The next part of the series, “Faith in Our Town,” was about the influence millennials have on churches and their livelihood. I found one church in Dunn Loring, Virginia — that was withering on the vine, on the brink of closing altogether. But thanks to a key group of people, the church is now thriving.
Religious institutions across the country are faced with the same problem, the world is changing around them, and if they don’t adapt, they won’t survive. The challenge is staying true to their message, while still reaching a key group of people: Millennials.
Vine Church in Dunn Loring has a long history in Northern Virginia, they’ve been around since the early 1900’s, but it hasn’t been easy. From a once thriving congregation to withering on the vine, they’ve been through it all.
“That table there, and the Baptismal table and the cross,” Dorothy Senseney says as she points to pieces in the church her husband built. Each time she comes to church, she sees her late husband. It brings back memories. “There was a hole there that when I took up collection I could stand there and look right out through that pane that faces the road,” she remembers.
She’s been a member here for 55 years; when the pews were full and the organ could be heard every Sunday. But about a decade ago, things started to change. “I don’t know why they stopped coming,” says Dorothy. The congregation was down to less than 10 people. “It was sad,” says Dorothy.
They knew something had to change. So the congregation voted to close and reopen under a new name, with a new leader. “We knew it was going to be tough,” says Pastor Todd Schlechty with Vine Methodist Church.
The change wasn’t easy, they gave away the organ, got rid of all the pews and replaced them with guitars and a drum set, tables and chairs. “The pews, it was sad when we saw them move out,” remembers Dorothy.
“We needed to transform this place on the inside and on the outside so that it would be inviting to people who didn’t go to traditional church,” says Pastor Schlechty.
There’s that word: Traditional. The word that Dorothy’s generation took pride in, but also scared away a key group of people: Millennials, ages 18 to 35.
The more laid-back atmosphere and contemporary worship would help, but to get and hold onto that coveted group, the changes had to be more than just cosmetic.
“There’s nowhere in scripture it says you have to play guitar or you have to play an organ,” says Keith Elgin, the worship director at Vine Church. “But it does say that you were called to reach people, so if you want to reach people you have to get to know people.”
So Keith his team went to the source: Millennials.
“Young people are looking for is a place where they feel connected and it speaks to them,” says Amy Maxwell, the worship design and planning team director at Vine Church. “I don’t want to go to a church that’s talking about things that are completely separate from my daily concerns in life.”
“That’s how I felt growing up, to be a Christian was to show up on Sunday mornings, to get dressed up, to be this certain way and to act this certain way. Then Monday through Saturday I was this completely different person a home,” says Kelly Gould, the children’s director at Vine Church. “It should be just a regular place to be who you are.”
“I didn’t want it to be my mother said hey we are going to church,” says Danielle Doan, a member of the church’s youth group.
“It doesn’t feel like you are being pressed into this cookie cutter of what they want you to do or where they want you to go,” says Kevin White, a member of the congregation.
Keith Elgin got the picture. “They want to know that you don’t have to check who you are at the door when you go to a church.”
That was the game plan, the next step was initiating it and getting people in the front door. The solution for them, was thinking outside the box, bringing in things that don’t typically belong in the church, like Star Wars.
“The Force Awakens, in our mind, is Jesus and the Holy Spirit, that’s the force, but we are using Star Wars as a metaphor,” says Keith.
“Everywhere you looked it was Star Wars, so why not bring that into the church because that’s what was happening in our everyday lives,” says Kelly. “Why not use that as a metaphor to bring people in and talk about what is happening in our lives and how God can touch us through that.”
It was, and still is a delicate balance; reaching millennials but not losing the message.
“I think the pendulum can swing both ways, we can have rules, regulations and forms and we can throw all caution to the wind. Say, let’s just do whatever to be culturally relevant,” says Amy. “But there’s a spot in between where those two pieces intersect. I honestly think that’s where they intersect in people’s lives, there’s a part of me that’s completely devoted to Jesus and I exist in this culture in this century with these people working my job. So I myself, am in that same dance.”
“There are times that I will say is that going over the line? Is that too far? Are we going to lose the message in that metaphor?” Those were questions and serious concerns for Pastor Schlechty.
For the answer, he goes back to the foundation of the church, Dorothy. “It was still my church, maybe a little different on the inside, but it was still my church,” says Dorothy. “I didn’t really have any doubts, no. I guess that’s faith, that’s the answer.”
Since making the changes, the Vine Church now has about 250 people who attend services every Sunday.
“It’s a place where people can bring their junk and be loved for who they are,” says Keith.
“It’s a corny line, but, come as you are,” says Kevin.
The congregation is evolving and growing each weekend and millennials are actually attending church. Vine has become such a large part of the community that even people who are not members and not even Christians attend. “We’ve had people from Islam faith come, Jewish people come, and it’s not like we are watering down what we are talking about, we are talking about Jesus but we doing so in a way that it is easy for people to understand. It’s not being forced down their throat.”
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