The renaissance of downtown that has happened in recent years has attracted more than restaurants and real estate developers. As more and more people have come to live, work and hang out downtown, churches have also had their eyes on the area.
While many of the older urban congregations have seen their numbers dwindle, one of Kansas City’s biggest churches has had some big success in delivering old-time religion to the new generation of Kansas City urbanites. And now, Resurrection Downtown has become a nationwide model for churches working to build urban congregations.
For a few years, a former auto showroom in Kansas City served as one of downtown’s biggest rock music venues. Today, about a year and a half after the downtown Crosstown Station music venue closed down, things are a little different here.
Bands still perform to cheering crowds, but now the songs are inspirational or Christian rock. And a cedar cross, about seven feet tall, towers over one side of the stage. On weekends, after singing along with a few songs, the audience quiets down to listen to a sermon.
If you’re used to neighborhood churches, sermons at Resurrection Downtown might bring a surprise.
The congregation is one of four in the metro area that make up the Church of the Resurrection, which is the largest United Methodist church in the country. On most weekends, Senior Pastor Rev. Adam Hamilton preaches at the Leawood headquarters while congregants at Resurrection Downtown and the two other satellites watch a live feed on giant screens.
On a recent Sunday, Campus Pastor Rev. Scott Chrostek filled in for Adam Hamilton in delivering the sermon to about 10,000 congregants across the city. The subject: the making of a superhero.
In his big-screen sermon, Scott Chrostek winds his way through jokes and pop-culture references on his way to delivering the gospel. He uses the big screen to pepper the talk with funny pictures and online videos.
Chrostek, who is 34, says he never imagined being a pastor when we was growing up in Detroit. This child of the ‘80s idolized Alex P Keaton, the preppie teenage future investment banker played by Michael J Fox on the sitcom “Family Ties.”
“He wanted to be on Wall Street, and so I kind of emulated him,” says Chrostek. “I wore a sweater vest and tie in middle school, had the Wall Street Journal, you know, that I was reading. I just really was kind of geared in that way.”
Chrostek studied economics in college and worked for a few investment firms before he says he was called to ministry. He then spent a few years serving as a pastor back in Detroit before getting appointed to lead a new urban congregation in Kansas City.
The idea for Resurrection Downtown was conceived about 5 years ago, when Adam Hamilton watched the urban core’s development from the suburbs and decided he wanted his church to be part of it.
“Back in like 2007 or 2008, he really cast that vision before the congregation and said what would it look like if we started a campus of Church of the Resurrection in the center of the city,” Chrostek explains. “And this was at the time that there was some moment happening – there was some resurgence happening in downtown Kansas City.”
Chrostek spent his first few months hanging out at coffee shops and First Friday events, inviting people to be a part of what’s now informally called Rez Downtown.
About 200 people came to the formal launch service in December of 2009. But attendance quickly snowballed and after the Crosstown Station music venue closed in late 2011, Rez Downtown jumped in to take over the space.
As Chrostek explains, the congregation that now meets there is a diverse cross-section of the area.
“What we have here is a congregation that, in any given row, you’re gonna find homeless men and women,” says Chrostek.
“You’re gonna find people in recovery. You’re gonna find students. You’re gonna find CEOs. You’re gonna find attorneys. You’re gonna find doctors. You’re gonna find nurses. You’re gonna find everybody all together. And you never know who’s who. Because people wear the same clothes here, and they’re not interested in determining who’s who. They’re just interested in being surrounded by this community that’s diverse and eclectic.”
Resurrection Downtown is one of many of the United Methodist church’s nationwide efforts to create new congregations. Rev. Christian Coon is one of two pastors of the Urban Village Church in Chicago. By phone, he explained that the search for new churchgoers has led many United Methodist groups back into cities.
“There was a real focus on the suburbs in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Coon. “And I think, generally speaking, it’s been in the last ten to fifteen years where there’s been more of a focus - on let’s not forget the cities as well.”
The United Methodist church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the US, and its members have a wide range of views on social issues, like gay rights. Officially church policy doesn’t allow gay marriage or clergy, but Chrostek says his congregation welcomes gays and lesbians, as well as those who believe in traditional marriage.
“What we believe is that the grace of Jesus Christ binds us together,” Chrostek says. “And sometimes that’s messy, and it leads to tough conversations. And sometimes that’s beautiful, because it leads to tough conversations. But what we know is that this thing that binds us together is this thing we all need, and what we receive is that we receive at this table. And so we get this great picture of people coming together in the midst of their difference for this clarity of purpose which is this building a Christian community.”
Today, Rez Downtown hosts four weekend services and welcomes about 900 attendees. The congregation hasn’t specifically sought out younger members, but about half of those who show up are 35 or younger. Chrostek says that most of his congregation is formerly nonreligious or just marginally religious.
While Rez Downtown aims for diversity, the large majority of the churchgoers are white. Christian Coon says the United Methodist’s new urban congregations are, like churches everywhere, still trying to figure out how to integrate the pews.
“We’ve tried hard to do some thinking through about being a multicultural church, and there are lots of challenges with that," says Coon.
He says they have really looked at racism, taking into consideration that both he and the other pastor are white men.
"What are the things that we are setting in place... that we need to be aware of,” explains Coon. “And that takes a lot of time and hard work. All of which is necessary and things we want to do, but it does speak to the challenges of it. I think this is going to be an issue that churches will continue to wrestle with over the next few years, if not beyond that.”
Despite the challenges, Resurrection Downtown is considered a great success by the United Methodist church. While other churches have made recent efforts to set up shop downtown, Rez Downtown is the only one to get its own building.
The growth of the congregation was on display earlier this year, when Rez Downtown rented the Kauffman Center for an Easter service and managed to pack Helzberg Hall.
According to Bishop Scott Jones, who is the head of the United Methodist church in Kansas and Nebraska, this kind of success is drawing attention from around the country.
“It is clearly one of our best success stories, and there are people all over the country looking to Rez Downtown for inspiration and for instructions on how they might do it,” says Jones.
Scott Chrostek believes the key to success for a congregation like Rez Downtown lies in building close, personal relationships among urbanites. At the same time, as a leader in what’s sometimes called a megachurch, he says there’s power in large numbers of people coming together.
“What if everybody in this city saw it as their job to love their neighbors? When there’s a large community doing that, you can kind of begin to imagine change. Hopeful change,” he says.
Resurrection Downtown recently added more space to its downtown campus which will serve as office space and a place for smaller worships services.