Rez downtown

By Nancy Hull Rigdon, Special Contributor…

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Have you heard the one about the preacher who walked into a bar church?”

A glossy mailer asks the question—not the usual come-on from a church looking for new members.

The promotion belongs to United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, and so does the barchurch. Church of the Resurrection has arrived in downtown Kansas City and taken over a space that previously housed the cavernous nightspot Crosstown Station. A house of worship that looks more like an event space than a status quo church is no joke, though. Consider the ambitious trajectory that Church of the Resurrection has traced in its 22 years.

In late 2011 the church moved into a building that formerly housed the Crosstown Station bar in downtown Kansas City. PHOTOS COURTESY CHURCH OF THE RESURRECTION

Membership has ballooned from four people (meeting in a makeshift church in south Kansas City) to 18,000 members, counting its Leawood home base and three KC metro branches. And that’s not counting sermons delivered electronically to pews in Arkansas, Maryland and Texas, as well as anywhere with an Internet connection.

In a city where “megachurch” has sometimes been a dirty word, Church of the Resurrection is becoming one of the nation’s most influential churches.

The success paved the way for the church’s latest target: downtown Kansas City. Resurrection Downtown moved into 1522 McGee in late 2011, after the church bought the building for $1.4 million.

The Rev. Scott Chrostek is pastor of the downtown campus of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Mo. A UMNS photo by Fred Koenig.

The keys to building on this Christian dynasty are seemingly straightforward: Target the ripe market of people disenchanted with traditional church. Don’t push the product too hard at first. Zero in on bringing people together. Then, pull God out of the background to focus on, in the words of Resurrection Downtown’s slogan, “Building community, changing lives.”

Resurrection Downtown’s soft-peddled approach worked on Kate O’Neill Rauber.

Ms. Rauber was raised Catholic but strayed from the faith as she entered adulthood. She longed for a place to celebrate Christianity, but it had to be a church that wouldn’t force Scripture, wouldn’t tell her what she couldn’t do, wouldn’t tell her what she needed to do. She struggled to find such a place, a church whose message she actually believed.

About 600 people (almost half of them are members) now attend the downtown branch’s services each weekend. Resurrection Downtown’s swelling ranks made the place a tough sell for Ms. Rauber when she first went there two years ago when it met in the Grand Avenue Temple. The church emphasizes smaller groups that mix religion with secular subjects like art. Everyday subjects—marriage is a big one—also drive these subsets. But at first, that didn’t sway Ms. Rauber, either.

“I am not a stereotypical joiner,” she says. “I hate forced fun and forced teamwork.”

But Ms. Rauber, who works in public relations, decided to start a church group for professional women. She had what she says were enlightening conversations about religion and she connected with people on other levels. It was a fulfilling experience that strengthened her faith—but it still didn’t convince her.

Last year, she fainted in church and was rushed to the hospital. When she awoke, her husband was there. So were several members of her church group.

“It wasn’t artificial,” she says. “It was genuine caring. Right then, I was sold.

“All these churches will tell you that you can’t do this or that. Rez Downtown says you can,” she says, using members’ usual shorthand for the downtown branch’s name.

Today, she’s active with the church. She doesn’t consider herself Methodist, but she says that’s OK with the Rez.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton had people like Ms. Rauber in mind when he started Church of the Resurrection in 1990, at age 25. The church—referred to most often as COR (say core) in Johnson County—set out to, as its website says and as its leaders tell you when you talk to them, “Build a Christian community where nonreligious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians.”

Faith’s role in renewal

The journey to the Crossroads District began 10 years ago. At the time, Power & Light referred only to the electric utility, not an entertainment district. But downtown’s revitalization was coming, and Mr. Hamilton wanted his church to be a part of it. So he met with then-Mayor Kay Barnes as he considered building the church’s main campus downtown. Ultimately, headquarters ended up in Leawood, at 137th Street and Roe, despite resistance from suburbanites who didn’t want a million-square-foot religious supercenter in their backyards. The desire for a smaller-scale presence downtown remained, though.

“The idea was, if downtown is going to experience renewal, it can’t occur through just new grocery stores and sports arenas,” says Mr. Hamilton, who serves as the head pastor at the Leawood site and oversees the other branches. “There have to be communities of faith, too.”

At the time, the church had about 10,000 members. As is the case today, most of them were not regularly attending church when they made their first Church of the Resurrection visit. The accepting atmosphere enticed them, and Mr. Hamilton’s knack for weaving Christianity into 21st-century issues helped. As a result, people didn’t just keep coming back for more but also encouraged their friends to go. The time to expand had arrived.

The second church site, Resurrection West, opened in Olathe in 2006. The church then began scouting locations in downtown Kansas City and in Blue Springs. The expansion push coincided with the fall of another area megachurch. Last year, Overland Park’s First Family shut its 118,000-square-foot campus. Amid a pile of debt several million dollars high, First Family’s pastor, Jerry Johnston, was making a lavish $400,000 a year, according to The Kansas City Star. The church’s payroll had been almost as kind to members of Mr. Johnston’s immediate family.

With the cautionary tale of the First Family megachurch perhaps on his mind, Mr. Hamilton tends not to utter that m-word. His, he says, is not a megachurch but many small churches in one. “First Family had a unique set of issues that created the situation there,” he says. “Our situation is much different. We have processes and accountability structures put in place to protect our integrity.”

Mr. Hamilton won’t get into specifics on Church of the Resurrection’s payroll and budget. He says, “We try to live what we preach.”

Last fall, volunteers from Resurrection Downtown helped clean up sidewalks and rake leaves in local neighborhoods.

Mr. Hamilton’s plan to plant Church of the Resurrection’s seed in the urban core was simple: Convince 100 members of the Leawood church to sell their homes and move downtown. The message: The suburbs no longer need you; it’s time to breathe new life into the city.

Southern Johnson Countians didn’t exactly line up to abandon their lush lawns and good schools. Just one couple sold their home and moved into an urban loft.

Mr. Hamilton, who has written 13 books and travels the country as a speaker, was in Detroit when he met his downtown answer: the Rev. Scott Chrostek, who was youthful and engaging, and knew how to close a deal. Prior to entering the ministry, Mr. Chrostek had put his economics degree to work by making 300 phone calls a day managing mutual funds.

“After 9/11, I was on the phone nonstop with people who were scared they were going to lose everything in the stock market,” he says. “I was telling them that the only thing that had changed was that they couldn’t control their money. I told them to focus on the things that mattered in life: their families, things that money didn’t affect. And then I realized that I was preaching these things that I myself didn’t do. I needed to make a change and begin filling my time with what mattered in life.”

He turned toward ministry at Duke Divinity School. There, while camping out for Blue Devils basketball tickets, he met his wife, the Rev. Wendy Lyons Chrostek.

After graduating in 2006, Scott Chrostek, with his wife, began working in a suburban Detroit church while preparing to lead a new downtown Detroit congregation.

‘It got people talking’

Amid setbacks to the opening of the Detroit church, Mr. Hamilton called. In summer 2009, the Chrosteks moved to downtown Kansas City to lead a church campus set to meet in the Grand Avenue Temple building. Congregation: nine. In search of more people, Scott Chrostek went on a coffee-shop tour, visiting 33 in 31 days, he says. (Recalling his caffeine walkabout, he says the Filling Station became his favorite.)

He began with small talk.

“The point in the conversation when I would say I was a church pastor was always so polarizing. They would either think it was cool or they’d leave,” Mr. Chrostek says. “No matter what, it got people talking. Someone would leave and tell a friend or wife or husband, ‘I was at this coffee shop today, and this pastor came up to me. . . .’”

The new church downtown, Mr. Chrostek would tell those he met, didn’t adhere to a stereotype. A church that transforms lives and communities, he told people over coffee. A place that’s not about conforming. It’s a philosophy that recalls Mr. Hamilton’s successful Leawood recipe.

It’s a strategy that also includes collecting names, phone numbers and addresses at each service. First-timers usually received a prompt thank-you note from Mr. Chrostek in the mail. Those who attended were encouraged to invite a friend. Regular attendees were invited—the word asked was purposely avoided—to join.

By summer 2010, the downtown church had reached 160 members and had outgrown its space. Next stop: the Scarritt Building, at Eighth Street and Walnut.

Still, the church sought a place of its own. Last year, while frequenting Crosstown Station for its music, Scott Chrostek heard that the bar’s struggles were forcing it to close. He recognized it as a facility ideal for the 200 members then crowding the Scarritt’s ballroom. (As the church prepared to make a permanent home downtown, it also opened its other planned branch: Resurrection Blue Springs.)

From the outside, Resurrection Downtown’s new home could still pass as a club. It sits just a block outside the Power & Light District, and its neighbors include a strip club, a tattoo parlor and a handful of bars. That’s the point: Hamilton and Chrostek want to reach the downtown set.

Originally an auto dealership, the building has brick walls, concrete floors and a wooden-beamed ceiling. Crosstown’s drum lights and stage remain, though the bar is gone. Here to stay are wooden crosses on the stage, a cry room and a nursery, and a coffee bar that features a new blend from the Roasterie—the “Rez Downtown” blend, of course.

During church services, Mr. Chrostek, 33, wears jeans and a microphone headset. A seven-piece rock band jams onstage. Videos play on a pull-down screen. Attendees are encouraged to chat with one another. Everyone is asked to sit closer to the center of the rows, leaving the empty seats on the ends.

The scene—a room where something like an unusually respectful cocktail party might be about to break out—is in response to a question Church of the Resurrection’s leaders asked themselves: If you lived downtown, what would your ideal church look like? The answer continues to woo those who never thought church could be cool.

There is, for one, the man who admitted one recent Sunday that he’d never enjoyed going to church but had come to play in the church band. He reported to his fellow musicians a powerful first trip: “There’s a spirit here. I can feel it. I want it. I want to go lay in it.”

Not everyone saw the light when the Rez announced its intentions.

“We were extremely scared when we heard that a church was going in,” says Jason Patch, manager of the church’s next-door neighbor, Retro Downtown Drinks & Dance.

After Mr. Patch met with church representatives, though, he felt satisfied that no holy crusade would be coming to end drinking and dancing. And he saw the upside to the hours that a church keeps.

“With Crosstown, we were always battling each other for parking on Friday and Saturday nights,” he says. “But the church—they aren’t there at night. We have so much parking now. So the church ended up being a great neighbor.”

When Resurrection Downtown arrived in its new home, church members took poinsettia plants to each neighboring business—including Totally Nude Temptations, the strip club across the alley. A female member dropped off the church’s holiday cheer. (Management at Totally Nude did not return calls for this story.)

They’re not alone

Resurrection isn’t the only church downtown. The area includes congregations that have been in the area for decades. Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in fact, has been downtown more than 175 years. In 1835, two years after French missionary Father Benedict Roux arrived in Kansas City to start a parish, the community built a log-cabin church at 11th Street and Broadway. With the help of 300 Irish laborers, ground broke on a permanent brick structure for Catholics in 1857. Upon completion, the church was the tallest building in the city; it sold tickets to climb its staircase and look down on the rest of the area. Today, the church with the gold dome has as its membership, according to the cathedral’s Rev. Monsignor Robert S. Gregory, about 400 families (a measurement the church prefers to members).

“I had heard that they were coming down here. But honestly, I didn’t even know they were downtown,” Mr. Gregory says.

In 2008, the Rev. A.J. Vanderhorst, who was fresh out of seminary at the time, set out to fulfill a dream of starting a church in the Crossroads. Mr. Vanderhorst—whose passions, aside from Christianity, include writing, photography and indie music—gathered a few people in a loft apartment. They called themselves Crossroads Church. More artists and others living downtown turned out to be searching for the right fit for their faith, so services moved into the larger Arts Incubator in 2009. When the Arts Incubator closed last year, the church began meeting at ArtsTech, a youth center.

Like Resurrection Downtown, Crossroads Church appeals to a younger crowd, those looking for anything but a traditional church and those seeking a bit of fun with their religion. As the church’s website states, enshrining NCAA basketball is a core value. And Mr. Vanderhorst would like his congregation to increase beyond its current 45 members, but bulk mail and a coffee bar aren’t options. Still, he says he doesn’t view Resurrection Downtown as a competitor.

“Downtown is growing. There are new people down here all the time. There is definitely room for multiple churches to grow downtown,” Mr. Vanderhorst says.

To the common criticism that megachurches are all about money and power, Scott Chrostek points to the church’s giving. He says Resurrection Downtown each week sends about 1,800 backpacks filled with food to students in the Kansas City, Mo., School District. The church assists local agencies, such as the Rose Brooks domestic-violence shelter, and donations from all Church of the Resurrection sites build preschools in Africa.

“Generosity begets generosity,” he says. “There is something about giving it away to receive it. There is power in numbers.”

And those numbers are increasing.

During a Resurrection Downtown Sunday-morning service, Dana Lantz sat beside Laura Tyler. Both were attending for the first time. The family of Ms. Lantz’s fiancé went to the Leawood Church of the Resurrection and encouraged the couple, in their mid-20s, to go to the downtown branch. Ms. Tyler and her husband, whose children are in college, had tried many churches through the years.

“We’ve been looking for a community where the community enjoys serving the community,” Ms. Tyler says. “Not service where you do something for some individuals but you keep your distance from them.”

“It seems like they want people to be here,” Ms. Lantz says.

Ms. Tyler’s voice quavers with emotion as she reflects on the morning.

“I enjoy seeing young people meeting God. I think that’s exciting,” she says.

Both women plan to return. Both plan to spread the word about Rez Downtown.


Note:  This article first appeared in The Pitch, a Kansas City newspaper, and is reprinted by permission.

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