Spirit River Community growing as a ‘church for the unchurched’

January 28, 2014

By: Christa Meland

Four years ago, Spirit River Community didn’t exist. Now, virtually everyone in Isanti knows the church, which in November served Thanksgiving dinner to more than 400 residents with the help of 50 volunteers.

The rapidly growing United Methodist congregation, which worships roughly 125 each week, is “church for the unchurched,” says Pastor Jim Crecelius.

Michelle Schultz, 32, can attest to that fact. She was never a regular churchgoer and had no interest in attending church, but she learned about Spirit River Community from Crecelius, who has an office above the coffee shop where she works as a barista. He would tell her, “I’ll drink coffee if you come” to church.

Eventually, she decided to give Spirit River a try—and it’s been her church home ever since.

“It’s like a giant circle of family,” she says. “They look out for each other.”

One of the reasons they like Spirit River: Worship is fun. On the first Sunday of Advent, Crecelius and three others from the congregation dressed up as village people and sang and danced to “H-O-P-E,” with lyrics he wrote to the tune of “YMCA.”

Crecelius routinely comes up with new, faith-focused lyrics to popular songs. For example, a verse from the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” became: “I gotta feeling that the Spirit’s gonna change us, that the Spirit’s gonna change, change us.”

Wanda Miskavige grew up Catholic but had been searching for something different for a long time when her friend brought her to Spirit River Community.

“People liked me for who I was,” she says. “It didn’t matter if I was rich or poor. They invited me in like I was someone special.”

Miskavige has since introduced others to Spirit River, and its Thanksgiving meal is so well known around town that she gets questions about it at the credit union where she works.

Spirit River Community is one of 24 new church starts within the Minnesota Conference. Unlike some that target specific demographic audiences (like people of a certain ethnic group) and others that target specific lifestyle-based audiences (like people recovering from an addiction), it’s one that’s geared toward a specific geographic audience: residents in and around the Isanti area. Several Minnesota Conference leadership teams recently decided to move forward with a conference-wide capital campaign that will enable it to plant additional new churches across the state—communities that reach more of the “unchurched.”

New church starts are defined as those that are less than seven years old. Spirit River Community launched in October 2010 and initially had worship services just once a month at a community center. Later, it moved to an elementary school that offered more space and began having weekly worship.

In 2011, with the help of various Minnesota Conference partners, the church purchased a 17,500-square-foot former banquet hall after the building was foreclosed upon—and Spirit River has since been housed in that building.

Crecelius estimates that more than 70 percent of first-time visitors keep coming back. And if you go to a worship service, it’s easy to see why: At least a dozen members greet each newcomer, providing words of encouragement, asking questions that show genuine interest, and perhaps even offering a warm embrace.

Because so many newcomers haven’t previously experienced church, the congregation gets to reinvent what church means, says Crecelius.

“The church was birthed as a movement,” he says. “We’re rediscovering the church as a movement, not as an institution.”

Components of that movement, which are listed on signs around the church, include prayer, radical hospitality, radical availability, church as “unbound,” and church as “outbound.”

Members are rightfully proud of the church’s extensive outreach, which includes its signature ministry: the Matthew 25 food distribution. On the second Saturday of every month, with the help of a Cambridge-based nonprofit, Spirit River distributes two grocery bags of food to every individual who shows up at Isanti Middle School, no questions asked. The ministry costs the church $2,000 a month and serves between 250 and 500 people on each distribution day.

The church also hosts community dinners twice monthly that average between 110 and 125 people. It has a food pantry that it opens up to families in need. It offers a recovery group for people struggling with addiction. And it is a host site for court-ordered, supervised parental visitations.

These ministries have helped the church gain visibility in a community that’s home to a number of other churches that have been around for much longer. They’ve also been a Godsend in a town where there’s a fair amount of poverty; in fact, roughly a third of the members of Spirit River Community are below the poverty line.

Tracy Schnapp is a single mom of two kids and says she herself doesn’t have extensive financial means. At other churches she visited, she felt judged, or worse, shunned altogether. But at Spirit River, “they make you feel needed and wanted,” she says, adding that the congregation supported her after she lost her dad.

“It doesn’t matter what type of background you come from, your struggles—all are welcome” at Spirit River Community.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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