Cross brings up business items: “dinner groups” that congregants have been assigned to in order to get to know one another over meals; formal invitations to the Easter service that he’s hoping members will widely distribute; financial issues and the progress of the church’s nonprofit status. Cross himself is formally voted in as Union Church’s senior pastor. Then they pray.

Despite Union Church being tiny, Cross is in a privileged spot: His position as pastor is fully funded, and he’s able to support his family on his salary. Instead of having to take a second job, he can spend his days reading, doing admin, and praying.

That’s the result of a network of churches and organizations, simultaneously barely known and dizzyingly complex, that’s designed to support church planters like him.

Google “church planting network” and the names will come up: Acts 29, The Summit Network, Church Multiplication Network, V3, Send Network, Stadia, Exponential, and on and on and on. Untangling the groups and figuring out how each works and relates to the others is impossible: No one really knows it all; they just know their slice of the pie.

But the bottom line is this: As far as trends in Christianity go, megachurches are on the wane, and church planting is in. Organizations aimed at supporting planters in their solo missions have mushroomed in the past 15 years; many provide training, some provide funding. Few are specifically focused on urban areas—the goal is to multiply churches all over the country—but just about all have an urban presence.

“There’s this very decentralized mosaic and web of relationships around the country,” said Todd Wilson, co-founder of Exponential, which holds packed church-planting conferences. “There are several hundred people all over running different networks.”

The biggest players by far are evangelical groups: Church planting has always been an evangelical activity. Evangelical, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean conservative; it refers to denominations and organizations that adhere closely to Scripture and prioritize spreading the word to others.

Southern Baptists are the most active; since 2010, they’ve run an initiative called Send Network that has a presence in 32 North American cities. They are supporting more than 5,000 domestic “missionaries”—with a particular focus on church planters of color—and provide a range of classes, coaching, one-on-one mentoring, and some money.

Then there’s Acts 29, a conservative network formerly associated with the now-disgraced Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, which has a similarly intensive assessment and training program. And V3, a more theologically moderate network with a grassroots focus, whose planters spend two years learning how to make disciples and shepherd a congregation. And tons of others.

Seeing the success of evangelical groups in reaching urban areas, mainline churches have gotten in on the action, too: United Methodists run Path One, a small network of church planters, and the Presbyterian Church USA established 1001 New Worshiping Communities. Even many independent suburban churches support urban church plants.

Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay’s research arm and probably the nation’s foremost authority on church planting, says it’s not uncommon for pastors to receive support in one form or another from a variety of sources. “A [church planter] I talked to recently described himself as a Nascar car, with different stickers,” Stetzer explained. “There are parallel partnerships that are evident across the board.”

Take Cross, for example. He’s part of both the Southern Baptists’ Send Network and Acts 29, and gets mentoring and some funding from the suburban church (itself a recent plant) where he spent his yearlong residency. The two national networks put him in touch with other churches, and now he’s supported financially by eight churches around Virginia and North Carolina—as well as by individual Union Church members. Not bad for a church in its first year of existence.

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“All religions are based on ideas of ‘This is not as it should be; we are not who we should be.’ But this is different. Don’t be a better person: be a completely new person, like Jesus being born again.”

It’s Easter, and Cross is standing in the movie theater doing what he does best: preaching to his congregation. The place is more crowded than usual, and more diverse—in terms of race, age, and perhaps even economic status—too. Members didn’t wind up doing a big outreach push for the holiday, but word of mouth brought in a handful of new folks.

What the future holds for Union Church is unclear. Maybe outreach isn’t its big thing; right now, Cross is more concerned with setting up small community groups that will continue to build bonds among members, and there are many other things to still work out. Maybe they’ll grow slowly, and maybe that’ll be fine.

Urban church planting isn’t for the faint of heart. Despite the vast support networks available, planters still fail. Perhaps they’re just not cut out for what is essentially an entrepreneurial, startup job. Or the demands of pastoring a new congregation fall too heavily on their narrow shoulders. Or the grind of making it work in an impersonal, busy city wears them down. “Urban church planting costs more and takes longer than suburban,” Stetzer said.

For now, Cross is upbeat—even about the concept of failure. “I’m not sure I’d define it as shutting your doors,” he muses. “If a few people’s lives were legitimately changed, you can’t say it was an abject failure.”

But he’s nowhere near that point now. He’s fine with the church finding its footing as it goes along. “I think that we are a simple church,” says Cross. He references the disciple Paul’s speech to the Thessalonians, a favorite passage of his. “‘Make it your highest ambition to lead a quiet life, mind your own business as much as you can, and work with your hands.’ For the minutiae of our lives to reflect the love of Jesus, I think that resonates with a lot of people. It’s simple.”