PLANO, Texas—The Rev. Arthur Jones was nervous. His church was betting $2.1 million on him.
In just a few days St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, a suburb of Dallas, would launch The Well, a contemporary service aiming to reach younger people with Mr. Jones, 28, at the helm.
Press releases had gone out. Flyers had been slipped onto thousands of doorknobs around the community. Workers were putting the finishing touches on a renovated worship space with a new sound and lighting system and high-tech video projectors.
And Mr. Jones worried whether he’d fill the 600 seats that awaited the new worshippers.
“So much prayer, so much preparation and work, is going into this,” he said. “Some days I wonder if anybody’s going to show. Other days I wonder if we’ll have a problem fitting everyone in.”
Mr. Jones, a fifth-generation United Methodist pastor, had confided some of his fears to his father, Bishop Scott Jones, who serves the Great Plains area. At times, he said, he felt a little scared.
“That’s right,” was Bishop Jones’ reply. “You ought to be.”
A case of nerves wasn’t surprising, because St. Andrew was venturing into uncharted territory.
The church was taking a risk—but not one that the affluent suburban church urgently needed to take. Founded 26 years ago, St. Andrew had grown rapidly in its first two decades, building a beautiful building with a gleaming steeple on its sprawling, grassy campus. Average weekend attendance now hovers around 1,600, making St. Andrew one of the 100 largest United Methodist churches in the U.S. Financially, it’s healthy.
In the last five years, however, growth leveled off. While there are young families on the membership rolls, many weren’t showing for worship. In fact, the average age of worshippers is 57—same as that of the denomination.
Two years ago, around the time Mr. Jones was appointed to St. Andrew as associate pastor, church leaders began to look for ways to reach new people.
“We realized we were at a plateau,” said the Rev. Robert Hasley, St. Andrew’s senior pastor.
The church hired a consultant and began a process that involved some soul-searching, Mr. Hasley said.
“People started being willing to say, ‘My children aren’t going to this church,’ and ‘The kids who grew up in this church aren’t coming to this church anymore,’” Mr. Hasley said. “Once we start naming [the issue], we could work on it.”
Church leaders discovered that the apartment complexes that had sprung up near the church over the past 10-15 years were populated mainly by people ages 25-40. But those folks were either not attending any church or were driving 20-30 minutes on Sunday mornings to worship at large evangelical churches like Watermark Community Church in Dallas or The Village Church in Flower Mound, another nearby suburb.
Why? Residents said they liked the evangelical churches’ strong outreach programs, small groups and dynamic contemporary worship. St. Andrew had the first two, Mr. Hasley said, but no contemporary worship. St. Andrew’s four weekend worship services—three on Sunday morning, one on Saturday night—are all traditional. All are relatively well attended, too.
Tweaking one of those to offer a somewhat more contemporary option didn’t seem like a sufficiently bold move. The church decided to keep the four traditional services, but create an entirely new contemporary service, in a new space, to attract new people.
Models of success
That’s a strategy that’s been extraordinarily successful at three other large United Methodist churches in Texas: Highland Park UMC in Dallas, Alamo Heights UMC in San Antonio and The Woodlands UMC near Houston. St. Andrew looked to those for guidance.
St. Andrew asked the Rev. Paul Rasmussen how Highland Park UMC launched its Cornerstone contemporary service eight years ago.
“We started with a clear goal, to one day worship more people outside the walls of our sanctuary than we actually did inside our sanctuary, our traditional venue,” Mr. Rasmussen said. Today, Cornerstone averages about 2,000 in its worship services, Mr. Rasmussen says, noting traditional worship in the sanctuary has continued to grow, too.
St. Andrew’s leaders also consulted the Rev. Andy Nixon, 43, lead pastor at The Loft, the contemporary worship community of The Woodlands UMC. Mr. Nixon was brought onto The Woodlands’ staff in 2006 shortly after the church bought an abandoned warehouse for a new contemporary service.
“We started asking around, looking at demographics, interviewing people, and we put a portrait together of Will and Wendy Woodland, who did not go to church,” Mr. Nixon said. “We constructed a portrait of their life and tried to design a worship service that might speak to their needs.” Will and Wendy Woodland, they concluded, were in their 30s, with two kids and a dog.
The result was a worship service that feels like a rock concert in a space that looks like a nightclub. Worshippers wear T-shirts and flip-flops. High-tech lighting and sound combine with top-notch professional musicians and creative video. The Loft now averages about 1,500 in worship each weekend. Two-thirds of its regular attendees are new to the church, or new to faith, or both.
“What people want is a unique experience,” Mr. Nixon told the people of St. Andrew. If a church provides that, “they’ll show up in droves.”
After a year and a half of research and planning at St. Andrew, things started happening.
In February, a proposal was put before St. Andrew’s charge conference to add a new contemporary worship. The meeting was unusually well-attended, with 350 people present.
Mr. Nixon spoke to the gathering and shared the story of The Loft. Mr. Rasmussen shared his experiences by way of a video.
“When we launched Cornerstone, we had to make some hard decisions,” Mr. Rasmussen told the St. Andrew members. “One was, how much of your energy and resources are you going to invest upfront to support this? And we just made the decision that we were ‘all in.’ We were going to put our money where our heart and our passion was. And it has certainly borne fruit.”
At St. Andrew, the vote was taken. Not one person voted “no.”
“I’ve never heard of anyone launching a contemporary worship to be a unanimous vote,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s a church decision we all own.”
Taking a cue from Mr. Rasmussen, he added, “We decided we were not going to do it halfway, because the gospel is too important.”
With the congregation’s blessing, Mr. Hasley and Mr. Jones embarked on a mini-capital campaign to raise $1.3 million to renovate an auditorium (originally the church’s first sanctuary) plus $800,000 to staff the service for the first two-and-a-half years. The two met with church members and asked for pledges.
“I had 80 breakfasts and lunches,” Mr. Jones said. “Some days I’d eat two breakfasts and a lunch to meet with people.”
St. Andrew members stepped up and pledged the money.
“It’s a remarkable testament that this church is willing to go so far to invest so much in something like this,” Mr. Jones said. “People stop me in the hall at St. Andrew and say, ‘I hate contemporary worship, but I’m so excited about what you’re doing at The Well.’”
Mr. Jones got to work creating “The Well,” named in reference to Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, where he offered her “living water.” The service was scheduled for Sunday mornings at 10:39 a.m.—a reference to Acts 10:39, a verse central to the idea that the gospel is for all people, as well as a logistically workable time slot between the Sunday school hour and the 11 a.m. traditional service.
Mr. Jones had plenty of ideas for what he wanted The Well to look like. While at Duke Divinity, he had interned at The Loft, and Mr. Nixon had become his mentor. The Loft has video, cameras, production “all at the highest level,” Mr. Jones said, and he’d spent 10 weeks there learning the in’s and out’s.
As a Methodist pastor’s son, he said, “I grew up knowing how to do it all—preach, pray, run a sound board, even clean the toilets in a church. But I had never seen a contemporary service done as well as The Loft.” Mr. Jones already knew how to preach, but The Loft, he said, taught him “how to do media.”
Now Mr. Jones had his chance to really do media. The new worship space was outfitted with a central high-definition (HD) screen, 25 feet wide and 11 feet tall, as well as side screens, 3,000 square feet of acoustic sound panels and more than a mile of electrical conduit.
“I got to design the whole project from scratch,” Mr. Jones said. “I came up with a lot of things that Andy wanted to implement but couldn’t because they were too expensive as retrofits.”
Mr. Jones remembered Mr. Nixon’s words about what made The Loft work—and what many United Methodist churches, in his opinion, were missing.
“The UMC’s problem is that we have great substance but no style so we come across as irrelevant,” Mr. Nixon said. Churches touting prosperity gospels typically offer plenty of style, but no substance. “But when you put style and substance together . . . you have an amazing power to communicate to people in a profound way.”
A few weeks before the first service, about 100 St. Andrew volunteers signed up for a meeting of the launch team for The Well. On the day of the meeting, 190 showed up. Mr. Jones began to breathe easier.
On Sunday, Sept. 9, The Well had its first worship service, and 834 people came, a standing-room-only crowd. Two local TV stations and the local paper covered the event. Mr. Jones’ family, including Bishop Jones, was there.
Bishop Jones said in an interview that as he watched Arthur preach before the giant screen and listened to the music he felt “the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit” at The Well. He remembered an annual conference in the 1980s when, after listening to a report on declining numbers in North Texas, he’d vowed that he’d devote himself to turning that around. Bishop Jones also recalled the tumultuous 2012 General Conference, and how he’d famously Tweeted that he’d witnessed the “death throes of a dying 1970s establishment church, birth pangs of a missional, global 21st century church.”
The Well, Bishop Jones believes, is “the birth of a new way of doing church at the best possible level.”
But Bishop Jones sees his son following the footsteps of Arthur’s great-great grandfather, Frank Schuldt, a Methodist pastor who served German-speaking congregations in Iowa and Minnesota in the late 19th century.
“I can only believe that he showed entrepreneurial spirit in starting churches and reaching new groups of people in the same way that Arthur is reaching new groups of people,” he said.
Having attended General Conference as well, the younger Mr. Jones became convinced that local churches need to change in order for United Methodism to survive.
“We know that if we don’t change, God will use someone else to save the world,” he said.
The following Sunday, Sept. 16, was rainy, but 700 people showed up. St. Andrew plans to add a second worship service, around 9 a.m., for The Well in October. How The Well will ultimately fare still remains to be seen. But Mr. Jones already sees a harbinger of hope for the denomination in St. Andrew’s willingness to try something new.
Said Mr. Jones: “For a church like this—it’s been a leap of faith.”