Turning the tide: As traditional churches see interest wane, upstarts draw in young people

Velocity Church Pastor Justin Jenkins, right, and his wife, Marissa, discuss relationships during a Velocity Church service Sunday, March 10, 2013, at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

From left, Heather Johnson sings while Jackson Swain and Andrew Shaw, all of Lawrence, play during a Velocity Church service March 10, 2013, at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

The Rev. Justin Jenkins, right, pastor of Velocity Church, visits with Derock Swaggert, left, and Brysson Rockwell, both of Tampa, Fla., following a Velocity Church service March 10 at Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

Bars aren’t the only venue downtown where patrons can find dim lights, loud music and 20-somethings swaying rhythmically.

Visit Velocity Church, Greenhouse Culture or Vintage Church on any given Sunday morning and you likely will see a similar scene. These churches offer the Gospel of Christ in what some might call a hipster-friendly setting.

Justin Jenkins, 30, is pastor of Velocity Church, which meets at Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

Jenkins launched the church with $25,000 from the Association of Related Churches in 2011. He said he hopes to lead people closer to God.

The association provides funds to ministers who want to plant a church in the form of an interest-free loan, association spokesman Guy Walker said. When the new church pays back the loan, the association invests that money into planting another church.

At Velocity, Jenkins is the only paid staff member. He said this keeps costs down and enables the church to give more back to the community.

Last year, on the Sunday before Christmas, Jenkins didn’t collect an offering. Instead, he passed out envelopes filled with $50 bills and told the congregation to take the money and use it to help someone in need.

Jenkins said the church gave away $3,500 that Sunday, about 40 percent of its monthly offering intake at the time.

“The whole point was we want generosity for people. We don’t want generosity from people,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins would not disclose how much the church brings in each month, but he said giving has jumped dramatically in 2013.

‘A church that cares’

Jenkins trained for his ministry career at Rhema Bible Training College, a nonaccredited school in Broken Arrow, Okla.

The Association of Related Churches doesn’t require the pastors it supports to be ordained by a denomination or trained in an accredited seminary.

“There are actually studies today that show that the most successful churches are run by guys who have business degrees instead of seminary degrees,” Walker said.

Like Jenkins, pastors Jared Scholz, 33, and Deacon Godsey, 38, do not have seminary degrees.

Scholz started Greenhouse Culture, which meets in the former Masonic Temple at 10th and Massachusetts Streets, last March.

Godsey became pastor at Vintage Church in 2011. Vintage Church launched eight years ago and meets at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School at 15th and Massachusetts streets.

These three churches located within a mile of each other share a similar style of worship.

Congregants don’t have to wear their Sunday best for services. Jeans, T-shirts and hoodies are welcome. Hymnals and choirs have been replaced by overhead projector screens and praise bands.

Kansas University senior Hunter Finch, 22, said he likes that Vintage has so many people his age at various stages in their faith.

“That’s what attracted me the most to Vintage,” Finch said.

Finch plans to stay in Lawrence after graduation to work with the college ministry at Vintage.

“I’m very fortunate to have found a church that cares so much about me and cares so much about other people,” he said.

Young people in the church

While downtown’s new nondenominational churches have shown growth over the last few years, churches with ties to traditional denominations don’t show as much growth among young adults. 

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 31 percent of people in the United States who do not affiliate with any religion are age 18 to 29. The study said 40 percent of those who do not affiliate with any religion are age 30 to 49.

“We are all in a decline mode,” said Jay Henderson, pastor at Central United Methodist Church, 1501 Massachusetts St.

The pastors at Velocity, Vintage and Greenhouse Culture said they want to present the Gospel in a way that is relevant to young adults to help curb those trends.

“We are not stereotypical,” Jenkins said.

These pastors said their style of worship sets them apart, while their message of preaching the biblical teachings of Jesus falls in line with many traditional evangelical Protestant churches.

This come-as-you-are approach attracts 20-somethings who otherwise may not attend church services.

Recent KU graduate Carlynn Castle, 22, attended a service at Velocity a few weeks ago. Castle said that she has never been a regular church attender but that she liked the upbeat feel at Velocity.

“I would always dread going to other churches,” Castle said.

Henderson said he wants to learn about the style these churches are using to attract young adults, but he said he believes a more progressive theology is necessary to keep young adults in the church for the long haul.

“Young adults are going to say, ‘I have gay friends and gay family. It doesn’t seem relevant to me, or possible for me, to be a part of a group that says they are going to hell,'” Henderson said. “Ultimately, they are not really being relevant to where young people are today.”

But pastors at Velocity, Vintage and Greenhouse Culture don’t focus on hot-button issues such as homosexuality. 

“At our church, we want to be known for what we are for, not what we are against,” Jenkins said.

Relevant message

Jenkins demonstrated his unorthodox style on March 3 when he challenged the married couples of his congregation to have sex with their spouse once a day for seven consecutive days. He called it the “sexperiment challenge.”

Jenkins preached the sermon with his wife, Marissa. As the overhead projector lifted after praise and worship, a bed surrounded by an entrance gate came out onto the stage.

Jenkins and his wife talked about the areas of a couple’s lives that could keep them from intimacy. As they addressed each “sexcuse,” they pulled back a section from the gate. When all the sections were removed, the couple sat on the bed together and delivered the rest of the sermon.

Father of five Chad Bowen, 47, said he appreciated the message behind the “sexperiment challenge.” “(Sex is) addressed in the media and advertisements,” Bowen said.

Bowen said he likes that Jenkins addresses issues that are relevant to the congregation, such as sex.

“We should not be ashamed to talk about something that God was not ashamed to create,” Jenkins said.